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Executive Coaching
The Sales Rep / Sales Manager Relationship
By Dave Stein, CEO, ES Research Group

Building a solid, mutually beneficial and respectful relationship between a sales rep and his or her manager is one of the more challenging aspects in the business world.

Where else can a person out earn his boss, or even his boss's boss?  That situation alone, as you can imagine, can be unmanageable.Have you ever worked with wonderful sales managers as well as managers who drove what was a well-functioning organization into a tailspin? Let's explore various issues and aspects of the relationships between the rep and his or her manager with situation assessments and proven solutions to fix problems

Issue 1.  Buffering Salesreps from Executive Pressures

The failure of the manager to buffer the rep from the pressures from the executives above is one potential obstacle preventing a good working relationship between manager and salesrep.   I've seen salesreps literally driven to distraction by senior executives who micromanage, threaten, push, cajole, and overlook chain of command.

Most sales managers are caught in the danger zone between the downward pressures of senior management and the day-to-day activities of the salesrep.  There are sales managers who handle this exceedingly well and others who become, in effect,  transparent, allowing their reps to be the recipient of every message, concern, insult, and doubt that the senior executive is feeling at any given moment.  The impact of this transparency can be dramatic. Reps can become distracted and demoralized, and even lose respect for their managers, delivering less rather than more in terms of revenue.

As an example, I recently listened in on a weekly sales forecast review at the invitation of the CEO of one of my client companies. It was a very critical quarter. During the call the CEO said, "The board is expecting you to deliver your numbers this quarter." I know the CEO to be a strong leader, very open to coaching  and therefore this potential problem required just a minor adjustment.  When I pointed out what he had said-- that he was expecting the salesreps to do his job, not their job--he agreed and promised to set things straight with the reps.

Here are some suggestions for effective sales management around this issue from the best-of-the-best sales managers and sales executives* from my client base:

  • "You can only protect your reps if you, as the manager, have the respect and confidence of your boss, which you have to earn."
  • "Set realistic expectations with those at the executive levels from the start. That's the time to do it, not at the end of the quarter or the year."
  • "Communicate changes, additions or subtractions to executive management early.  Bad news smells worse with time."
  • "Take ownership from the beginning for the numbers."
  • "Make sure your sales team has a copy of the forecast that you have submitted."
  • "Be informed. Executives would prefer to go to one person for the answers not track down 5 or 6 people. Having the correct and accurate information is critical."
  • "Use sales methodology that takes the emotion out of forecasting.  The facts are the facts."
  • "It's important to be proactive with the sales team and eliminate the performers who are not doing the numbers - cutting off the bottom performers is always respected if necessary."
  • "What must be avoided is simply forwarding on the message from above without any care or thought given to when, how, and even if the message should go to the troops."
  • "Employ the executive team in opportunities so they can see first hand the challenges we face.  They can then leverage their influence to provide us with what we need."

The Salesrep's View

From the sales rep's perspective, here are some tips to keep your manager between you and their boss, where they belong:

  • Make your numbers.  Senior executives generally stay away from reps who are performing.  Superstars are virtually untouchable.
  • Communicate.  Share good and bad news early with your manager.  That means not leaving your manager exposed. 
  • Put yourself (briefly) in your manager's position.  If you tell them, for example, that a deal in the pipeline (or forecast) is no longer qualified, provide an explanation based upon objective criteria, with alternative approaches you've considered, and a plan for replacing that opportunity with another. They can take that upstairs if they are asked to.
  • Be up front.  Ask your manager to shield you from the executives above him or her.  Talk to them about how "noise from above" affects your focus and drive. Although it's their job, ask what they need from you in return.
  • Have a plan for every deal worth winning.  If your manager has access to your plan for winning, including an assessment of the situation, your objective, your strategy and tactics, and the resources you'll need to win, your manager will be much more willing and able to keep his or her boss at bay.
  • Don't ride the emotional waves transmitted down from above.  It doesn't take a savvy salesrep long to figure out when the CEO or Sr. VP of Sales panics and how they behave at that point.  Be prepared with answers: objective assessments, specifics, and examples.  You can even be ready to include that executive in your efforts to win.   "You know how you can help?  You can put a call into their CEO..."

Issue 2.  Dealing with Underperformers

Another issue that can make or break the relationship between sales managers and their reps is dealing with underperformers.  A manager who allows a rep who underperforms for more than two quarters to stay on as a member of the sales team causes problems far and above those of that rep merely not delivering their number:

  • The manager is seen as a weak, ineffective leader, diminishing their ability to get their job done, especially during tough times.
  • Other reps are resentful since they ultimately will have to make up revenue shortfalls or their company, marketing programs, customer support levels, etc. will suffer.
  • Territories that are not properly managed are ripe for takeover by the competition.  Not only are new business opportunities missed, but existing customers are poached providing momentum and propaganda for the competitor.
The Performance Plan
When I am called in to assess a sales team, often I find that the underperforming rep doesn't have the personal traits required to get the job done.  Perhaps the rep even succeeded for a while, but couldn't sustain an acceptable level of performance. In those cases there is little I or anyone else can do to make those reps sell more.

If you diagnose the problem and it is clear that there is a skills deficiency, you'll next need to create a 30-day plan for that rep to get up to speed in those areas where there are skill gaps, and to prove they are advancing deals toward a close.  For example, if the rep isn't succeeding because he or she hasn't integrated your new product line into their solution portfolio (and the other reps have), work with the rep to figure out exactly how they will gain that knowledge. There has to be a metric assigned to the task.  You might require them to do a product features/benefits/value presentation to you.

The other part of the plan includes measurable progress toward winning mutually agreed upon opportunities.At the end of 30 days, either they reach the agreed upon goals or not.  If not, that rep needs to be redeployed into another position within or outside your company

The Salesrep's View
Salesreps have a responsibility to consistently achieve their targets.  Managers don't want shortfalls or excuses. It puts them in an embarrassing, career-limiting situation.

It is the company's responsibility, among other things, to educate the reps on their customer's market, their products and services, and how those products or services can best be used by customers.  It is the rep's job to educate themselves on general business trends, industry specific information, customer specific information, and to internalize and employ whatever is appropriate provided by their company to help them sell. 

Many companies don't have an effective product marketing organization, so unfortunately all those responsibilities fall on the rep.  Many reps are well-suited to figure this all out by themselves.  Others are lost without specific guidance.  (When you, as a rep, are looking for a job, make certain you look at the level of sales support that your prospective new employer provides.  It should be a key decision criteria.)

If you are a rep and not making your numbers, first admit to yourself that you have a problem. Next attempt to figure out what it is. It's far better to put yourself on a plan than to be put on one by your manager.

If you need help, go you your manager.  If your manager can't help or they don't want to, it's probably time to start looking for a new job.

Dave Stein, after 25 years in sales leadership positions and delivering his own sales training and consulting worldwide, founded ES Research Inc. ESR offers independent, authoritative advice on Sales Training and Consulting and the Companies that provide it through weekly briefs, in-depth reports, online seminars and advisory services. For more information go to or call 508.313.9585

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