July 1, 2003
Whether out of frustration or ambition, at some point just about everybody says, If I ran this company, things would be different! Sure they would. But

Whether out of frustration or ambition, at some point just about everybody says, “If I ran this company, things would be different!”

Sure they would. But are you really ready to take the reins? Do you truly have what it takes to be an effective manager? If you've spent the better part of your career in outside sales, you may feel more prepared than you actually are.

Don't think your experience selling pipe and wire and touting your company's excellent customer service has prepared you to be a good manager. You may know every nuance of getting a purchasing agent to load his shelves with your latest products, but can you help a struggling salesperson do it?

Do you know enough about your company's internal operations to make good recommendations about how marketing and inventory should support a planned sales blitz?

Do you know enough about finances to craft a budget that best positions your sales force to grow business, even in lean times, and make it stick without hurting morale?

The fact is, top salespeople can make lousy managers.

“Historically, we've always said you can't take your best salesman and make him a sales manager,” says Dick Cummings, director of sales for the Los Angeles division of B&K Electric Wholesale, City of Industry, Calif. “As a salesman, you can do a lot on your own. You have total control over the account, and you don't have to coordinate very much with other people. As a manager, you're looking at the total picture and working with all the salespeople, the branch managers, the manufacturers.”

A salesperson is by nature a people person, but not necessarily the right kind of people person to succeed in, or even enjoy, a management job. The best salespeople tend to have a “fierce independence” that doesn't necessarily translate into the kind of cooperative work at the core of management, says Don Cornette, vice president of sales and marketing for Kriz-Davis, Grand Island, Neb.

“Back in the '70s and '80s, that's who was promoted into management — the top salespeople. Most of them made the transition, but I'd say there was about a 35-percent failure rate. What caused problems was dealing with employees.”

If your goal is to trade your steering wheel and case of product literature for a desk and spreadsheet, you'll need to do some advance planning to get yourself ready for the change.

The first thing you can do to prepare is broaden your focus. You'll need a detailed knowledge of the operations side of the business, from accounting to warehousing.

Becoming a manager was one of Cornette's goals during his six years in outside sales with Kriz-Davis, so he made an extra effort to learn the nonsales side of the business.

“I worked to understand the functions of the company that were not directly involved with sales,” he says. “I had some background in warehousing, shipping and receiving, so I understood how they function in support of sales. I started in the precomputer days, so when the first computers came out I took a great interest in IT. On my own, I did a lot of reading and research, and my education helped. I had a degree in business administration.”

Today, Kriz-Davis has a training program that pairs individuals identified as having management potential with people on the operations side so they learn how the different functions of the company are interrelated.

“I had the luxury and time to learn in the school of hard knocks,” Cornette says. “We don't have that luxury now because there isn't the time. So we try to identify management candidates early. I work with them, and we'll also have them work with accounting and IT people so they get to know the operations side better. We send them to industry schooling, such as NAED University and courses at local colleges. Even that doesn't really prepare you for it, but it does get you better prepared.”

Some manufacturers offer sales training that features new ideas for solving sales problems, ways of making your sales tactics more professional and getting better penetration in accounts. Take advantage of those.

In addition to cross-functional training and any formal management training, you'll need to develop the people skills a manager needs. A good sales manager is more coach than manager, says B&K's Cummings.

“You play the same role with the salesman as you do with a customer,” he says. “You become a partner with them or a coach. You discuss the customers or a program, but the salesman has the customer relationship. They understand more about the situation than you do. Give them insights from experience and maybe from the training and seminars you've attended, and say ‘what if…’

“If you're a salesman and you want to be a sales manager some day, you need to look at what is successful with your customers,” he adds. “Every situation is different.”

Even with the best training and preparation, the transition can be rough. Building credibility is probably the most difficult part. Salespeople who have been your peers now must see you in a different light. Expect some resistance.

“It's a trouble spot, dealing with all the different personalities,” says Cornette of Kriz-Davis. “You have to stop being a friend and start being a leader. That's the reason many top salespeople fail in the transition — they can't be a best buddy anymore. It's the toughest part of the transition, and it's as difficult on other people as it is on the person making the transition.”

In your new role as manager, you'll also have to build a different kind of relationship with your manufacturers. Outside sales' connection with the factory tends to be a matter of building personal alliances and friendships with the local rep or factory salesperson. It's more focused on the personal benefits you get in increased sales from having an ally from the factory to help you take better care of your customers. As a manager, you'll deal with people higher up in the organization, and your responsibility will be to look out for the best interests of your company as a whole.

You'll also be much more involved with the manufacturer's product-marketing organization, coordinating new product roll-outs, sales blitzes and general product marketing.

Think about your skills, your successes, and be ready to teach them to others, but realize that you don't have all the answers.

“With years of experience, we all tend to believe we know it all,” says Cummings. “You need to stay open to new ideas and training.”