Oct. 1, 2003
Last month, Electrical Wholesaling published nine tips for keeping top salespeople motivated and happy. If management follows these suggestions, retention

Last month, Electrical Wholesaling published nine tips for keeping top salespeople motivated and happy. If management follows these suggestions, retention of top salespeople should be high. Still, some salespeople may eventually not feel challenged. It might be time to promote them to management.

Regardless of how successful someone is as an account salesperson, a select few will want to get to another level. A likely reach is a move up to sales manager, director of sales, or vice president of sales. These positions allow former stellar sellers to play a major role in the management leadership area. Some make the move naturally, but others get a rude awakening. Let's talks about the task of leading the sales force.

For someone who has already experienced a successful sales career and earned the privilege of being the manager, it's naturally a heady feeling to become the “boss” of the sales team.

But the new role requires a former team player to be a leader, teacher and a motivator. If someone lacks ability in any of these areas, the glamour and prestige of the new position can wear off quickly. A fast test of flexibility comes when the top gunner, Dave, has a great year and makes more money than the new sales manager.

A small thinking manager might overreact and think, “Here I am moving into this new high-pressure job with the responsibility of the entire sales department, and I have a salesperson on my staff making more money than me!”

To retaliate, the small thinker might rationalize that by taking a few of the top salesperson's accounts away, he or she can then concentrate on the balance and get better penetration into a now more limited base. Or, the small-thinking manager might put another salesperson into the territory, giving him or her some of the top seller's accounts plus a few more house accounts, rationalizing that the company will make more money.

The problem is, these solutions may actually reduce the efforts of the sales team. Members of the sales team may think that if any of them make too much money, management will “reward” them by cutting their account bases.

In a worse scenario, Dave might leave the company to go work with a competitor, taking business with him. The remaining salespeople will watch these actions, which will usually have negative effects on morale.

Still, it's management's responsibility to review accounts to determine each salesperson's individual account penetration. If changes are needed, the manager needs to take corrective action for legitimate reasons.

Some new managers have a hard time weaning themselves from old favorite accounts. They are comfortable calling on the good ole boys, but the new job requires them to relate to the entire sales force and customer base. As a result, new sales managers may need to work at being more “numerate,” an accountant's term for crunching the numbers.

Working on sales forecasts, budgets, and a pile of details isn't nearly as exciting to some managers as taking a customer to dinner or a sporting event, or personally closing on a big profitable order.

Most managers were great individual performers, but some become stressed and discouraged when they are unable to bring out the best performance in all members of the sales department. They need to be able to motivate the entire sales force, molding them into a productive force in the industry. This requires patience and teaching ability.

Hard decisions must be made regarding hiring and, when necessary, firing salespeople in order to have the right blend of quality people who can enhance the company industry sales reputation. Suppliers love to do business with a company with an outstanding sales force that can move large product amounts. People like to be on a winning team, and company morale is usually high if the sales force has industry recognition.

A story about Babe Ruth comes to mind. Probably the greatest baseball player ever, Babe Ruth was a great power hitter and one of baseball's best pitchers early in his career, but he was an individual performer rather than a true team player. At the tail end of his career when he pressed ownership to make him the Yankee team manager, the owner said something like, “Babe, you're a great player, but you can't even manage your own personal life. So, how can you manage the entire team?”

Like Ruth, many great salespeople just don't have the necessary skills to be a successful manager. Some outstanding salespeople will never be comfortable as managers. These salespeople are individual performers and thrive on excelling on an individual basis. Sales managers must be strong enough to lead by example and be able to use the “velvet sword” approach when handling difficult situations. They must let the sales department know who is in charge and not vacillate when immediate tough decisions are required.

No sales manager can make the entire sales force happy all the time, but he or she must be fair and consistent in the decision-making process. Not everyone will agree with the decisions, but it's important for the sales team to respect the manager as a fair and objective leader.

A sales manager must strive for company sales, but the sales must be profitable growth. A certain amount of lower margin direct shipment business is acceptable. It allows a vendor to do a large volume of business with you as a distributor, and it allows your customer to be able to depend on doing both warehouse business sold at an acceptable profit margin. If you are one of a customer's top suppliers, the customer will want you to take some lower margin direct business as well as the more profitable warehouse business.

In addition to selling products, managers will be involved in sales and marketing objectives, hiring and training. Moving into management also allows new managers a voice in the decision-making that drives the direction of the company.

When attending industry functions at various U.S. locations, suppliers will seek out distributor sales managers. By being involved with the product buying and stocking decisions and then directing the entire sales force to move supplier products, a sales manager is in a position to help suppliers sell products. Suppliers will be inviting the new sales manager to special events.

For the new sales manager, a bonus arrangement regarding meeting and excelling company sales and profit objects will probably be implemented. Those who succeed as a manager will gain the reputation of being an industry leader. Future management development will be in direct proportion to ability and effort.

All in all, top salespeople drive the company and sales profit engine. Keep these special people with the company as career account salespeople, or if they desire and are qualified, move them into management. They know the customers and suppliers. If the ownership of a company can keep these special people, everybody wins.

Bob Finley is the retired president and CEO of Glasco Electric Co., St. Louis. Glasco is now a part of Rexel.