Can a top salesperson become a top sales manager?

Photo by Alice Feldt

When I sat down to write this article, my idea was to point out all the ways that being a good salesperson doesn’t prepare you for becoming a good sales manager.  But as I wrote, I started to see how that isn’t necessarily true.  What do you think?


You’re one of your company’s top salespeople.  You’ve spent years honing your skills, and you’ve brought in a lot of business.  So much that now your boss wants you to show everybody else how to be a success.  You’re being promoted to sales manager.

And you’re a little unsure if you’ve got the chops.

Sales management is different from sales, you’re thinking; it’s about management.  Uncovering salespeople’s weaknesses and strengths. Helping them take ownership of their process.  Empowering the salespeople to get out there and meet their goals.

In other words, a whole different set of skills from selling.


Let’s take a look at just a few of those skills:

Sharing knowledge

Sometimes, a thorough understanding of a subject can make it harder, not easier, to teach to someone else.  It’s called “the curse of knowledge.”  Experienced salespeople know the basics of selling deep in their bones.  That can make it hard to remember that others don’t know what you do.  Being able to go back to basics, with patience and encouragement, is necessary for passing along  what you know.

But wait – isn’t that something a skilled salesperson already knows how to do?  After all, your customer doesn’t know your product.  She may not even know she needs it.  In talking with a new prospect, you have to start at square one, carefully watching for understanding and answering questions patiently.  That ability can transfer directly to sales management, if you remember that now your “product” is more skilled selling, and your “customer” is your own sales team.


Good sales management is much more than teaching, though.  A manager must help the salesperson develop his own methods.  That’s coaching, and that means asking the right questions and having the patience to wait for an answer.  As a sales manager, it’s crucial to resist the impulse to take over – to make the call yourself, to solve the problem rather than letting the salesperson struggle through it.  But that’s often how people learn best.  So that’s very different from selling, isn’t it?

Not really.  A good salesperson knows you can’t force a solution down a customer’s throat.  If you listen and encourage a prospect to think it out for himself, you may discover an application for that product that you never thought of before.  And your customer will feel more like a partner.  Apply that to your sales staff, and you’re on your way.

Target the outcome

As a manager, when you meet with a salesperson for a coaching session, there’s a tendency to try to do too much.  You’re in a hurry to bring them along, to help them get that pipeline going.  So you talk about how many calls they’re making, and how they’re presenting material, and follow-up, and maybe you critique the way they handled a gatekeeper recently.  The result is that your sales rep is confused and doesn’t know what to do next.  The management skill here is to pick one thing that needs improvement, target that, and let the others go for another day.  Know what outcome you want from the salesperson – what needs to be different – and figure out how you’ll know when that outcome is reached.  Then you can move on to the next one.

It seems a pattern has emerged here:  you use that skill in selling, too.  You don’t try to unload your whole inventory in one sales call.  You know if you can make a start, make a small sale, you can start to develop a satisfied customer.  If there’s anything salespeople understand better than anyone else, it’s goals.  The difference here is that your goal isn’t a sales quota; it’s a solid behavior you want to see from the person you’re coaching.


But how do you get your staff to try the methods you’re suggesting?  Change can be unsettling.  Not everyone is open to improvement, if it means the discomfort of trying something new.  How do managers motivate their people?

Well, you already know how to communicate your value proposition:  what’s in it for the customer.  Same thing for your sales team.  You persuade by talking about the benefits to them: more money, bigger territory, more opportunity – whatever is meaningful to the person you’re talking to.  Just as in sales, it’s not important what you think is the best feature; what matters is what the other person wants.  You get to know your salespeople to find out what they want.  And then you help them get there.

So maybe great salespeople do have the skills they need to be great sales managers.  With a change of perspective and a change of goals, you can turn your expertise into success for your entire sales staff.  Think about it. How can your sales skills help you engage, motivate and sharpen up your sales people?  Look at them from a different angle, and you might find you’re already an expert.

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