Categories Articles, Sales and Marketing

Let’s face it – being a sales manager is tough, especially when you’re new to the job and still getting your bearings straight.

Many sales reps strive to become a sales manager eventually, but contrary to popular belief, it isn’t always a completely smooth transition. A promotion from sales rep to sales manager is a huge accomplishment, however, the characteristics, skills, and mindset it takes you to become a top sales rep are not what will make you a successful sales leader.

I’ve spoken to sales experts, executives, and VPs about the sales manager skills you need to succeed and what you should do to making the transition as seamless as possible. Here are the 9 top tips that I picked up:

1) The skill set is totally different

Many people think all great sales reps will eventually get a promotion and progress to becoming a managers because “that’s just the way it goes.” But it doesn’t quite work like that.

You’re going from only managing yourself to managing a whole team of human beings with all different strengths, weaknesses, problems, goals, and emotions. Not everyone is cut out to juggle all these different personalities at once.

In fact, the skills you mastered to become a top sales rep might cause you to fail as a sales manager. You may have become a top rep by developing a certain selling style, but don’t think you can just coach your reps to adopt and perfect your style. Each salesperson might have their own selling style that works, and it is now your job to be in tune with what works for each of them.

2) You need to train yourself before the transition, not after it

Making the transition from rep to manager cold turkey can be fatal for your sales career. One of the biggest mistakes new sales managers make is waiting to train themselves until their first day on the job. Those people tend to spend the first few months of their new job barely keeping themselves above water.

Unfortunately, not many companies invest enough time and money into sales manager training. So if you think you eventually want to become a sales manager, it is entirely up to you to put in the extra work to educate yourself while you’re still a sales rep. And it is extra work – you’ll need to do a ton of reading, note-taking, practicing, and networking.

Lucky for you, most of the information you need to become a successful sales manager is available to you for free online. The InsightSquared blog is a great resource for fresh content on improving sales management skills. You can also check out our list of the 14 Must-Follow Sales Blogs of 2014 for more sales thought leadership. I recommend using Evernote to save and organize your favorite articles so you can reference them later.

If you can convince your boss to invest in formal training, check out sales management training conferences in your area – like the Sales Management Bootcamp that Derby Management is hosting in Boston in April.

3) Finding a mentor who is a sales manager will make your life easier

Get a more candid perspective on what it’s like to be a sales manager by building a mentor-mentee relationship with someone who’s already in the role.

Once you’ve picked someone you’d like to be your mentor, first let them know you’re interested in becoming a sales manager.  Ask if he or she would be willing to meet with you to give some insight on what it takes to make the transition and what you can do to prepare yourself. If the first meeting goes well, ask to meet again about it – and if it feels right, you can eventually make it a regular meeting.

I guarantee a sales manager mentor will have interesting and honest things to say that you won’t find online.

4) Your relationships with old teammates will change

The switch from teammate to boss will redefine the relationships you have with everyone on your sales team. All of a sudden, you’re supposed to manage the co-workers you bought a round of tequila shots for last month. Perhaps you got the promotion when you knew one of them was gunning for it, too. These situations can be awkward and it’s important to tread carefully.

Start by meeting one-on-one with each member of your team to touch base and get on the same page. Go over their responsibilities, discuss their goals, and listen to their comments and concerns. Listening is really important – you’ll want to defuse any bad blood as soon as possible.

5) Sales coaching is the most important part of your job

It used to be that sales manager competencies didn’t include coaching, but the sales model is changing. Studies show that well-coached sales teams significantly outperform their competition. The new sales model takes this into deep consideration by placing coaching as the #1 priority, instead of treating it as a form of remedial discipline.

You’ll need to carve out plenty of time to plan group training sessions, go over performance metrics to prepare for one-on-one meetings, research best practices and workshop ideas, and then actually hold all those sessions and meetings.

But coaching isn’t all about the “soft skills.” To be a great sales coach, you need to be fluent in sales metrics and KPIs. Anecdotal coaching is not nearly as convincing as data-driven coaching, where you can show your reps how their weaknesses are directly affecting results. Prepare specific, analytical feedback for each coaching session.

Keep in mind that your reps want to be coached – they want to develop their professional skills and feel like the company is making an investment in them.

6) The team culture is on you to set and maintain

When you become a sales manager, you set the tone for your whole sales team. What environment will your team work in, an open office with music playing or cubicles in silence? Will you talk with your reps about their personal lives? How often will you run sales contests? What will you do if a rep is underperforming?

Building a top-selling sales culture is no coincidence – sales managers need to make careful decisions about every aspect of their team, from compensation plans to office floor plans.

My advice is to do a lot of research on the characteristics of a high performance sales culture and make these decisions before you step into the role. At InsightSquared, we emphasize:

  • A data-driven mindset

  • Constant improvement through sales coaching

  • Agility and flexibility

  • Transparency across all levels

  • Healthy competition

  • Low rep turnover

  • A common vision

As you get to know your sales team better, you can test and tweak it until it fits.

7) Hiring new reps is really hard

It may not happen right away, but soon enough you’ll have to hire new sales reps to your team. How much say you have in choosing new sales reps to hire depends on your sales team, but you need to prepare yourself to know what to look for.

One of the biggest mistakes Sales Executive Mark Roberge made when he began building HubSpot’s sales team from scratch was prioritizing past sales experience when hiring new sales reps. He actually conducted a study over a period of a few years where he compared a set of attributes he thought would be important, and then collected data and measured which of those attributes actually correlated with success. He found that the following 5 common core characteristics, in order, predict success in most sales environments:

  1. Coachability

  2. Curiosity

  3. Prior success

  4. Intelligence

  5. Passion

To learn more about his study and hiring techniques at HubSpot, check out FREE eBook: Sales Management Secrets from Mark Roberge.


Zorian Rotenberg, Sales VP here at InsightSquared, also wrote a wonderfully detailed article on must-have traits to look for when hiring new sales reps. I highly recommend reading it to learn not only which traits often translate to sales success, but more importantly, how to test for them in the interview.

8) Firing reps is even harder

You’ll quickly discover that firing someone can be your most difficult responsibility. The first time you let someone go can be intimidating, and it usually doesn’t get much easier because it probably (hopefully!) won’t happen very often.

One of the best philosophies any manager can have is to never fire someone unless that person sees it coming. If you notice one of your reps isn’t meeting expectations, first try to help them improve. Sit down with them and see if you can identify the root of the problem rather than only giving constructive criticism on their performance. You might find there is a deeper issue like trouble in their personal life. If that’s the case, you need to know about it so you can help them out.

Work with them one-on-one over a period of weeks or even a few months to see if they can get back on track. Build a performance improvement plan to make their goals objective. If they aren’t trending upward, start making the consequences clear. That way, if their numbers don’t get better over time and you decide to let them go, you’ll avoid that element of surprise that can make getting fired so upsetting.

Before you have “the talk,” make sure to talk to HR about the legal stuff like having the final paycheck ready and figuring out what the unemployment benefits are. You can also work with HR to practice letting someone go so you don’t go into the script unprepared.

9) You’ve got to leave time for high-level thinking

When you’re a sales rep, it’s all about production, production, production. Most of your sales goals are based on the quantity of work you do. But when you become a manager, there’s a significant shift in emphasis to the quality of your work. If you spend all day every day running around listening to your reps’ calls and monitoring activities, you’ll miss out on the higher level strategizing that great sales managers leave time for.

Take advantage of productivity hacks for sales managers – like creating a resource library for your reps, taking advantage of CRM, learning Excel shortcuts, and so on – to save you lots of time in the long run. One of the best ways to ensure you have time to spend strategizing and developing new programs is to block off specific time for work in your calendar. Some people even reserve one day per week of pure work time, such as “No Meeting Wednesdays.” Figure out what works for you, but make sure you leave time to come up with new ideas to keep your sales team fresh.

What did you wish you knew before you became a sales manager?

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Showing 4 comments
  • Dr. Christopher Croner

    These are all great things that every sales manager should be aware of before getting into that position. I especially agree with your mention that the team culture is on you to set and maintain. Your sales reps rely on you to stay motivated, positive, and successful. i think one of the best things a sales manager can do is appreciate their team and routinely point out people and their successes. Your team knows that the sales industry can be tough. However, a little motivational speaking and some high praise can go a long way with your team and influence them to work even harder. Thanks for sharing!

  • Rhianna Hawk

    Your tips have been very helpful to me as I’m looking forward to a promotion to manager at the car dealership I work at. I especially like your tip about how well-coached sales teams outperform their competition, and when I take on my new position, I’m considering hiring a sales coach for the team as my first act. Getting that edge at the very beginning would help my team, and maybe some coaching for myself would help as well.

  • ss

    Im a Sales Rep. In my industry, the concept of “team” is in name only, and its really from the perspective of the Manager. The reps really dont “work together” so much as are supervised by the Manager collectively. And therefore, I detest when my Manager addresses us as “team” or treats us like we are working together to ‘help’ each other.
    We are not. The Manager is the one who should be helping us. And I trying to crush my “teammates”. Financially of course. I do not mean Im out to get them. Im just out to beat them 🙂
    And the Manager I had prior held this space so well, I guess I got spoiled. They were able to lead the group together, yet make us feel independent. Outside Sales Reps ARE independent and, in my opinion, you want them to operate like its there own business. If I have to ‘help’ or chat all day with another Sales Rep in another state, then Im doing my Manager’s job. And there is zero value in it for me OR the company.
    I unserstand team projects.
    Ive been on teams in the past at other jobs where it truly WAS a team effort to make the sale or land the project. I understand collaboration and the concept of “team”.
    But if I am the only rep in my state and the quota is all me, then Im not a “team”. Im a business owner who checks in with leadership when I need direction. My current Manager seems to want a “family”, and it turns my stomach! I have friends, I have family. Just please let me work.
    So speakjng as a rep to those who want to manage, be VERY clear on the interactive role of those under you. They may be YOUR team, but are they really A team?
    And also, keep your personal life to yourself. Minimal sharing please. You may be cool, but if you werent my Manager, I likely wouldn’t be hanging out with you. Remember that. And act accordingly.

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