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When Sales Slump,
Who Do Sales Managers Blame?

By Brian Snader

When sales are down and quotas are not being met, it's an easy thing for sales managers to point a finger at their front line sales representatives to focus on what reps are doing wrong. They're in the office instead of out in front of customers, they aren't planning their day, week, month, and year, they're not asking for the order, and so on.

But things are rarely as simple as they seem. Some of that blame might, in all fairness, belong more to management side where the responsibility for training lies.

Training people in response to an obvious need ...a new hire, new product/service, or a competitive challenge...makes sense. But typically, a new salesperson is given a few weeks of training, handed a briefcase, given a pat on the back, wished "good selling", and shoved into the territory to sink or swim.

Of course, selling excellence is achieved only by doing the right things skillfully and frequently. However, sales people sometimes believe they're practicing sound selling skills when, in fact, they are only reinforcing ineffective activities. Practice does not always make perfect. Without receiving coaching and honest feedback, can reps fairly be blamed for what they don't realize they're doing wrong?

What is the role of sales management here, and what should it be? Unfortunately, management inadvertently perpetuates this self-defeating cycle by throwing more and more sales training at sales reps without adding the follow-up and coaching necessary to ensure the integration of the new skills taught.

A case in point

Myles Ahead was a super sales representative. He consistently led the country in sales. His outstanding sales performance won him the attention of management, and he was moved up to a sales manager position. Here, too, he excelled. His team stayed near the top, and Myles loved working the major accounts. Before long, Myles was rewarded again... to district, then to regional sales manager.

We'd like to report that Myles and his region lived happily ever after. But alas, all was not well. As regional manager, Myles spent his time doing what too many regional sales managers do ...pushing paper. He became the 'super administrator.' He got all his plans and reports done well, on time. He attended all the proper meetings, was always prepared, and even managed to stay within his budget. Myles fulfilled his new job description, but unfortunately, his region was second to last and he couldn't get a handle on it.

What changed Myles from superstar to 'also-ran'? Well, Myles, like so many other top sales professionals, was great at selling but was blocked from regional management success by larger forces. Myles took the problem seriously, and with great determination, influenced the corporate officers to put aside egos and politics and spend time reflecting on the situation with him. Finally, his company's CEO bit the bullet and dedicated the resources necessary to take a serious look at their corporate culture.

The first change was small but important: to revise the corporate mission by putting employees as well as customers into the mission statement. They put the 'care and feeding' of employees into the mission statement by hiring good people, treating them as good people, giving them every possible tool to be successful, and letting them know their loyalty, dedication, and performance were valued and appreciated.

More than a catch-phrase, 'people are our most important resource' was put into actual practice, with stunning results. With this mission change as his foundation, Myles began looking at the role of sales management differently. The first line manager's role, instead of focusing on working large accounts, became primarily to develop other people.

The sales manager's new job description became 'coach.' Like a football coach, the sales manager has to be there when the calls are put into play. Being in the field, a coach is able to see what's really happening and decide how best to guide their teams. In the same way, the sales manager must encourage, critique, reinforce, and demonstrate to provide effective direction. And like a good coach, a sales manager must stay on the sidelines and resist the impulse to grab the ball and participate in the play.

With the backing of his CEO, Myles was finally able to take his region to the top. He worked with his team to change the sales manager's job description, rework the compensation plan to reward good coaches, and develop a plan to provide the kind and amount of sales training they agreed was necessary for each individual sales person.

Here's the heart of Myles' ongoing program:
  • Management must create sales training objectives by listing what each sales representative must be able to do, once trained.
  • Management must provide the resources to implement and attain the training objectives.
  • Management must provide the encouragement and the resources to make the coaching of sales people by sales managers a priority.
  • Management must provide the necessary compensation structures to reinforce the importance of that new priority.

The key to training success lies with the ability to follow through and follow up. That follow-up must start with the regional sales manager, the second-line sales manager. Sales management needs to focus on the critical factors that create sales. This involves not only typical sales activities, but also behavioral characteristics that can be reinforced or replaced with the help of a good coach.

So what's in it for your company? Just salespeople and sales managers who love their jobs and will do their best to be sure 'their' company is successful!

Want to learn more?

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