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What Is Sales Management? Skills, Roles, and Best Practices

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Written by Mary Flaherty
Vice President, Research and Thought Leadership

If you’re a sales or enablement leader charged with training sales managers, you’ve likely been asked, or asked yourself, “What are the core skills and competencies our sales managers need to effectively coach and develop our sellers?”

As you dig into this question, developing effective sales managers can seem like a daunting challenge.

In fact, only about 3 in 10 sales managers are effective in getting maximum performance from sellers, have the necessary skills to manage and coach sellers, and prioritize coaching their teams, according to our Top-Performing Sales Organization research.

With that in mind, we conducted a global study through the RAIN Group Center for Sales Research to identify what the best sales managers do differently than others and which sales manager skills correlate with top performance. The resulting Top-Performing Sales Manager model, which we share in this post, is a framework you can use to develop effective sales managers whose sales teams achieve their potential and get results.

Learn more about the sales competencies of top sellers. >>

Developing effective sales managers is the objective because, as the research reveals, Top-Performing Sellers are 83% more likely to say their sales managers are effective in supporting their ability to achieve top performance.

Sales Manager Effectiveness According to Sellers
% Extremely/Very Effective

Chart comparing sales manager effectiveness according to sellers

In this post, we break down the sales management roles and highlight areas where Top-Performing Sales Managers do things differently and better than others.

Download the Top-Performing Sales Manager Research Report. >>

3 Conditions Set the Stage for Top Performance in Sales Management

What exactly do Top-Performing Sales Managers do differently? How do they approach sales management systematically and confidently, knowing they’re doing the right things to get top performance from their teams? 

And, by extension, how should you approach it? 

Based on our research and decades of fieldwork with clients, we’ve found that Top-Performing Sales Managers are better than other managers at:

  • Delivering a regular rhythm, frequency, and types of coaching. Top Performers are 51% more likely to have regular ongoing coaching.
  • Leading masterful sales management and coaching conversations. Top-Performing Sales Managers are 40% more likely to be skilled at leading valuable coaching meetings.
  • Playing 10 sales management- and coaching-related roles well. All 10 roles are statistically validated by the research as critical areas where Top-Performing Sales Managers excel compared to other managers. 

When these conditions are met, sales managers gain the respect and confidence of their team and get results.

Skills of Top-Performing Sales Managers

In our study, the criteria for Top Performance included: 

  • Annual sales goal: Top-Performing Sellers met their annual goal. For sales managers reporting for their team, 75% or more of team members met their goal.  
  • Challenge: Sales goals must have been challenging. 
  • Win rate: Average win rate on proposed sales was greater than 50%. 
  • Pricing: Premium pricing was achieved.  

Overall, Top Performers achieved superior sales results compared to The Rest, including 2.4x more likely to meet their sales goals and 1.7x more likely to achieve premium pricing.

Average Proposal Win Rate

Chart comparing the average proposal win rate of Top-Performing sellers and The Rest

And the average win rate on proposed sales reported by Top Performers is dramatically higher than The Rest: 72% vs. 47%.

Moreover, Top-Performing Sales Manager skills correlate significantly with better sales performance results. Take the impact of deal coaching on win rate for example.

In our study, all sales managers provided deal coaching at statistically similar frequencies (44% of Top-Performing Sales Managers provided it compared to 42% of other managers), but Top-Performing Sellers were 63% more likely to report their manager excels at providing deal coaching to maximize wins.

While a regular coaching schedule matters, Top Performers get better deal coaching.

The influence of managers on their sales teams is strong. Based on sellers rating their managers and managers rating themselves on management and coaching skills, Top Performers are significantly more likely to report stronger skills in 13 of 15 key areas compared to the rest, contributing to increased win rates for the sales team.

Many of these skills, such as leading valuable team meetings, hiring top talent, and coaching sellers to grow accounts, are often stated expectations for sales managers. However, what’s often overlooked is the impact of motivation on Top Performance. Motivation is not only highly correlated with Top Performance, but also the biggest difference between Top Performers and The Rest.

In terms of productivity, Top-Performing Sellers are highly productive. But do these sellers bring intrinsic motivation and productivity to the table themselves, or does the manager play a significant role in motivation?

Resoundingly, it’s the latter. Sellers who work for Top-Performing Sales Managers are significantly more likely to be stronger across all productivity factors studied.

I/My Manager Excel(s) at Motivating Sellers for High Productivity and Performance
% Strongly Agree
Graph comparing which percentage of sellers agree their manager excels at motivating sellers for high productivity and performance.

Ultimately, Top Performers are 71% more likely to have a manager who excels at motivating them for high productivity and performance.

Training and coaching are often specific and skill-based. While this is a necessity to hone essential sales skills, there’s less emphasis on helping managers and sellers improve their productivity. Organizations need to focus not just on what their sellers (and managers) do, but how they work on a daily basis.

Takeaway: Top-Performing Sales Managers have better skills in the areas that lead teams to achieve higher win rates on proposed sales.

Source: The Top-Performing Sales Manager Benchmark Research Report, RAIN Group Center for Sales Research.

What's the Difference Between Sales Coaching and Sales Management?

Sales managers play two different types of roles: coaching and managing. What’s the difference between a “coaching” role and a “management” role?

Sales Coaching is done, and can only be done, directly with sellers. It’s a two-way interaction that happens collaboratively. Coaching topics are the shared responsibility of the seller and manager.

For example, the sales manager is the linchpin in making sure motivation and productivity happen systematically across the sales team. Though the seller is ultimately responsible for their own productivity, the sales coach must create an environment that promotes productivity and provides the tools for sellers to sustain productivity and motivation over an extended period.

Sales Management is the area where managers organize, execute, and monitor structurally to drive performance. Sellers affect managers’ vision, decision-making, and actions in these areas, but management topics are primarily the responsibility of the manager.

The coaching and management roles work together synergistically. Sales managers have to wear both manager and coach hats and play the roles in each area well if they want their teams to achieve top performance.

Let’s take a closer look at the specific roles and the competency model that serves as a roadmap to developing sales managers’ capabilities.

A Roadmap for Sales Managers

The Top-Performing Sales Manager Model: 10 roles the best sales managers play

When people see this model for the first time, most say it’s helpful just to see it all in one visual. But other people say, “Isn’t this a lot for someone to be good at to succeed as a sales manager?” 

But think about it this way:

To be a great seller, you have to know your offerings inside and out, know how you solve problems for others and the results you’ve achieved, lead great needs discoveries, learn to craft solutions, present persuasively, negotiate, win deals, manage opportunities and outsell the competition, prospect and build pipeline, lead masterful sales conversations of different types, grow accounts, and more.  

The point is: being a great sales manager doesn’t mean you need to learn more than sellers do, rather you need to learn a different set of capabilities as a sales manager. 

RAIN Group’s Top-Performing Sales Manager model is the guide to get you there.

In this infographic, we reveal the three pillars of sales management success and dive deeper into the 10 roles sales managers must play to inspire their sellers and drive top performance on their teams. Read on for a more thorough analysis on how each of these roles contributes to management success.

Click the infographic to enlarge.

10 Key Roles of the Best Sales Managers Infographic

5 Coaching-Related Roles of Sales Managers

In the Top-Performing Sales Manager model, five coaching-related roles form the crux of everything sales managers need to do to become great sales coaches.

Chart displaying the five coaching-related roles played by top sales managers.

The 5 coaching-related roles are:

  1. Motivation
  2. Focus and Action Planning
  3. Execution and Productivity
  4. Advising and Facilitating
  5. Development

We’ll touch on each of those in a moment, but it’s important to note at the outset that, at a high level, you should think of them simply like this: if you have a motivated team focused on the right activities that's productive as they work, you’ll be well-positioned to have a top-performing team.

If you can give sellers advice on how to succeed at whatever they’re working on—for example, on winning major sales, driving account growth, planning a sales conversation, building their pipelines, and so on—you’ll help them win sales and drive results daily.

And, finally, if you take the lead on developing your team to be better sellers over time, your team’s performance will rise over time.

Do well in all five coaching-related roles, and it’s almost impossible not to succeed.

The magic, of course, is in how you get there.

1. Motivation

This is the #1 skill of Top-Performing Sales Managers. Sales managers must unleash the motivation within each seller on their teams to maximize seller energy, effort, and success outlook.

Many people believe that someone is either motivated and driven—or not. What’s fascinating about motivation is that much research has shown it’s less like an attribute that defines you (or doesn’t), and more like a skill you learn.

In fact, at RAIN Group, we’ve learned that even if a seller isn’t feeling motivated, by teaching them strategies and tactics to become motivated, sales managers can literally help sellers manufacture motivation and build it like a muscle that gets stronger and stronger over time.

The 3 key components of motivation are helping sellers:

  • Unleash their drive
  • Ignite their proactivity
  • Develop productive habits that help them succeed, thereby reinforcing overall motivation and positive attitude

2. Focus and Action Planning

Sales managers help sellers define what they need to achieve in any given period—such as a quarter or a month—plan their weekly actions and accountabilities to get those actions done, and manage their time so they stay focused on what’s important and don’t get distracted by what isn’t.

Top-Performing Sales Managers are 41% more likely to excel at helping sellers build meaningful goal and action plans.

3. Execution and Productivity

Sales managers guide sellers to get the greatest production from every hour they work. This means helping sellers execute in the zone, or achieve flow, where work output is 5x higher than when not in the zone, according to research by McKinsey & Company.

It also means helping sellers maximize their energy so they can focus for the greatest period of time and feel good as they do it—and help them get back on track when they get derailed.

As mentioned earlier, Top-Performing Sellers are significantly more likely to be highly rated across all major productivity areas. Furthermore, Top-Performing Sales Managers are 71% more likely to be effective at motivating sellers for high productivity and performance.

4. Advising and Facilitating

Sales managers help sellers win deals, drive account growth, and solve problems that are hindering their success. For example, Top-Performing Sales Managers are more likely to excel at coaching sellers to:

  • Lead great sales conversations (52%)
  • Win sales opportunities (45%)
  • Grow accounts (47%)
  • Fill the pipeline (30%)

It’s important to reinforce that this isn’t just Advising, it’s also Facilitating. Helping sellers arrive at their own answers by asking questions and coaching them also enables them to take greater psychological ownership of the solution. If you want to teach sellers, and improve accountability for action, facilitating instead of telling is key.

5. Development

Development is the #1 key driver of sales manager effectiveness. Sales managers need to:

Again, this requires facilitating instead of simply telling them how to do it.

Get a Sales Coaching Plan + Checklist. >>

After considering these five coaching-related roles of sales managers, many people tell us two things:

  1. “If you can do well in all five of these roles, sales team success will be virtually assured.”
  2. “I’m good in some areas but not as much in others, so there’s a lot to learn.”

This is where an effective sales training and enablement initiative comes in. It gives sales managers the knowledge, skills, and tools they can use to motivate their teams, hold them accountable, and coach them to top performance.

5 Management-Related Roles of Sales Managers

Chart of the five management-related roles played by top sales managers

The 5 management-related roles of the sales manager are:

  1. Performance Management
  2. Pipeline and Forecasting
  3. Meeting Leadership
  4. Territory Planning
  5. Talent Management

1. Performance Management

As mentioned above, we know that Top-Performing Sellers are 83% more likely to report their managers are very or extremely effective at helping them achieve strong performance. This is central to the sales manager role.

Performance Management includes three core areas:

  • Performance analysis, where sales managers figure out, for their sellers and their team, progress against the plan, including what’s working and what’s not
  • Performance acceleration, which focuses on helping sellers get to the next level of performance, whatever that is for each person
  • Performance remediation, which focuses on turning around sellers who are falling behind, or finding a way to help them gracefully exit the role

2. Pipeline and Forecasting

Sales managers must also help sellers build and manage pipeline and forecast results for themselves and their sellers. Both to stay on the path to outperforming their goals, as well as to share with senior management.

Top-Performing Sales Managers are 52% more likely to excel at planning and analyzing how sellers should manage their pipelines.

Pipeline and Forecasting focuses on three areas:

  • Pipeline stress testing, where sales managers separate truth from the fiction of what’s really happening in seller pipelines, and how strong—or not strong—they are
  • Forecast accuracy, focusing on being the best guesser of what will actually come out of the pipeline as wins and for how much money
  • Reporting and communication, which is focused on just that: sharing clear and defensible information on the strength of team pipeline

3. Meeting Leadership

In the Harvard Business Review, business guru Peter Drucker famously outlined eight areas where effective leaders excelled. One of them was that they ran productive meetings. The same is true for sales managers. Top-Performing Sales Managers are 42% more likely to excel at leading valuable sales meetings.

Meeting Leadership includes: meeting organization and agenda setting, leading and facilitating meetings successfully, and holding people accountable for commitments made at meetings.

4. Territory Planning

Territory Planning is an often-misunderstood role of a sales manager, sometimes because of the name. The name “Territory Planning” seems to suggest assigning sellers a geography, but that’s really not it.

Territory Planning is about creating a solid, defensible plan for a seller to achieve their sales target. This might focus on geography, but it could also be defined by industry, account types, offering areas, or something else.

In any case, Top Performers are 52% more likely to excel at planning and analyzing how sellers should manage their territories in order to achieve their sales goals.

Territory Planning includes three areas:

  • Territory plan development
  • Target setting, both for overall targets and interim targets, and milestones that are lead indicators of success
  • Tracking and adjusting, making sure that plans stay actionable and relevant, and get updated as conditions change

5. Talent Management

Finally, sales managers need the right people on their teams in order to succeed. Indeed, Top Performers are 42% more likely to excel at hiring sellers who become top performers.

Talent Management includes recruiting sellers to your team, onboarding sellers successfully, and upgrading the team when it becomes clear that a seller is unlikely to succeed.

Again, as mentioned earlier, it may seem that sales managers must excel at a lot to achieve top performance, but it bears repeating that sales managers need to master a different set of capabilities compared to sellers.

The Hidden Factor Underpinning Sales Manager Success

For all the roles and responsibilities required for sales managers to be successful, confidence is still a necessary part of management. Top-Performing Sales Managers are 67% more likely to be extremely or very confident compared to other managers when it comes to being able to help their direct reports achieve strong sales performance.

With this in mind, we studied the key drivers of sales manager confidence. The top five were:

  1. Coaching sellers to lead masterful sales conversations
  2. Coaching sellers to build selling skills
  3. Helping sellers build meaningful and achievable goal and action plans
  4. Motivating sellers for high productivity
  5. Holding sellers accountable for their actions and outcomes

Notably, the first two drivers center around developing critical seller skills. The next three are linked to building seller productivity. This further reinforces the link between manager performance and prioritizing productivity across an organization.

5 Sales Management Mistakes

When your sales team is underperforming, contributing factors may include:

  • Lack of necessary skills and knowledge
  • Inefficient pipeline and process design
  • Poor use of CRM and other tools
  • Inadequate compensation and incentives

And the list goes on. However, these factors have one thing in common: it takes strong sales management to properly deal with each. The success of any sales organization is incumbent upon someone driving and managing the process. Without direction and guidance, achieving your revenue goals is difficult at best, regardless of the talent level of your salespeople.

So what can you do to ensure that you have strong sales management in place? You can start by avoiding these all-too-common mistakes:

1. Promoting Top-Performing Sellers to Sales Managers

Top-Performing Sellers are not necessarily top managers. Leaders often fail to evaluate their best sales professionals for their ability and aptitude to manage before placing them in a leadership position.

It seems like an easy decision to promote the best, but you may be taking one of your most potent weapons out of the game and placing them in a position that they're not well-suited to. As a result, the whole organization loses. The manager is unhappy, the sellers they’re managing are underperforming, and the company is missing out on potential sales.

Solution: There are many assessment tools that can accurately predict management aptitude. Use them. So many firms roll the dice on salespeople and sales managers when there are quantitative, validated, and reliable evaluations available that are accurate predictors of success.

Don’t assume that because an individual is a strong seller they’ll be able to manage other sellers. It just doesn’t work like that. And when you do find a good manager, make sure they have the right sales management training for the greatest success in their role.

2. Expecting Sales Managers to Sell

When sales managers also sell, they’re often too busy working their own leads to focus on what it takes to be a Top-Performing Sales Manager. This can also set up a challenging dynamic with their team.

Great managers know that their primary responsibility is to place those they manage in the best possible position to succeed. This means coaching and developing their team, in addition to taking on the other management roles played by Top-Performing Sales Managers—not focusing on their own selling. 

Solution: If you need your sales manager to sell, it’s possible that you’re not ready to have a dedicated sales manager. In this case, the CEO, vice president, or general manager should take on the sales management role (if this is the case, be sure to read the next mistake). 

The responsibility of a sales manager is to play the 10 roles we discussed earlier. Regardless of what you call them, someone needs to take responsibility for these roles.  

3. Hope as a Sales Management Strategy

There are two common scenarios at play whenever the sales management strategy is to “hope for the best:”

  • Small firms: These companies usually have no more than a handful of sales professionals with a General Manager, Vice President, or CEO typically overseeing them. These management types have a wide range of responsibilities and often don’t have sales backgrounds. Because of this, they struggle to provide the necessary direction and often fail to help their sales professionals realize their full potential.
  • Fragmented regional offices: Often, regional firms feature a couple of salespeople in branch offices scattered around a particular geographic region. These regional offices function like the small firms mentioned above with sales professionals left to their own devices with no direct management. If they report to anyone, they report to the branch’s General Manager, who often has no clue what to do with them.

Solution: Even the smallest sales force needs some form of sales management. In firms with fewer sales resources, there is an increased need for consistent improvement and refinement to make your approach as efficient as possible. Leadership must set aside the necessary time to go over pipelines, assess actions, advise on next steps, and ensure that salespeople have what they need to be successful. The suitability of a CEO or GM for sales management may be lacking if they don’t have a sales background, but an organization that doesn't directly manage sales at some level is an organization that won’t move forward.

If you’re in a situation where you have fragmented, regional offices, hire a company-wide sales manager. It’s that simple. This adds overhead, but the increased sales productivity and efficiencies will make it well worth the expense. Just keep travel under control with technology and make sure all sales-related positions report to the sales manager and not the branch leadership.

4. Not Considering Individual Sellers

You won’t get leads with boilerplate prospecting emails and you wouldn’t sell the same to every opportunity, so it makes sense that sales managers won’t be able to lead effectively if they treat every seller the same.

Every seller is motivated differently, has a different set of competencies, and has a preferred management style. Trying to adopt a “one-size-fits-all” approach to management leads to discontentment and a lack of trust from sellers.

Conversely, it’s possible to unevenly allocate your attention between your sellers. When a sales manager over-invests in their lowest-performing sellers, they sacrifice time that could be dedicated to improving their best sellers.

Some managers even assume that, because a seller is performing well, they don’t need dedicated coaching or development. Even for Top Performers, consistent coaching is critical to maintain seller retention and drive results.

Solution: Communication is key! If you’re taking the time to learn how your sellers work and sell, you’re already halfway there. This is why sales coaching is so important. When managers create bespoke coaching plans for each of their sellers and adapt their approach to seller preferences, they develop a better sense of their progress and what each seller needs to succeed.

On an organizational level, managers should have processes to improve cohesion with their sellers starting with seller onboarding. Even if every sales coaching plan looks a bit different, coaching for sellers should be implemented consistently across a sales team.

5. Being Reactive Instead of Proactive

If your sales managers spend all their time putting out fires, they won’t have the time to invest in the growth of their teams. Many sales managers take on the responsibilities of their sellers whenever something goes wrong. This creates a culture where managers aren’t doing enough management and sellers are relying on managers as a crutch without any real development.

Solution: For managers, it helps to consider the bigger picture. What can you do to prevent the same issue from happening again? What skills can you build in your sellers so that they’re equipped to handle challenging situations?

Ideally, managers should already be proactive about coaching so that it’s not necessary for them to step in. It’s unavoidable on occasion for managers to need to intervene, but skilled managers know when to do so. If a deal is on the line or a seller is less experienced, direct advice may be necessary. For more skilled sellers, managers can be more facilitative and help sellers reach their own conclusions.

Either way, managers need to give sellers a chance to learn and succeed without managers doing their jobs for them.

Sales Management Tools

All sales managers need to keep track of a large volume of information to do their jobs well. Simplify your responsibilities with our selection of sales management tools.

Turnover Calculator

When hiring goes wrong, it’s a major cost for your organization. Even when a candidate is a good fit for a position, it takes months until they’re full-fledged contributors. Use this turnover calculator to calculate the cost of new seller turnover for your organization. Read on for more on how to implement an effective onboarding process for new sellers.

Download now. >>

Toolkit: The Essential Guide to Sales Territory Planning

When done well, territory planning aligns sellers to the right targets and sets actionable next steps to hit them. This complimentary toolkit gives you a roadmap to effective territory planning, including how to set smart targets, track key metrics, and adjust along the way.

Download now. >>

Sales Recruitment Toolkit: How to Hire the Right Salespeople

Identify top sales talent and convince candidates to accept your offers. Go into hiring with a plan with the help of this toolkit on screening, interviewing, and retaining strong sellers.

Download now. >>

Sales Management Course

Help your sales managers drive and inspire top sales performance. Our comprehensive sales management curriculum is built around the Top-Performing Sales Manager model, teaching your managers to deliver a regular rhythm of coaching, play the 10 sales management and coaching roles, and lead masterful sales management and coaching conversations.

Learn more. >>

Checklist: How to Choose a Sales Training Provider

Sales training is a commitment, and not one sales managers should take lightly. Sales leaders are responsible for finding a sales training provider that will drive desired results for an organization. This checklist provides a list of criteria to consider when planning your next training initiative.

Download now. >>

The Sales Forecasting Toolkit

Can you predict your revenue for next month? How about next year? When sales managers can't produce defensible numbers in their sales forecasts, organizational planning becomes much more difficult. This toolkit provides resources to help you apply rigor to your sales forecasting and pipeline management processes.

Download now. >>

How to Build a Sales Coaching Plan

While sales coaching is an important piece of the management puzzle, it’s challenging to figure out where to start. This collection of resources gives you a practical guide to uncover opportunities for growth and implement a consistent and engaging sales coaching plan.

Download now. >>

A Roadmap to Crafting a Sales Management and Coaching Curriculum for Top Performance

At RAIN Group, we help our clients identify the capabilities and gaps in their sales management teams using the research-validated Top-Performing Sales Manager model as a guide. We design focused and relevant curricula so sales training initiatives will be highly effective, resulting in lasting behavior change and generating desired results.

Last Updated February 5, 2024

Topics: Sales Research Sales Management