Should Sales Managers Sell?

What’s the ideal role for an advertising sales manager? Our consulting clients ask us this question (or the following variations), all the time.

  • “Should the sales manager have personal territory and revenue goals?”
  • “Isn’t our top producing salesman the obvious choice for sales manager?”
  • “He was the best producer at the software company we worked at, why wouldn’t he be the best choice for this site’s sales management spot?”

Or, my personal favorite:

  • “What does a sales manager really do, anyway?”

So, for the next few weeks, we’re going to take a look at the various roles advertising sales managers, directors and executives fill. As well as how to determine which of those functions are most important in your organization, and what that should indicate to you about how to staff, compensate and structure that function for maximum results for your business.

Assuming that every sales management job is the same is akin to thinking that all programmers are interchangeable whether developing CGI scripts, Java code or VRML applications. Different skill sets match different jobs in the sales arena as well.

Identifying the right sales management role depends on the product being sold, the timing of that product in its life cycle, where it falls on the market acceptance curve, who the target customers are and how they are accustomed to being sold and served, the experience level of your sales team, and the stage of development of your overall sales strategy. All of that is beyond the obvious issue of finding the right personal and cultural fit.

Player Or Coach

The most common point of confusion is whether a sales manager should handle dedicated accounts and revenue targets vs. having accountability only for revenue generated by the sales people on the team. Since every sales discussion always seems to revert back to a sports analogy, this dilemma is referred to as “dedicated manager vs. player-coach.”

The argument for player-coach is compelling: If the sales manager is the most experienced, and most expensive sales talent on the team, shouldn’t s/he be handling the most important accounts? Isn’t this person the guy most capable of bringing in revenue?

Yes, and yes. But, from an organizational structure standpoint, those are not generally the right questions.

Ask instead: “How much support, coaching, training and advice does the rest of the team need to do their jobs, to improve their skills, and to become the salespeople you need them to be if your business is to grow? How senior a team do we have, and how much are they reliant upon their sales manager for information, judgments or training to make their numbers?”

Player-coach models work well with a very senior and experienced sales force, where systems are solidly in place to allow the sales people autonomy in their sales functions, and where the need to go back to management for mediation on inventory issues, negotiation permissions, or sales strategy advice is very low. In the typical Internet start-up, the opposite is true, especially around inventory control and allocation.

In the case of a less experienced staff (and that can include very experienced individuals who are new to online, or new to media sales, or simply new to a particular organization), the best use of your sales management resource may well be to fully support the larger sales team. Individual account responsibility draws attention away from team and onto the individual contributor aspect of the manager’s job.

It’s human nature to focus more time and attention on the most personally accountable and measurable part of the job, especially when that individual revenue responsibility is tied to the most directly achievable aspect of a manager’s compensation potential.

It’s harder to be accountable for results brought in through others than for results we produce ourselves. In that discrepancy lies the problem with giving a sales manager a territory — you can be trading off long term growth, the development of the sales team, and the ability of each individual to sell more, in favor of quick revenue from the star player.

This is not to say that a sales manager shouldn’t sell. Everyone who is able should always be selling. But working with a sales team member to help the staff make their goals (and training that sales person as you do so) is very different from tempting a guy to ignore the staff in favor of hitting individual deliverables. It doesn’t matter how smart or talented or honorable or team-oriented an individual is; when a manager is evaluated and compensated on individual sales results, the management function is bound to take a back seat.

So, what’s the right answer for your business? There is no one answer for every site. But there are some guidelines to consider in making the call. Consider whether the individual revenue increase really outweighs the potential of seeing steady increases from each and every sales person. Consider whether a manager focused on a personal territory will be as accessible as the sales people need him/her to be. And consider whether there are organizational or inventory issues that require a manager’s arbitration in the daily sales process. Then develop the job description and compensation program that best addresses the realities of your organization.

Next week: A look at a few other realities to consider about your organization’s sales management function.

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