Rethinking Sales Management in Distribution

Rethinking sales management
Shutterstock | Kateryna Onyshchuk

Summary: To build a future-proofed revenue organization that can outpace their competition, distributors are realigning the sales management structure – moving away from administrative and operational tasks to focus on improving sales effectiveness. Uncover a few key revenue-aligned priorities for sales managers in years to come.

The role of sales manager is evolving quickly in distribution. Over the past year, we’ve heard from numerous distributors that are taking a fresh look at what’s expected of their managers. Stretched thin and serving traditionally as “jacks of all trades,” sales managers must now be the drivers of profitable growth as sales coverage models are changing and customers are looking for value in different ways.

In this article, I’ll share insights we’ve gathered from distributors who are realigning the sales management structure and putting effort into professionalizing their managers. Doing so will help leading distributors build a future-proofed revenue organization that can outpace their competition.

What are We Asking of Sales Managers?

It’s no secret that sales managers have traditionally served a role that blends revenue and operational responsibilities. Whether managing branches or outside sales teams, many distributors’ managers are overseeing more than sales and customer relationships; they are often tangled in some combination of inventory, delivery, supplier management, and purchasing.

Several companies who attended NAW’s Sales Roundtables and Executive Sales Forum shared stories of their successes in separating the sales management function from operational hierarchies. This involves a sales structure that reports all the way up to the leadership level, rather than reaching mid-level points in the organizational chart where managers are balancing revenue and operational objectives.

Under the traditional catch-all model for sales management, managers are understandably stretched thin. Time-sensitive and urgent operational responsibilities manifest as “fire drills” and take priority over sales growth activities. As one Executive Sales Roundtable attendee put it last year, “If there’s a flat tire today, no sales coaching is getting done.”

If you want to generate growth that accelerates you past your peers, consider your sales management structure and how you enable your team of managers. Companies committed to achieving extremely high growth rates can’t get where they want to go with structures and processes built for mature businesses that only grow or shrink with the market.

A Look Outside Distribution

In other verticals where companies have done more work to engineer sales growth, you won’t find many front-line sales managers as entwined in operational activities as they are in distribution. Are their managers relishing in their free time and constantly remarking on their advantageous work-life balance? No, not exactly.

In other B2B spaces where sales managers are not balancing a full slate of operations-related responsibilities, they are still widely regarded as some of the busiest, thinly stretched employees. The difference lies in what these managers are busy doing. In these spaces, sales managers focus their efforts on systematizing growth and putting the best talent on the front lines to do so.

Dedicating this much energy to sales excellence and revenue growth is hardly easy work, but it does represent sales managers spending their waking hours doing whatever it takes to achieve high-target growth numbers that are demanded by shareholders and VC partners.

It’s no accident that leading distributors who have radical growth numbers in their future plans are the ones more likely to be adopting sales management structures and strategies that resemble those in high-growth companies.

Activities & Skill Sets for Next-Gen Sales Managers

Whether looking at companies with revenue-aligned sales management structures or traditional operational structures, sales managers across distribution have historically been under-supported. Many have been moved into management roles with little to no training in being a manager. Without guidance and support, they’ve had little choice but to inherit legacy bad habits from managers for whom they’ve worked.

Enabling and equipping sales managers is a long-term strategy rather than an instant-win project, but every move in the right direction yields significant and measurable improvements to your sales force’s effectiveness. Here are some key revenue-aligned priorities for sales managers in years to come.

CRM Adoption

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems are hardly emerging technology at this point, but some distributors have leveraged their power more than others. CRMs should not represent big-brother activity trackers, rather a primary way to capture and convert data into sales insights.

A well-adopted CRM is a super tool to sales managers, where they can keep tabs on customers and opportunities and know when to plug in to add value to critical conversations. Beyond that, managers should be the primary drivers of company efforts to use the CRM to deliver data-driven sales insights to the sales team directly. Finally, CRM data can be used to help managers identify weak points in individual rep performance that represent coaching and development opportunities.

Coaching as Culture

Ask ten sales managers how well they’re coaching, and you’ll have talked to ten of the best sales coaches of all time. But, in reality, their reps’ feedback will likely tell a different story. As we’ve been implementing a formal coaching framework with a number of distributors in recent months, we’ve been hearing first-hand how much of a difference better coaching can make.

With a complete coaching framework and skill set across your managers, they’ll be able to identify gaps, diagnose root causes, and coach reps strategically. This supports better sales execution as well as adoption of important strategic initiatives in general. Great coaching will enhance your long-term goals for better sales effectiveness.

Talent Selection & Development

It’s hardly news to distributors that finding top sales talent in today’s market is a tall task. While corporate recruiting teams can help source candidates, your sales managers are best equipped to select ideal candidates and sell the role to the right ones. Of course, that assumes your managers have the processes and skills needed to do so.

Formal recruiting, interviewing, and hiring processes offer an opportunity to capture the best practices from all of your managers and create a better candidate experience that lands you better sales talent. Managers can’t do this all on their own, but a focused effort throughout your organization can get you the process you need, and the top talent to follow.

From there, you’ll need to create a strong onboarding and development experience, where incoming sellers can plug into the knowledge, skills, and coaching they need to become top producers for your company.

Key Structures & Processes for Next-Gen Sales Managers

Sales managers will likely remain some of the busiest team members at your company. The question worth asking, however, is what is keeping them busy? Are there administrative and operational tasks that could be offloaded to free up time for more revenue-generating activities?

A distribution sales leader half-jokingly told me late last year that his company “takes their best salespeople and promotes them into operational roles as sales managers.” Take a hard look at your structure and sales management processes and look for areas where the right improvements could unlock significant revenue growth.

Equip your sales team with the tools to connect with buyers.

Explore a variety of solutions are available to help you train your sales team with the necessary skills to grow your business.

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