The Insanity of Sales Managers | Business LockerRoom

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By Kelly Riggs | Sales + Leadership

Nov 07

The Insanity of Sales Managers

by Kelly Riggs

There are a variety of ways to describe “insanity.”

Picking the Cleveland Browns to win is right up there at the top.

Of course, the most common expression of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.” Consultants and keynote speakers have been riding that train for a long time.

Unfortunately, the whole concept of insanity seems to be lost on many sales managers. Salespeople will produce the same mediocre results over and over, but never change a single thing they are doing. In many cases, they resist any kind of change, insisting that what they do actually works! The problem, they say, is a sluggish economy, or a product that lacks key features, or a marketing initiative that falls short, or a set of circumstances that is working against them.

Anything, of course, except what they are doing. Over and over and over…

As a sales leader, you simply cannot afford to allow those bad habits and poor decisions to continue. A common trap for sales leaders is to accept the idea that salespeople can simply work harder and their results will change. Or that they can somehow do what they are doing now, only better.

This is a disaster waiting to happen (or currently happening). Only a change in habits will produce different results. However, preferring to avoid the inevitable conflict, sales leaders are temporarily blinded by someone’s good intentions. They accept at face value that salespeople intend to – and actually can – create better performance just by trying harder. The majority of the time, what you are really doing is simply delaying the inevitable and ensuring more time-robbing challenges down the road. #nightmare

Yes, I know. Every now and then, you win the lottery. A salesperson mired in mediocre performance works their way out of a long-term slump. When was that…2008? The question is this: Do you really want to manage your entire team based on an exception to the rule?

Do you want to wait on the 1-in-1000 (or worse) chance that a mediocre salesperson will suddenly hit the jackpot?

The Wrong Problem

This problem is the reason why effective sales managers require salespeople to, a) follow a defined sales process and, b) create a detailed sales plan, to reach revenue objectives. The sales process and sales plan – done correctly – ensure that salespeople pursue high-value, high probability opportunities, engage in adequate discovery, meet the prospect’s expectations, and eventually creating a solution (and presentation) that is customized to the individual client.

So, when results aren’t as expected, the sales leader immediately reviews the process and the sales plan to see where the breakdown is occurring. Yes, work ethic is occasionally the problem. Your salesperson simply isn’t putting in the time or effort to create the intended result.

Most of the time, however, the performance problem is one of bad habits, which is a result of poor or nonexistent training.

Changing a bad sales habit requires the sales manager to (first) identify the specific part of the process that is producing the wrong result, and then (second) provide the necessary coaching to change it. “Working harder” at the wrong habit will never produce the intended result, and non-specific change will do little, if anything, to change the current results.

One simple and useful tool to use in this process is root cause analysis. You never want to be guilty of solving the wrong problem (or only addressing a symptom), but that is exactly what often happens – a manager takes a quick peek at a symptom and identifies it as the problem, and the resulting “fix” never changes the results. Zig Ziglar’s famous observation works here: “Prescription before diagnosis is malpractice.”


Root cause analysis will help you get to the real problem. It’s generally a matter of asking the question “Why?” about the observed symptom until you get to the source of the problem. For example, if a salesperson is struggling with declining margins, what is the real problem? Has the product become obsolete or commoditized? Is the salesperson weak at communicating the product’s value? Does the salesperson lack courage in the face of strong objections? Is the salesperson giving away margin simply to drive more sales?

You really don’t know, and you really can’t determine the proper coaching necessary to fix the issue, until you start asking “Why?”

Sales Manager:     “Your gross margin is only 28 percent this year, but the rest of the sales team is between 31 and 34 percent. What do you think is the problem?” (Why?)

Salesperson:          “I think customers are just pushing harder for discounts.”

Sales Manager:      “Why do you think that’s the case?” (Why?)

Salesperson:          “Well, our biggest competitor sells essentially the same product, and they are consistently offering lower prices.”

Sales Manager:     “Certainly the product lines are similar, no doubt about that. However, there are significant differences as well. Why do you think customers see our product as being ‘essentially the same?’” (Why?)

Salesperson:          “The truth is, I don’t usually get a chance to detail the differences. Customers always want to jump directly to pricing.”

Sales Manager:     “That’s very interesting. If you had to guess, why do you think customers jump directly to price?” (Why?)

You can see where this conversation is headed. However, a different salesperson might have the identical problem but wind up with a completely different root cause. Which means that sales managers simply cannot afford to offer up generic, non-specific coaching and hope to see improvements in performance.

Two Problems

Just about every sales manager has salespeople who are not meeting expectations.

Don’t you?

Of course, you do. The question is, are you addressing the issue? Because most sales managers aren’t.

So, there are really two issues here: 1) identifying the real problem and coaching improvement, and 2) having the courage to address the performance issue rather than ignoring it and hoping it will go away.

To be perfectly blunt, underperforming salespeople are not the problem. Never have been. The problem is sales managers who cannot or will not confront performance issues and/or do not have the skills to provide habit-changing coaching.

And that is absolutely the definition of insanity.


About the Author

Kelly Riggs is a business performance coach and founder of the Business LockerRoom. A former national Salesperson of the Year and serial entrepreneur, Kelly is a recognized thought leader in the areas of sales, management leadership, and strategic planning. He serves clients ranging from small, privately held companies to Fortune 500 firms. Kelly has written two books: “1-on-1 Management™: What Every Great Manager Knows That You Don’t” and “Quit Whining and Start SELLING! A Step-by-Step Guide to a Hall of Fame Career in Sales.”