A Foundation For Creating Scale and Consistency In a Modern Selling System

Most military leaders will tell you that it is the Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) – the sergeants and corporals who manage troops on the front lines – are the backbone of the modern military. They are the primary and most visible leaders for the majority of military personnel that see action. They have the most practical experience in executing the grand military plans of generals. And a direct relationship with the people they lead.

The same principle applies to sales forces. Sales managers are the backbone of any modern commercial model.  They are an essential bridge between the business leaders who define goals, design the salesforce, and set the market strategy and the revenue teams that must execute it.  Good sales management can help an average sales team exceed expectations.

Front line sales managers are extremely important because they must balance and control the key points of leverage and scale in the sales process. Sales managers are essential to optimizing resource allocation, retaining more talent, improving speed and responsiveness, adopting enabling technologies, and more consistently attaining quotas. It’s a difficult and nuanced job.

The advent of modern data-driven selling has made effective managers even more important. In an era of automated, algorithmic, digital and self-directed buying – you would think the role of sales managers would be diminished – but in fact the opposite is true. The role of sales managers is even more important than ever as selling evolves to become a capital intensive and data-driven team sport.

Sales management has evolved dramatically in the last 30 years and management playbooks are an important way to keep pace and adapt. Selling teams have become distributed, digital and diverse as virtual selling becomes mainstream.  Teamwork along the entire revenue cycle has become critical as most companies pursue recurring subscription services, SaaS, and Xaas revenue models. Algorithms inform account prioritization, next best actions, and resource allocation decisions. Technology has become a “force multiplier” because it can automate, augment, inform and measure selling actions and activities in unprecedented ways.

Today, we are asking front line managers to manage an entire selling system – not just a team of 8-12 sellers.  Managing that system involves aligning commercial teams, processes, data, and technology to generate more scalable and consistent growth. This means front line managers can create even more value than ever by:

  1. Improving consistency – by enforcing process discipline and the day-to-day selling priorities, activities, decisions and behaviors that are empirically proven to lead to selling outcomes;
  2. Enabling scalable technologies – by making sure front line sellers are adopting a growing arsenal of commercial technology and tools as a force multiplier;
  3. Fostering teamwork  – by facilitating team-based selling to maximize customer lifetime value and differentiate the customer experience;
  4. Adopting data-driven selling –  by managing revenue teams based on causal empirical truths in addition to institutional belief systems and “between the ears” knowledge and judgement;
  5. Improving speed and agility –  by empowering front line sellers with the information, context and decision-making confidence they need to increase the speed and cadence of selling and adapt to market changes in real time;
  6. Selling value – by coaching teams on consultative and value selling approaches that make the most of customer interactions and maximize margin and price realization;
  7. Retaining top talent – by taking point on rep development, coaching, retention and career path in the wake of the great resignation.

Unfortunately, most organizations fail to make sales managers a primary focus in their commercial strategy and investment.  Most growth investment is focused on “top down” growth strategy, segmentation, coverage and playbooks.  Or on bottom up efforts to automate and enable front line sales, account managers and specialist teams on the front lines. Leaders often skip over the essential sales management layer that lies in between. In many cases sales management has become a “missing link” in the commercial equation.

The fact that there are not many ways to learn how to become a sales manager compounds this problem.  Sales management is rarely taught in business schools. Most selling books are about selling not managing. The same applies to sales playbooks.  The majority of salespeople learn sales by selling, not managing. “Excelling in sales management demands a very different mentality than excelling in sales. As a result, managers who are promoted based on their sales prowess rather than their managerial skills tend to struggle.

Instead of being the “transmission” that drives the modern selling engine, sales management is often the “weakest link” in a commercial organization that is trying to become flatter, more transparent and agile.

This is a mistake that puts all of the other efforts to grow a business at risk.  Why? Because every growth leaders we interviewed in the book Revenue Operations is putting in place one common “company way” of selling to help drive more consistent and scalable growth. Eighty-eight percent were changing the way they reach and engage customers to adapt to changing buyer behavior and the post pandemic market reality. Ninety percent were reconfiguring the roles, incentives, and priorities of their revenue teams to enforce this common approach. Eighty-five percent were changing the way they lead and align revenue teams to implement it.

The best way to address the situation is straightforward.  Develop a sales management playbook. A sales management playbook is one recipe that outlines clear, comprehensive and detailed expectations for building and leading a high performing selling team. A sales manager playbook must address the expectations, actions and activities relevant to managing high performing selling teams. This includes daily actions like how to measure and stay on top of seller activity, pipeline, and performance. It also explains how to lead customer focused activity with reps such as ride alongs, account planning and relationship support for large opportunities. It should explain how to lead team meetings and facilitate team selling. As well as the ins and outs of coaching and talent development – including one-on-one coaching, skill assessments and how to support the company-wide recruiting, development, retention and career pathing process. A sales management playbook must provide a deep understanding of the roles, activities, and actions and best-practices at every stage of the sales process. It should help the sales manager act as a “power user” of the systems (CRM), tools and information services that underlie the day to day selling workflow.

Sales playbooks are not new. They are in common use. And very useful. But when people think about sales playbooks they generally think about sales rep playbooks. These sales playbooks focus on the day-to-day activities of front line sellers and opportunities to automate the most basic selling tasks.

Far fewer playbooks are focused on the management layer. Why? Because most organizations take the role of sales managers as a given and don’t take the time to document their way of selling, and the role of the sales manager in rolling out, enforcing and leading the sales strategy. As a result, best practices in sales management are undocumented, or scattered across the organization. There is no single, documented way of selling to inform the myriad processes, activities and reporting a sales manager must execute.

Another misconception is that there are best practices and plays that are universal to selling. A quick Google search will reveal hundreds of “proven” sales playbooks written by experts and software marketers – all of whom do not work for your company – that promise to provide the operational secrets of day-to-day selling.

That’s fundamentally flawed thinking.  It’s important to remember that every company has a unique way of selling. By definition, that way of selling is peculiar to their brand positioning, value story, unique offerings, customer preferences, channels, and sales force design.  Hundreds of variables go into a way of selling.  A way of selling is prized and proprietary institutional knowledge and a competitive selling asset. The idea that you can use playbooks designed by a software company or author outside the four walls of your company is antithetical to the entire notion of a proprietary company-wide selling process. Particularly at the management level.

Documenting a “company way” of selling and taking ownership of developing a critical sales management layer seems to be common sense. So why isn’t this common practice? The issue is sales leaders focus on immediate results and want to move fast. So relative to hiring a new rep or buying a new piece of selling software, the notion of taking time to build a management playbook as the foundation of scalable and consistent growth does not sound sexy, or urgent. But like good diet, exercise, education, and saving money –  it becomes essential to thriving in the long term. Most fast growing companies can get to $50 or even $100 million on the back of ad-hoc entrepreneurial selling and product innovation and hiring superstar sellers – but that will only take you so far. Every organization hits a wall as it scales where sales plateau and incremental investment and effort reach a point of diminishing returns. At some point –  $200 million or $300 million in revenues – your revenue growth trajectory is going to be nibbled to death by a growing set of confounding variables that will stall or diminish the growth engine. Organizational complexity. The need for rapid decision-making. The lack of scalable processes. Inconsistent performance by B and C players who fill out the roster.


What is a sales manager playbook?

A good management playbook should explain what a sales manager must do every day to be successful. The right way, the best way, and the company way of selling. It should explain best practices for executing the common company sales process, how to prioritize accounts, and how to leverage technology to be faster, smarter and more effective. In most companies, these things are not in one place. Specifically, a sales manager playbook needs to provide managers precise instructions and guidelines they will need to carry out six critical management priorities:

  1. Helping all reps achieve 100% of their target assignment through active coaching, management, development and measurement by advising on the actions, plays and activities that will generate success at every stage of the selling process.
  2. Acting as a “player coach” by being actively engaged in customer-facing activities at the top opportunities and accounts across their teams through ride alongs, joint calling, account planning, one: one coaching, and executive relationship building.
  3. Developing and retaining top selling talent by directly supporting the recruiting, ramp, retention and promotion of high performing sales reps.
  4. Providing more reliable and precise revenue intelligence by improving the visibility into account, opportunity and pipeline health.
  5. Leveraging technology to automate the key points of leverage, scale and friction in the revenue cycle and generate more predictive and proscriptive commercial insights to sellers.
  6. Act as the living and walking embodiment of the company way of selling by understanding and modeling the behaviors, activities and values of the enterprise selling process.

You can download an example of a typical sales management playbook to get a sense of what is involved and covered at the link below.


How will a sales management playbook create value and growth?  According to Smith, developing a sales management playbook is a foundational investment that will pay off by accelerating growth and operationalizing the sales team. From a financial perspective, deploying a management playbook creates significant leverage and scale in the sales process by:

  1. Optimizing resource allocation.  Sales managers are on the front lines of allocating seller time and effort to the right accounts, opportunities, activities and actions.
  2. Adoption of technology as a force multiplier.  Firms invest heavily in expensive resources, tools, and information that can improve the speed, engagement, and productivity of the revenue team.  Most of these are poorly adopted and under-utilized. Organizations that fail to rely on the leverage, automation and intelligence these systems provide will fall behind. Front line sales managers are crucial to aligning the people, process and technology of modern selling by ensuring data quality and enforcing common process stages, account structures and opportunity management criteria within CRM, enablement and engagement technology platforms. Ninety-five percent of practitioners cite the lack of management encouragement to adopt these technologies as a big part of the problem according to the SMA. Front line managers can improve adoption by relying on and enforcing data-driven selling practices, aligning CRM and enablement tools with day to day selling workflows.
  3. Recruiting, developing, and promoting top sales talent. Sales reps leave managers not companies. Sales managers are the key player in the enterprise process for recruiting, developing, retaining and promoting sales reps. These are essential to attracting and retaining talent in the wake of the “Great Resignation.”
  4. Facilitating vertical and horizontal information flow – Growth leaders establish “top down” go-to-market plans, sales processes, assignments and proprietary value selling methods designed to maximize profit, growth and share. Front line revenue teams must execute those plans, playbooks and assignments in day-to-day selling actions and activities that generate opportunities and revenue forecasts from the “bottom up”. Sales managers are the vital gear in the commercial model that communicates and executes the “top down” plans, processes, assignments and plays of senior leaders and revenue intelligence from the “bottom up” actions and activities of their teams.
  5.  Greater accountability – Someone has to be accountable for achieving quota assignments, compliance with the sales process, validating pipeline accuracy, and prioritizing the activities of reps.  Front line sales managers should be spending over 80% of their time actively engaged with their revenue teams in customer focused planning and coaching and team management, measurement, and development.  Managers are accountable for presenting reliable intelligence about customer health,  opportunity potential and revenue forecasts by “inspecting” deal pipelines to ensure opportunities meet common guidelines, definitions and criteria.
  6. Speed and Agility – Front line sellers are struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of market, product and competitive change and the increased velocity of selling. Sales managers must provide front line sellers at the edge of the organization the information, context, understanding and authority they need to make faster decisions  and take the initiative to respond quickly to opportunities and threats. They must establish the selling cadence by defining the number, frequency and timing of selling actions and client engagement.
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