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Five Keys to Hiring the Right Sales Manager

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There are few decisions more critical for a company than those pertaining to hiring the leadership of their sales organization. Yet few know how to do it well.

Many err and ''promote'' their best sellers to sales management positions. Why this is called promotion is beyond me. The job of a sales manager is vastly different from that of a salesperson, so why is this considered employment elevation? Oftentimes sales managers earn less than the top salespeople. Promotion?

Some salespeople make the transition successfully, but many struggle with the change. Sometimes it is a mismatch of the person to the role. However, more frequently the struggle is caused by the lack of recognition by the company that this is not a promotion but rather a move into a completely new job.

How do you handle an employee in a new job? You train, mentor, and monitor his or her performance! Look, most people don’t come out of the womb with the skills required to be effective managers. Thus, it is a key responsibility of the company to recognize that when moving their top salesperson into that role, they need to own the development of that individual. A congratulatory handshake and smile just won’t get it done.

Many companies look outside their organizations for their sales management candidates. This approach also has its challenges. Whether you promote from within or hire from outside, consider these five points to make sure you find the right person for the role:

1. Selling versus Managing

If you consider the broad spectrum of responsibilities from selling business directly to managing a team, what percentage of the time do you expect this person to be focused on personal selling versus managing? As mentioned above, the skill sets required for those two responsibilities are vastly different. It is also difficult to find professionals that have equal strength in both skill sets. Oftentimes there will be a trade-off. If there is a sacrifice to be made, it makes the best sense to select someone whose primary strength is in the more predominant part of the responsibility.

If the decision is made that the position has equal responsibility for selling and managing or the dominant responsibility is selling, an internal hire may make sense. This allows the company to develop a new manager. However, the plan falls down if the company is not committed to a development plan.

2. Creating versus Executing

Another consideration is what your expectations of the sales manager are relative to developing the company’s sales architecture® (the framework of the sales organization). In some companies there is a plan already in place, and the job of the sales manager is to ensure the plan is executed as written. In essence, the job is to motivate the troops and coach them to make sure revenue targets are achieved. This is usually the case for mid-level sales managers.

In other situations the primary job is to establish the overall direction of the sales organization, formulate the compensation plan that supports that direction, and execute the plan. Needless to say, this is a very different profile than that of the sales manager described above.

3. Title versus Responsibility

Check any job board, and you will find a plethora of titles referring to sales management. However, there is not a direct correlation between title and responsibilities. This can create a disconnect with the new manager and with clients if those two are not synchronized. If you are going to give someone the title of “Vice President,” there is an inherent expectation that this is a high-responsibility, high-authority position. When clients hear that title, they believe that the person is a senior-level person in the company and can make decisions. Thus, this can create client frustration if the responsibility and authority are not consistent with the title.

At the other end of the spectrum, calling this person a “sales manager” creates a more junior-level perception. There is nothing wrong with the term, but it is important that you recognize the created perception. Again, this can cause issues with both the person in the role and clients if the responsibilities don’t match the title. Some very good sales management candidates will elect not to apply to your company because they believe you are hiring for a junior-level role.

4. Interviewing

Probably the toughest role for which to interview is the sales manager position. For one, the candidates are experienced in interviewing. They know the desired answers. They know the sales lingo and buzzwords.

How do you get past the fluff and get your real answers? One way is to develop a list of benchmark questions that candidates are asked. This allows for comparison of answers among the candidate pool. (Send me an email, and I will send you my favorite 20 questions.) It is important that the questions not follow a sequence so that the candidate cannot build off his or her prior answers. Be sure to document the responses to each so you can review them later. You will be amazed by what comes out of this step of the process.

Another important consideration when interviewing these candidates is with whom they will need to have a healthy business relationship to be successful in their role. For example, there is an inherent strife between sales and operations. However, the company will fail if the leaders of those two areas are not able to work together in a productive manner. Consider the various department leaders with whom this person will interact, and engage them in the process. This also helps the new manager assimilate into the organization once he or she is on board.

5. The Ultimate Screening Tool

The most effective tool that I have found in screening sales management candidates is requesting the submission of a written business plan. When the candidate has satisfactorily completed all of the other steps of the pre-offer process, a request is made for a one-page business plan that shows how he or she would approach the job. I mention the one-page scope three times in the conversation so my expectations are clear. The candidate is asked how soon he or she can submit the document. It is important that the submission date be asked of the candidate, not the other way around, as you will see in a moment.

The benefits of this step are numerous. For one, it shows if the candidate can communicate in written form. Writing is a lost art in business but a critical one for someone in a leadership role.

Another benefit is that it shows if the candidate understands what the role entails. A number of hours have been spent with the candidate by this point. If he or she is near the finish line, he or she should have a clear vision of the expectations.

A third benefit is that you can see if there is a synergy in the candidate’s approach to the role. It is best to see before the marriage is performed if his or her approach is aligned with the leadership’s vision.

Still another benefit is the ability to see if this person can meet a self-imposed deadline. I ask when he or she can have the plan to me. He or she provides me with a date and time. If it is late, the candidate is no longer considered for employment — end of story.

Finally, in this role I am the client. I’ve asked for a one-page plan, not an epic. Does the candidate follow directions? Or does the candidate ignore what the client desires and do whatever he or she wants? While I don’t eliminate candidates solely for this, I refer to this in a follow-up session with the candidate.

One final point that is critical when hiring is background screening. Resume fraud is at an all-time high! Candidates lie about their employment histories, their salary histories, and their education and experience, not to mention their criminal histories. Find a reputable firm to do this work for you.

Finding the right person for your sales management role is difficult. It is also expensive. These five keys will help mitigate the risk and create a happy, healthy sales marriage between you and your new employee.

About the Author

Lee B. Salz is president of Sales Dodo, LLC, and author of Soar Despite Your Dodo Sales Manager. He specializes in helping companies and their sales organizations adapt and thrive in the ever-changing world of business. Lee is available for keynote speaking, business consulting, and sales training. He can be reached via email at, through his website at, or by phone at 763-416-4321. This article is reprinted with permission from ERE (
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