Management: Swimming upriver

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Well (son/daughter, etc), what do you want to do when you grow up? The answer may, in time, delight the Government and include genetic engineer, transputer specialist, X-ray microscopist or fractal logician. But do I hear any bids for: Sales management, Daddy/Mummy? I think not.

Consider the attractions of the job: a challenging line role, performance-related rewards, plenty of time away from the office and home, variety and choice every day, and more interesting problems to fix than Sir John Harvey-Jones ever dreamt of.

Then, consider the downside. Your revenue budget is usually imposed on you. Your team may be out of sight, but they are never out of mind. The 24-hour clock was invented for you. Your appearance at the office is greeted with the same enthusiasm as that of the people from the SFO.

Everything you want is unreasonable, everything you bring is never enough. The law of nature that says that what goes up must come down cites you as the sole exception, particularly in respect of sales targets.

As a marketer I aim to understand patterns of human behaviour, so that I can influence them. One attitude that intensified during the recession - the disappearance of the sales manager from executive development programmes designed specifically for the role - leaves me mystified. The decline overall was 35 to 40 per cent off the 1989 high and was reflected across a wide range of providers of management training.

Surely some mistake? Sales management has the potential to improve business performance as much as any role in the organisational hierarchy.

The task is specific: to optimise revenue through developing the full performance capability of each and every sales person, recognising and valuing their differences, while ensuring that the brand values of the business are accurately represented and developed at the point of sale.

In addition, sales management is there to represent the views of the sales force in the places where decisions are made so that the organisation really focuses its resources on delighting its customers and prospects.

This is the rock-and-hard-place dilemma - one that a high proportion of sales managers have felt unequal to solving without external developmental help. This could be because of the mistaken view that good sales managers always grow out of good sales people. But it is a fallacious argument at best, and dangerous.

Of course, sales managers must understand selling. That can only happen through having done it well. More important, however, is the ability to subordinate self and, instead, take on the mantle of coach, mentor, confessor, co-ordinator and spokesperson for each member of the sales team. At the same time, they must provide appropriate leadership for the team, responding to the different needs and maturity levels of each member.

The effectiveness of sales management comes from realising the full potential of people within customer- oriented business processes.

Such words as planning, organising, controlling, recruitment, development and motivation all have an important place. But, as Grant Stewart puts it in his Institute of Management book, Successful Sales Management, How to Make Your Team the Best (Pitman, pounds 14.95), 'The ones with the highest leverage on results are the people tasks.'

In a cool, analytical style, Mr Stewart reviews most of the cumulative wisdom around sales management, drawing heavily on the materials of Ashridge's traditional field management programme, and, if followed, would undoubtedly achieve beneficial outcomes.

Where he and his mentors fall short of benchmark advice is in not providing a really clear message to general managers and business leaders of the need to see sales management as the critical interface, or focal point, between revenue productivity (the sales organisation) and cost productivity (the remainder of the organisation).

Having worked with many exceptional sales managers, I am struck by the consistency with which they state that upward, even horizontal, communication within their businesses is frustratingly difficult. Unlike salmon, they have not been shown how to swim upriver against the flow.

The consequence of this curious situation is that the harnessing of the organisation's full resources in delivering maximum impact and effectiveness at the point of sale is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. This is because there are often unrealistic cascades of instruction and expectation that deny the possibility of upward, countervailing, informed opinion. Whether this is a tragedy or a crime is for shareholders to judge.

The contemporary sales manager requires a formidable set of skills relating to individuals' attitudes that is enriched by hard-won experience and supported by a culture that recognises the massive leverage these attributes can have on business fortunes. Properly valued, this could make a great career.

So it is odd that sales managers - who are clearly accountable for the revenue flow - too often are regarded as less important than those who manage expenditure.

The author is marketing director at Sundridge Park Management Centre, Bromley.