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How Do I Get a Promotion to Sales Manager?

You’re successful as a seller. You’re planning for the future, and you’re eyeing that next-level job of sales manager.

How can you make a promotion to sales manager happen?

  1. Be absolutely certain that you really want to be a sales manager.
  2. Develop any technical/functional skills that managers in your company or industry need.
  3. Demonstrate the interpersonal or “soft” skills that make you a people leader, too.
  4. Build strong trust and relationships with other managers in sales and in other divisions.
  5. Identify and work on any potential objections others may have to promoting you.

Do You REALLY Want a Promotion to Sales Manager?

Graphic Showing X Mark on the Ground and a MapJust because the next rung on the career ladder is the role of sales manager doesn’t mean it’s the right role for you. One reason why so many sales managers fail is that the work of selling is quite different from the work of managing. Many former sellers find themselves ill-equipped to do the job. Many also find that it’s not work they enjoy or want to do.

What’s more, many sales managers earn less money than the top sellers on their teams. Typically, more base pay comes with the management title, but there is less opportunity for lucrative commissions and bonus incentives.

And then there’s the paperwork and desk jockeying and internal meetings… sales managers are often responsible for projections, deal review, competitive analysis, collaboration with marketing and other departments, hiring and onboarding, performance management,

One of the key differences between managing and selling that often surprises newly-promoted sales managers is this: Sales, by its very nature, focuses on the immediate and short-term tasks that drive revenue production today. Management, when done well, also focuses on the long-term. Sales managers must weigh a short-term gain vs. a long-term benefit. For example, a sales manager could step in to close a sale right not (short-term win) OR a sales manager could allow the sale to be lost in order to provide a coaching experience for a seller (long-term win if the seller fails, learns, grows, and is stronger in selling because of it).   

Before you make the move, ask yourself these questions to sort it all out:

  • Am I willing to sometimes sit behind a desk and work on forecasts and reports all day long?
  • Am I okay with other people earning and getting credit for big sales and successes?
  • Do I have the skills and traits needed to help other people develop their selling skills?
  • Will I be able to observe sales calls without jumping in to “save” the sale?
  • Do you focus on the long-term and take a proactive approach vs. a reactive and short-term one?
  • Do I understand how to effectively interact with other departments?  
  • Do I have strong relationships with trust with other departments?
  • Will I be able to represent the company’s position when it may mean disappointing sellers?  
  • Does the work of hiring, coaching, setting targets, analysis, reporting, and planning excite you?
  • Are  you a strong critical thinker with solid problem-solving and decision-making skills?

Sales management isn’t right for everyone. And that’s okay! If you love the work of selling, and you’re good at it, consider making this your career. Sales is unique because you have the power to give yourself a raise by earning more commission. You also can give yourself a “promotion” by growing your accounts or territory, by planning more strategically, and by building the business acumen that will make you a stand out in your field.

If you truly want to move into sales management, keep reading! These next steps will help you succeed in getting that job.

Here Are the Technical/Functional Skills You Need to Demonstrate

To be credible as a sales manager, you have to know how to sell. This one is non-negotiable, absolute, set in stone. When sales managers or senior directors don’t have a successful track record in sales, it soon shows. The mistakes made by someone without genuine sales know-how can be costly to the organization and to the individual. Credibility is hard to regain once a mistake has been made.

Not only that, but you need to know how to sell in a variety of situations. If you’ve always been in a growth-mode territory, you may be lacking the skills for shifting market share or competing head-to-head for every dollar. If you’ve thrived by relying on renewals from satisfied customers, you may need to gain experience in pure new business development, too.  

But selling skills aren’t enough.

Graphic Showing X Mark on the Ground and a Map

Imagine every question a customer, supplier, internal partner, manager, new hire, and colleague has ever asked you. As a sales manager, you’ll want to have the business acumen and expertise to answer these questions (and many, many more!) immediately.

You’ll also need to know (or quickly learn):

  • How the systems, reports, hand-offs, orders, production, deliveries, etc. work PLUS who to talk to when they don’t work PLUS how to trouble-shoot and prevent problems as often as possible.

When sales managers have been in that role since before the new CRM, ordering system, technology, practices, etc., they often opt out of truly learning how to use what’s new. That’s a mistake because they end up encroaching on sellers’ time and are unable to leverage the productivity boosts those very systems/technology were designed to provide. The same is true for new sales managers. You have to know how to use these systems as a seller AND how to access them for the information a sales manager needs, too.   

  • Your business model, including how to manage expenses (in addition to driving revenue).

Sellers focus on the top line. Managers focus on the bottom line. Sometimes, this gets confusing for sales managers who drive the top and have responsibility for both the top and bottom. Expense management and attention to the profit margin is something many sales managers overlook. This makes them look like poor strategists who aren’t promotable to senior management roles.

  • The industry or industries you serve so you can interact with a variety of customers and hire sellers who have the necessary business acumen to serve those customers.

Here again, selling in one role or in one division can hamper your ability to look at the “big picture.” If you’ve never been on ride-alongs or done a job swap, you may want to explore those options before taking on a team that serves customers unlike your own and/or one that sells products that are significantly different.

  • How to hire, onboard, train, coach, set expectations for, monitor, give feedback to, and otherwise manage employees. Each of these is a learned skill that won’t come automatically or through osmosis. These basic management skills require learning, practicing, and perfecting.

As a sales manager, you’ll have two primary responsibilities: managing sales and leading people. Note: there’s a lot more to it than making sales and showing other people how to sell. The most effective sales managers are the ones who enable and ennoble sellers to do the work of selling. If you’re trying to do all the selling work, you will fail. You’re only one person and being the “super seller” isn’t scalable or sustainable. Being a strong sales manager starts with getting these skills – the same ones that managers in other functional areas rely on, too.

  • Forecasting, budgeting, market analysis, and other “math-y” work is absolutely essential!

Your finance department or senior management team may do some of this work for you. But how can you spot problems if you don’t know what went into the analysis or how conclusions were drawn? If you don’t understand how goals are set, for example, how can you explain them to the sales team? To apply appropriate sales pressure, identify opportunities, get a competitive advantage, and develop a solid sales plan, you’ll need to get comfortable with understanding the numbers and the stories behind them.

Unfortunately, many organizations don’t define the role of sales manager very well or provide training in all these technical skills. You may have to rely on outside resources and other sales managers to get yourself up to speed. Instead of waiting for the job, work on developing these skills to get an edge when applying and to give yourself a head start once you’ve got the job.

These Are the Interpersonal and People Skills You’ll Need to Succeed

But wait, there’s more.

In addition to selling skills and technical skills, a good sales manager also need “soft skills.” You’re going to be asking others to stretch themselves and perform, at times, beyond their self-imposed limitations. They’ll need to trust you, have high levels of employee engagement, and see value in how you can help them reach their sales goals and their career development goals.Problem solvingSales people are no different from other people. They work harder and do better when they have effective managers. It’s not true that sellers are purely money motivated. They want to work with purpose and have a sense of belonging in the workplace. They want to be more than a number to you. You’ll have to put people first to succeed in sales management.

You can start even before you get promoted to acquire people-first skills, including:

1. Demonstrating Leadership

To simultaneously manage sales and lead people, you’ll need to know the difference. To manage means “to handle.” To lead means “to guide.” You will handle the work (through other people), and you will guide those people to do the work on the front line. Leadership is a choice, made up of behaviors that cause others to willingly choose to follow you. It’s something you do through influence, not by the authority of your role.

To become a viable candidate for a sales manager role, start by demonstrating your influence and leadership. If you can mobilize others without titular authority, others will see your leadership and have an easier time envisioning you in the role of sales manager.

2. Coaching (Not the Same as Mentoring!)

Leaders coach. They build leaders at every level who have confidence in themselves and competence to get things done. Coaches promote self-discovery and ask thought-provoking questions. Coaching and mentoring are two different ways to teach sellers how to do their jobs. Each drives different outcomes.

Many managers rely exclusively on mentoring. They may call it coaching, but “show and tell” isn’t truly coaching. Mentors show people how to do things and tell them what to do. Coaches want people to find their own ways and learn from practice. The reasons so few sales managers provide coaching are that they don’t know what it really is, have never been trained as coaches, and think it’s easier to do it themselves (under the guise of teaching a seller how to do it). The problem is that sellers may not learn or become independent unless they are coached.   

3. Showing Empathy (in the Right Measure)

Selling is hard. The “no’s” can deflate even the best of sellers. The grind can wear people down. Starting over, quota period after quota period, can challenge us all. When the economy or some other factor interferes with “sales as usual,” sellers need to be heard, understood, and encouraged.

Unfortunately, sales managers often send the wrong message. They show little empathy with messages like “no time for griping, gotta make goal!” This leaves sellers with a feeling of abandonment and aimlessness. It gives them no new ideas, no new skills, and no new motivation to keep on trying. On the other hand, some sales managers over-empathize and rail against senior management, the competition, the lousy customers, or some other force. This doesn’t help, either, to be a buddy instead of the boss. Understanding how someone feels AND giving them support to overcome the obstacles is how you get forward motion.

4. Thinking Critically

As a sales manager, you will be asked to solve complex problems and to make decisions with far-reaching implications. Your critical thinking skills will need to be fine-tuned and sharp so you can respond quickly in critical situations. This will be important for customers, internal partners, suppliers, senior management, and your sales team.

Critical thinking will also help you identify opportunities and assess seller performance issues. It will enhance your data analysis and sales plans. You will be able to rapidly pinpoint gaps and know how to address them. You’ll become effective in leading change rather than being a bystander when change is driven by someone else (like the competition…).     

5. Collaborating with Colleagues

Several coaching clients have found themselves sidelined because of their “lone wolf” or “rebel” approach to selling. They were top sellers and, because their performance guaranteed job security, they made choices that affected how they were perceived. They didn’t adhere to deadlines. They skipped team meetings. They were slow to respond to requests from production, billing, operations, and other internal partners. They didn’t show respect for their colleagues and made others’ jobs harder because of it.

Their reputations – despite their strong sales performance – make them unpromotable. No one wants to work with them. They aren’t seen as team players. They aren’t trusted. People describe them as arrogant and irresponsible. If you have exhibited any of these behaviors or otherwise breached the trust of your colleagues, you’ll need to do damage repair before applying for a management role.  

What Else Should I Be Thinking About in Preparing for This Role?

This post will give you a good start. Be sure you have a grasp of what it will take to succeed and how to handle management-level challenges. Read some of the better books about sales management like “Fundamentals of Sales Management for the Newly Appointed Sales Manager.” 

Do some job shadowing or take an interim role to try the role on and see how you like it.

If you’ve applied for this role before and weren’t successful, find out what you need to prove and work on it. One resource you may wish to consider is the free and fun Career Roadblocks Quiz from People First PS. You’ll get a complete report on which of the 12 common roadblocks may be keeping you from reaching your career goals.

Make sure you don't have a blindspot when it comes to your soft skills or style. Take the free, self-paced course called The Essentials of Personal Effectiveness to build transferable skills and improve the quality of workplace interactions. 

The CONNECT2Sell Blog has been discontinued as our focus has shifted to leadership at every level. Research with buyers demonstrates that buyers respond favorably when sellers show up as leaders. If you'd like to step into your full potential as a leader (and boost sales!), take a look at our free and affordable courses on