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Promoted! How to Manage a Successful Sales Team

You’re a new sales manager, and you’ve inherited a high-performing successful sales team. All you have to do is make sure you don’t mess it up!

You won’t have the same challenges as a new manager who needs to turn things around. (If you’re in that situation, come back to the Promoted! Series for New Managers next week here on the CONNECT2Sell Blog).  

When the team you step into is already making their numbers, highly engaged, talented, and strategic, you just need to know how to manage a successful sales team so they keep doing more of the same.

How to Manage a Successful Sales Team

To manager a successful sales team, you’ll want to focus on retention in three areas:

  1. Retaining Employees
  2. Retaining Customers
  3. Retaining Strategic Alliances

This is the old maxim, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” BUT ... you also can’t be complacent. You will have new ideas and new ways of maximizing potential with your team. Before you introduce a lot of change, though, your primary focus needs to be on maintaining and shoring up what truly is working for you.

how to manage a successful sales teamHere’s an example. “Kyle” was a new sales manager with big ideas and boundless energy. He was an innovator who loved nothing more than brainstorming and experimenting. For him, new and different was the essence of fun and fulfilling. He stepped into his first sales management role with an established, steady team. They were consistently strong performers, usually the top revenue generators in the division.

Kyle and his boss, the division sales director, thought the team could benefit from new energy and fresh ideas. So Kyle went in, full steam ahead, with a mission to “shake things up” on his new team. The first “shake-up” (his words) he wanted to introduce was a suite of tools and apps he enjoyed using. Some of these would improve efficiencies, he said, and reduce the amount of interaction needed with internal support departments.

Maybe it was too much, too fast. Or maybe, as Kyle maintained, “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks.” Maybe what worked for Kyle wasn’t right, necessary, or suitable for this team.

Whatever the case, Kyle’s unbridled enthusiasm backfired. The team resisted these changes. They felt unappreciated and disrespected. They resented training and meetings that kept them from being in the field with customers. Some adopted Kyle’s recommendations half-heartedly. Some expended a lot of energy and time defending against those suggestions. Workplace morale tanked. One rep moved to another team. Two customers decided not to renew. There were breakdowns in communications internally.

And, within a few months, the numbers slipped for this team.

Of course, the last thing you want to do as a sales manager is accidentally disengage or disable your sales team. You don’t want to become the proverbial “sales prevention manager.” Check out this webinar that goes into detail about warning signs that you might be overtaxing them instead of enabling sales. Kyle’s ideas weren’t bad, they were just ill-timed for a team that didn’t buy in. That’s why they didn’t serve the purpose he’d hoped of enabling the team. They did just the opposite.

Within six months, the sales director moved Kyle to another role to avert a full mutiny and to try and restore high productivity and sales performance. (You’re right: Kyle didn’t get the backing he deserved ... but that’s another story.) With no sales manager in the role for nearly three months, the team rebounded to its former success. When a new manager was appointed, the directive was “don’t change a single thing.”  

How can you avoid the sort of experiences that Kyle had? By adopting a people-first approach. When you are a new manager of a successful team, put the needs and interests of people ahead of your ideas and fixes. That starts by understanding the people on your team, including their:

  • Needs
  • Interests
  • Perceptions
  • Strengths

It also requires stepping back to make sure customers are satisfied and the partnerships you rely on are solid.

Sales Team Retention Strategies

Strategy #1: Keeping Employees Engaged

Employee engagement is defined by the CEB as “a heightened emotional connection an employee feels toward their organization that influences them to apply additional discretionary effort to their work.” There are two noteworthy pieces of this definition.

  • It’s an emotional connection that matters. The CEB’s research explains, “Emotional commitment drives effort. Emotional commitment is 4x as valuable as rational commitment in producing discretionary effort. Indeed, the search for a high-performing workforce is synonymous with the search for emotional commitment.”  

  • When the emotional connection is there, people apply additional discretionary effort to their work. Make no mistake -- people always have a choice in how much effort they put into their work. You can’t micromanage more effort out of everyone every minute of every day. You need people who want to work harder and do better even when you’re not looking.

In a team of successful sellers, there is undoubtedly a high level of emotional connection to the organization. They work hard for more than that commission check. In fact, Objective Management Group reports that “50% fewer salespeople are money-motivated today as compared to the findings from 2007.”

Money is a rational cause for commitment. It isn’t as effective as emotional connection, not even for high-performing sellers. Don’t rely on the lucrative commission plan to keep people motivated. When the workplace culture shifts, performance often does, too, even when commissions and incentives are untouched.

The reason to maintain an emotional connection is so employees will feel good about the work they’re doing and the organization they’re doing it for. The first, most obvious benefit when employees feel this way is that they won’t be inclined to leave. The CEB’s research spells it out this way: “Employees with lower engagement are 4x more likely to leave their jobs than those who are highly engaged.”

If you have a successful sales team, you don’t want them to leave. That’s why focusing first on employee engagement – on fostering an emotional connection – is well worth your time and effort.

There’s another reason to prioritize employee engagement. It’s part two of the definition above. Engaged employees (with strong emotional connections to the organization) apply additional discretionary effort to their work. CEB says engagement is the key to performance and retention, and that highly committed employees ...

  • Try 57% harder
  • Perform 20% better
  • Are 87% less likely to leave

… than employees with low levels of commitment.

When sellers try 57% harder, it makes a dramatic difference in outcomes. Pipelines get filled. Callbacks get made. Deals close. Referrals are made. Business booms.

But wait. That’s not all. Additional discretionary effort yields higher productivity and revenue increases. The fact that your employees stick around and work harder also increases customer satisfaction. Gallup reports that “organizations with above-average levels of employee engagement reap 50% higher customer loyalty levels.”

One more thing. The impact of improving employee retention, productivity, customer satisfaction, and revenue is (of course!) higher profit margins. You reduce hiring costs and expenses associated with rework and inefficient sales practices like chasing endless continuances vs. closing. Reduced expenses plus increased revenues equals higher profit.

All that from maintaining high levels of engagement with employees. As a new sale manager, this is a great place to start.

But How?

Remember that this is about the emotional connection. That means you’ll have to do more than managing sales, forecasting numbers, and doling out goals. There are actually two parts to your job: managing sales AND leading people. The second part is the one that produces emotional connection.

Leading people involves working on your soft skills and putting people first. Leading isn’t the same as managing. To lead people means you guide them to a place they want to go. You inspire them and enable them, challenge and encourage them, all the while modeling what you expect from them.

You may want to follow the current series on our companion blog, CONNECT2Lead, The Ultimate Guide to Soft Skills for Managers. To learn more about yourself as a leader, you may also want to conduct a 360-degree assessment called The Leadership Practices Inventory®. The assessment, along with good coaching, will give you a clear picture of how you are seen as a leader and what behaviors you could exhibit more frequently to lead more effectively.  

Coaching Self-Assessment

In the meantime, let’s make this as simple as possible. People want to be dignified, respected and heard. Sellers are no different. If the people on your team are rock stars, step back and observe before you make any changes. Find out what barriers you can remove that would make their jobs easier and yield even higher returns. Learn from them. Acknowledge their success and allay their fears that you’re going to get in the way.

Establish relationships and build emotional connections before you introduce too much change too quickly. When you do offer new ideas, make sure they’re legitimately going to help the team. Don’t let your ego or desire to impress others propel you into changes you’ll later regret.  

Strategy #2: Keeping Customers Happy

In addition to engaged employees, you want engaged customers. If your sales team is performing well over a long period of time, chances are good that customers are happy.

Find out why customers are happy. Find out what would make them even happier. As you get acquainted with them, it’s fair to ask both questions:

  1. What do you like best about doing business with us?
  2. What could we do differently to make sure we meet your needs?

Like sellers, customers are people. They want to be dignified, respected and heard. They want to have a voice in shaping any changes you might make. And they don’t want some new sales manager coming in and messing up a good thing.

Modern buyers are seeking relationships with the companies and sellers with whom they do business. They want more than mere transactions. But they don’t want superficial relationships either. They want meaningful relationships where sellers have their “best interests at heart” and “genuinely know them and their needs.”

In the book Stop Selling & Start Leading, we explore in-depth what buyers want from sellers. It’s based on research with B2B buyers and stories from sellers about extraordinary sales they made. Quotes from buyers and their rankings on seller behaviors clearly define the relationship they want. Buyers want sellers to lead. They want sellers to create experiences that are meaningful and unique. They want to have a voice in shaping the solutions they will buy.

As a new sales manager, you may need to model that kind of leadership for your sellers. That doesn’t mean introducing too much change too fast. It does mean showing them how even their satisfied buyers can become more engaged and loyal when sellers go the extra distance.

Keeping customers happy often includes keeping employees happy. That’s because customers who like the sellers who call on them don’t want to see and train new sellers. They’d rather work with the one they’ve formed a relationship with. That’s why keeping employees engaged came first on this list.

Keeping customers happy doesn’t mean you have to do the following things. These are common mistakes that new sales managers make in an effort to be liked, to show sales growth, or to garner good will with employees and customers. You don’t have to:

  • Slash prices
  • Adopt a “customer is always right” deferential position
  • Give tickets or other gifts away indiscriminately
  • Leapfrog to respond directly to the customer in a way that sidelines the seller
  • Wield your new title and power to make exceptions or grant favors the seller can’t

Since you’re new to your job, you’re setting precedents. Be careful about what you offer and how you interject into established relationships. Make yourself an interested party rather than making yourself the go-to person. Make yourself the third wheel instead of the steering wheel. Get acquainted without getting overinvolved and becoming a barrier to the buyer-seller relationship.

Strategy #3: Keeping Strategic Alliances Activated

Often overlooked by new sales managers, this strategy is also a very important one when you’re selected to manage a successful sales team. You’ll need to retain the strategic alliances and collaborative partnerships that are the underpinnings of this team’s success.

That brings us to something else that Kyle messed up. In his quest to innovate and demonstrate his prowess with apps and tools, he neglected to nurture relationships outside his own team. On day one, he removed himself from three cross-functional task force groups that his predecessor had been actively involved in. Kyle also elected not to attend industry events and conferences where, he said “everyone just wants to sell you something.” His boss approved all those changes, especially the last one since the person who recruited Kyle’s predecessor was someone he met at a conference.

Kyle didn’t make any enemies, but he didn’t keep any friends either. He wasn’t among the first to know about new initiatives (like the former sales manager did). He didn’t get his calls picked up or returned immediately (like the former sales manager did). And he didn’t have a network to turn to for advice when things started to fall apart.

Most of the losses experienced under Kyle’s watch were recoverable. There was the loss of one seller, but Kyle did replace her with another rock star. The most regrettable of Kyle’s missteps was his refusal to partner with a competitor on a project. A competitor proposed a strategic alliance where both companies would share some of their unique resources and where both would benefit. Kyle turned the proposal down flat, assuming it was a play to take advantage of him while he was new in his role.

Kyle was the one approached because of the region his team covered and its proximity to this competitor’s HQ. The division sales director would have been the actual decision maker, but Kyle didn’t take the opportunity to meet him because he thought it was phony. He viewed it as an insult to his intelligence. He vowed to steal market share from this competitor to prove them wrong about him.

But they never saw him that way. They didn’t even know he was new in his role when they reached out. When he turned them down cold, they went to the third player in the market, who was quite small at the time. The partnership between those two companies caused significant loss to Kyle’s company. That didn’t become apparent for two years, long after Kyle had been moved out of management.

The saddest part of Kyle’s story is that he had the best of intentions. He was eager, excited and absolutely committed to doing the best job he could. Every decision he made and every change he made were rooted in his desire to excel. The mistakes he made all stemmed from lacking an awareness of how to manage a team that was already successful without him.

Don’t Be Kyle!

If you’re a new sales manager who has a successful sales team, think about retention. Retain those superstar sellers. Retain your customers. And retain the relationships with internal partners, external vendors, industry allies, and even competitors.

You don’t know yet what will be of value, so don’t dismiss the possibility that each and every person has something to offer.


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