7 skills you’ll need to become a sales manager
So you want to become a sales manager? First you’ll need to make sure you’ve got the right skills, experience, drive and track record at the helm in both selling and at managing others—in order to back yourself up.
Making the leap from sales practitioner to sales manager doesn’t have as much to do with being a rockstar that boasts the highest close rate on your team—as it’s concerned with your ability to motivate, lead and elevate others to achieve more.
While all sales manager undoubtedly need hands-on experience converting prospects into customers themselves, there are a wide range of other (equally important) sales manager skills you’ll need to command in order to excel in this role.
Want to get a ready-made set of resources to manage a sales team effectively? Download our sales management toolkit that contains checklists, templates, scripts and more.
First and foremost, what exactly is a sales manager?
While the definition of sales manager can actually vary quite a bit from organization to organization, in the primary context of B2B companies (like those we work with most), a sales manager is defined as:
A sales manager is responsible for building, leading and managing a team of salespeople within an organization.
So if you're asking, what does a sales manager do, the answer is: sales managers are charged with several mission critical functions within most organizations. That includes activities like:
- Setting sales goals
- Managing individual and team quotas
- Creating a sales plan and proactively experimenting to improve execution
- Monitoring progress in real-time and analyzing data
- Overseeing the organization’s sales training
- Keeping an active watch over (and involvement in) key accounts
- Mentoring individual sales reps and administering incentive programs
- Recruitment, hiring and firing of sales reps
Some of these sales manager responsibilities can overlap with those of other related roles depending upon the size and internal structure of your organization.
Especially when it comes to titles like Sales Director or Head of Sales positions, which tend to be more senior and concerned with organizational strategy, than the average sales manager role.
Check out this side-by-side comparison between an open sales manager role and an open head of sales role to see the subtle (and not so subtle) differences:
While there’s a lot of similarity when it comes to the buzzwords in both roles—like developing and supporting revenue targets, overseeing the sales process for your team, setting trends and monitoring projections—it’s also clear that the head of sales role is much more senior than that of the sales manager.
The head of sales job posting clearly highlight just how much of the job function is concerned with strategy and direction (rather than the active management of people that shines through in the sales manager posting).
For example, the head of sales will report directly to the company’s CEO, have ownership of the future scaling roadmap, and be responsible to keep the company on track for their internal growth projections.
That position is a whole lot different than spending most of your day working directly with individual sales reps, helping them to close more deals and achieve revenue targets—which is what a sales manager does.
So once you exactly what type of role you’re going after and the corresponding title that best fits, you can begin positioning yourself to stand out from the crowd and make a powerful first impression on hiring managers.
Now, let’s talk about the seven most important skills you’ll need in order to become a sales manager.
7 skills you’ll need to master in order to become a sales manager
If you want to become a sales manager, start with perfecting and then showcasing these key skills throughout your interview process.
1. Identifying, recruiting and hiring talented sales reps
While much of your job as a sales manager will be focused on enabling your existing team to continue performing better over time, keeping new candidates coming in the front door to replace those that either move up or out—and add to the strength of your sales team—is just as important.
And like a fine wine, you’ll naturally improve over time in your ability to identify talented prospective sales reps as you go through the process of recruiting, hiring and building your base of experience. However, by far the best way to improve in your ability to spot and incentivize top talent is to, well… start doing it today.
Lobby for taking a more active role in your company’s sales hiring process. Express your interest in eventually moving up and ask to sit in on some interviews with your manager. Spend a few minutes each day reaching out to potential candidates and starting conversations you can learn from over time. Ask yourself what does a sales manager do that I could start doing already now?
Take an interest and predict which people end up making it furthest in the interview process. Who goes on to become a top-performing rep?
Which qualities, traits, characteristics, and motivations contribute to their success?
What is it about the top-performers on your existing team that enable them to do well?
When sourcing candidates for internal sales jobs, keep this in mind:
- Real-world results reign supreme. If a candidate you’re interviewing for a sales role can’t clearly articulate a tangible result they’ve achieved at a current or previous sales job, that’s a major red flag. It’s not all about knowing every penny you’ve generated in revenue, but successful salespeople (and those on their way to becoming successful) keep a close eye on their biggest wins and know where they stand.
- Preparation and organization are key. If a candidate doesn’t prepare enough ahead of time to have a case study they can proactively bring up during their interview, how can you expect them to show up prepared and ready to close their first presentation? Another mark of a strong salesperson, beyond just their historical book of business, is their level of organization and how prepared they are when showing up for a presentation, sales call, or meeting—and an interview is the perfect testing ground to gauge this critical quality.
- They’ve been tested and challenged. Don’t hire the person with the perfect record who’s never been through failure before. Rejection is painful, and it comes with the territory in sales—which is why you’re doing yourself no favor when choosing someone who’s constantly sold products that are excessively easy to move. Rather, look for someone who’s experienced enough in sales (or another related field) to know that not every prospect is going to be the right fit, and that rejection & failure are the building blocks of learning and improving as a salesperson. You’re looking for indicators that your candidate is disciplined, so you’ll want to ask about a time they’ve been rejected, or when they’ve missed quota, and try to gauge what they’ve learned from the experience.
When you hired and trained top sales talent, one of the most important skills is to constantly keep them engaged, put new challenges in front of them, and give them the support they need to master these challenges.
The best sales people are often competitive by nature, and a great way of channeling their competitive energy into productive channels is to have a sales leaderboard reps can use to keep score.
One tip to get the most out of sales leaderboards: Don't just track results (deals closed, revenue generated, etc).
Instead, also track activities that drive results: Number of calls made, number of emails sent, number of Opportunities a sales rep created, and so on. The purpose of a leaderboard is not just to celebrate your top-performers, but also to acknowledge those who are putting in extra effort.
The more you can work collaboratively with internal hiring managers during the sales rep recruitment process, the more (and faster) you’ll begin to learn what makes for strong hires.
Ah, to be a leader… simply don a fancy hat, grab a microphone, display some swagger and you’re a leader, right?
Well, not quite. Thanks to our pal Jack here, we’ve all learned that you’re not a leader simply because you look and sound like one.
The act of proudly standing at the front of your ship doesn’t have any bearing on your ability to empower, motivate or manage your crew. And that’s what true leadership entails.
Managing, motivating, incentivizing and empowering your sales team.
Successfully navigating each of these activities with your team on a regular basis—helping them through the inevitable stormy weather along the way—takes a massive amount of initiative.
You can’t be afraid to experiment and shake things up a bit when the status quo isn’t producing the best possible results from your team. If your reps are underperforming or unhappy with their work, that’s on you. As a sales manager, it’s your job to be occupied with doing everything you can to make each individual member of your team successful.
The best part is, you don’t need to be a sales manager today, in order to build (and start demonstrating) your leadership abilities.
Demonstrate your leadership skills by mentoring another rep on your team that’s in need of a little support and guidance. Start a purpose-driven club and organize events that get other employees off their feet, taking action. Experiment within your own role with ideas to spearhead positive change, rather than waiting for top-down change to come your way. Launch your own side project and show you can execute on building a business.
Remember, once you do become a sales manager, your voyage won’t always go exactly according to plan (ok, that’s enough sailing metaphors). Rather, it’s in remaining humble and showing you’re human too, that will help you build rapport and maintain healthy relationships with your team.
Your job isn’t to do everything for your team, but to instead build the right team that can can excel when given useful tools, guidance and incentive. That’s what leadership is.
3. Ability to train, coach and mentor
Beyond just leading your team, it’s your job as a sales manager to effectively train your team members and continue helping them grow professionally.
Do you have personal experience developing or improving upon your current organization’s sales process? How about with coaching fellow reps through a particularly challenging deal?
Great sales managers can easily toggle between zooming in (to work in a rep’s world) and back out to see the bigger picture of how things are going more broadly on your team.
Are multiple reps experiencing the same challenges? What kinds of blockers are standing in the way to hitting quarterly targets? Grow in your ability to not only identify, but answer these kinds of questions and your value as a sales manager will be all but proven already.
Similar to building your experience as a leader, proving your ability at launching into the mental space of an individual rep and being able to help them troubleshoot the best way to negotiate around an objection, is something you can start doing today.
Look for someone on your team that’s either new to the company, going through a rough quarter, or less-experienced in sales.
Ask if they’re up for you to partner with them and start listening to their call recordings in order to provide constructive feedback and finesse their pitch, rebuild their cold outreach emails, help weigh in with advice, routines, tactics and habits that help you perform better.
It doesn’t matter how much you consistently beat quota in your current position, if you can’t make the jump up to the effectiveness of a sales manager that can also help other people to increase their sales performance.
Don’t underestimate the importance of acknowledging that you’ll need to be ok with stepping out of an active selling role, in exchange for making your primary mission helping others sell.
4. Defining, implementing (and innovating) sales plans
Like it or not, implementing processes and regularly planning are both essential to maintaining a successful business model as your sales team grows and the company scales over time.
Here’s an example. When Steli first ran his own sales team, he was admittedly a pretty lousy sales manager. He’s always been a talented salesperson himself, but when it came to translating that skill and teaching others, he often fell short. It wasn’t until finding his first sales coach that something began to change in his workflow management.
As a sales manager, Steli learned that it was more important to have everybody do a really good (consistent) job than to just have a couple of sales rockstars out blazing their own trail while everyone else falls behind and underperforms. He realized that his sales reps were failing only because they couldn’t replicate what he was personally doing—because what he did was unique to him.
Having an easy-to-follow sales plan, packed with process documentation, scripts, templates, and ongoing training ensures your team members are all on the same level, makes sure your team performs consistently (and hedges against the likelihood of some reps falling behind others).
No matter how hard you hope, wish or pray, a sales plan will never be one of those set it and forget it organizational documents. A sales plan is a living instrument that’s actively shaped in real-time as your organization grows, changes and most importantly learns.
Want to see a sales plan in action? Grab your free sales plan cheat sheet right here.
At their core, all good sales plans are comprised of three distinct sections:
- Sales forecasting and goal-setting
- Market and customer research
- Prospecting and partnerships
Each aspect of your plan naturally works itself into the next, starting with the team’s high-level goals, then taking into consideration market factors, and finally looking at who you know, and how to find more prospects to help hit your sales goals. And if things aren't on track, ask yourself what does a sales manager do when her team isn't going to hit their goals?
As a sales manager, it’ll be your job to maintain, update, enforce and create your team’s go-to-market plan. In order to better prepare yourself for becoming a sales manager, it makes sense to have experience compiling and working with a sales plan, right?
Start by grabbing your free sales plan cheat sheet right here and begin creating your own version of a plan & documentation for your current company. If your team already has a plan, take the initiative to update it yourself. Whether your organization has an active sales plan today or not, this is an invaluable activity to go through just for the experience.
5. Interpersonal and communication skills
How well do you collaborate and work with others?
As you know by now, the bulk of your job once you become a sales manager will be meeting with, talking to and actively problem-solving with the reps on your team.
Most sales manager job postings today clearly highlight just how much you’ll often have to hop on the phone, show up for presentations, dive into partnership development and otherwise be involved in the sales process with key accounts from start to finish.
Therefore, strong interpersonal and communication skills are key. Though that doesn’t mean we’re all very good at these skills.
Several studies have shown that those doing the talking (or presenting) tend to dramatically over-estimate how much recipients are actually processing and retaining what they’ve heard. Also known in academia as the curse of knowledge, it’s easy to develop a cognitive bias once you’ve developed a particular skill, trait, experience or characteristic, causing you to unknowingly assume that others have the background to understand what you’re trying to communicate with them.
Often, the more skilled you are as a salesperson, the more difficult it can be to put yourself back in the beginner’s mindset—making it more difficult to effectively communicate with reps who aren’t quite on your level yet.
If this kind of communication isn’t a strong suit of yours, fear not. You can start flexing that muscle today by purposefully going out of your way to over-communicate (within reason) with your fellow co-workers.
When mentoring a rep that’s going through some challenges, make it a point not to assume they have the same base of knowledge and experience you have. Start further back than you normally would, verbally express what’s going on inside of your head, explain the logic and reasoning behind the troubleshooting steps you take.
6. Organizational skills
Once you become a sales manager, there will be a lot of demands on your time throughout the day. That means you can’t always fly by the seat of your pants, accepting every meeting request that comes your way, right there on the spot.
While your role (and daily activities) have completely changed as a sales manager, it’s also easy to default to going about your day with the same routine as when you were still an individual contributor.
By taking a step back at the beginning of each week to thoughtfully plan out your schedule, account for enough time to interact with your team members, and block out the space you need to work on other key activities like forecasting, planning, experimenting and training, you’ll get a major jumpstart on being organized for the week ahead.
Start thinking carefully about how you’ll have to prioritize tasks as a sales manager.
If your reps aren’t organized and staying on-task, you can’t expect them to always perform at peak capacity and hit their numbers (sales management tools like Close can help with that). If you’re not organized, can you really expect your reps to be?
Part of being an effective sales manager—and leader—is showcasing your values and clearly articulating your priorities to your team members. Share exactly what’s expected of them, how you’ll be measuring their performance, and rewarding them.
Equally important is establishing how you want your team to work. Don’t assume everything will just fall into place and you’ll magically hit your targets. Going back to communication here—take the time to explain in detail how you want your team to work. Set the right expectations and enforce your sales process.
Becoming more organized at work starts with your physical space. Keep your desk area uncluttered, have everything you need within reach, maintain control of your email inbox, start your day with a list of your top priorities, and try to avoid the mania of multitasking.
7. Forecasting sales results (within a reasonable margin of error)
Being transparent about the direction your team needs to go in over the coming quarter, and specific about what needs to be achieved on an individual basis are two very important expectations to communicate as a sales manager.
Showing your higher ups that your team can reliably perform based on those expectations and predictably hit goals is equally as important to your success as a sales manager.
While there are a lot of different sales forecasting strategies you can adhere to depending upon your type of business model, industry, length of sales cycle, and otherwise, here are a few of the most common:
- Lead-driven forecasting: The lead-driven method relies on understanding the relationship your leads have with your company, and what they’re likely to do based on that relationship. Here, you’re analyzing each lead source and assigning a value to that source based on what similar leads have done in the past.
- Opportunity stage forecasting: This method takes your sales pipeline, chops it up, and assigns a percentage value to each one based on how likely a lead is to close. So, a new prospect might have a 10% potential close rate, whereas someone who has gone through a product demo might be at 80%.
- Multivariable forecasting: This method takes the best aspects of most forecasting methods, and puts them together into one complex, analytics-driven system. Let’s say you’ve got two reps hustling similar accounts. The first one is working a $10,000 deal and has just finished a successful product demo. Based on your rep’s individual win rate for this stage of the deal, your multivariable analysis says he’s 40% likely to close the deal this quarter, giving you a sales forecast of $4,000. Your second rep is selling a smaller, $2,000 deal and is earlier in the process, yet their win rate is through the roof, also giving them a 40% chance of closing the deal this quarter and a forecast of $800. Your total sales forecast at this point for the quarter would be $4,800.
Even if you’re not great at forecasting sales today, there’s still hope for you yet.
Hands down, the best way to get better at forecasting your own monthly and quarterly results is to dig deep into the numbers—take a look at results from previous periods, calculate win rates, develop and refine your own multivariable forecasting model to see how accurate it can become at predicting your own results.
Over time, you’ll improve and can continue refining your model by testing it out with other members on your team, presenting it to management, and getting feedback.
Do you have what it takes to become a sales manager?
Building the right skills and base of experience are one side of the equation, but so much of landing any job—especially a sales manager job—relies upon your ability to position yourself as the perfect candidate.
As Professor Emeritus Andris A. Zoltners explained in a 2019 article, even sales managers need more training to develop the skills required to lead sales teams effectively.
Now when you’re making the leap from sales rep to sales manager, you probably don’t have the ability to talk about your experience managing a sales team (unless you’ve taken on interim management roles in the past). So, what’s the next best thing?
While you’re not yet a sales manager in title, you can still show you’re performing many of those activities at work.
Remember all of the sales manager skills we just talked about here? You can start sharpening them and putting each of them into practice, even in subtle ways, at your job today.
Is a fellow rep on your team falling behind? Go out of your way to mentor them and show that your coaching, training and guidance can have a direct impact on their numbers.
Is your company’s go-to-market plan due for a refresh? Show your initiative by taking a pass at updating some of your process documents based on the situation on the ground today.
Build a forecasting model to start predicting your teams results out into the future. Refer high-quality candidates for new sales roles into your hiring managers. Get more organized. Keep improving with communication.
What's more, you want the right sales management software to help you accomplish all this! In an ideal world, the tool you use to manage your sales team is the same tool your sales team uses to sell. Things are going to be complex enough soon, and the last thing you want is to have to deal with an inefficient patchwork of apps that you need to integrate and switch between to stay on top of your workload.
Most importantly, it’s crucial to document all of the change you’re creating. Keep track of all the different ways you’re practically a sales manager already, and you’ll build a compelling case for why you deserve a promotion—or the leveled up title at a different company.
Bonus: Preparing for a sales manager interview (common sales manager interview questions).
Once you’re ready to start interviewing for sales manager roles, start by outlining answers to these common sales manager interview questions, and be sure to come to the table with ample case studies to back yourself up:
- How many employees have you been responsible for managing at previous roles?
- Why do you want to be a sales manager here?
- Pretend I'm a sales rep who has missed quota three months in a row. What would you say? How do you typically deal with under-performers?
- What do you do when a top salesperson is bored and wants more responsibility?
- What do you feel motivates sales reps the most? What made you successful as a sales rep?
- How will your processes inform how you manage your team?
- How important is money to you?
- How often should you meet individually with your sales reps? What do you think makes for a successful rep coaching session?
- What do you like and dislike about our sales process?
- What training method is most effective for new reps?
- How would you explain what [company name] does to a person unfamiliar with what we do?
Don’t forget, this is still a sales-related role. After each sales manager interview, follow up and continue providing value until you get a definitive answer either way.
At the end of the day, making the jump from sales rep to sales manager doesn’t need to be an insurmountable challenge.
Start by identifying the right opportunities where you can put your domain expertise to work, showcase your (proven) ability to be an effective leader and team builder.
And most importantly, prove beyond doubt that you’re a proactive problem-solver who’s going to take initiative and make sure your future team is empowered to outperform.
The next step to becoming a sales manager? Download our ready-made set of resources to manage a sales team effectively: