Challenges of the Front-Line Sales Manager in COVID-19

Every Friday at 1:00pm ET SalesGlobe’s Rethink Sales Round Table takes a fresh look at the future of sales in a rapidly changing world. Each week, we offer indispensable thought leadership on subjects ranging from compensation planning to quota setting, from the evolution of sales technology to the unique challenges of a front line sales manager in the age of COVID-19.

We recently hosted Erik Charles, Vice President, Solutions Evangelism at Xactly. Erik is quick witted, well educated, and infinitely inquisitive about subjects ranging from sales effectiveness to psychology.

One of the most interesting subjects we touched on was how the role of the front-line sales manager has changed during the pandemic. Here are four recommendations for helping these managers navigate during COVID-19 by developing skills that no one was even thinking about eight months ago.

1. Informalize the formal

“Doesn’t a zoom call always feel like a formal meeting?” Erik asked. People prepare; they practice what they are going to say. Those aren’t bad things, but they are not the same as everyday offline interactions. He knows of one company where everyone logs into Zoom at the start of the day and keeps it on until the end of the day. That way, their online interactions feel more natural and less forced. That might not be a good idea at every organization, but everyone should give some thought to how they can make formal interactions feel less formal and enable informal coaching, counseling, and mentoring more like it happened in person before the lockdown. “We’ve lost the hallway conversation of ‘hey do you have a second, I have quick question for you,’” Erik noted. Creating some informality can help sales managers get back to something closer to those hallway conversations. New reps need ways to ask for help. That can be a challenge when so many are working remotely. Front line managers must find new ways to provide it. If they don’t, then new reps won’t make connections; they won’t feel like they’re part of a team. Sales leadership should brainstorm ways to make that happen under current circumstances. “I’ll do a quick Zoom. I’ll grab someone who knows the project and introduce them,” said Erik. “Internal networking used to just happen. Now it has to be constructed, built, crafted, and curated so people can get those alliances going.”

2. Promote the right people to sales management and empower them to do their jobs

Even before COVID-19, we promoted the wrong people to sales management, said Erik. “Don’t promote the number one sales rep. The best manager is the rep who sold the company’s entire portfolio.” Someone who is “above the median and knows how to sell everything can do better than promoting the number one sales rep.” CSOs don’t have time to focus on all the reps, he said. That’s where the front line manager comes in. Today, however, the way they focus is likely different—and they may need some additional training or skills to do it effectively. Sales managers need to have daily conversations with reps. Are they having them now?  If not, why not, and how can you ensure that they start up again? This doesn’t pertain only to sales managers. How you recruit, onboard, and train new reps is likely to have changed over the past seven months. Do the decision makers have the tools to hire and promote the right people?

Are your company’s front line sales managers empowered to split up their schedule so they can be on a Zoom call at noon, then have lunch with their kids, and then spend a couple hours working on account plans? The line between work and non-work has gotten blurred this year. Burnout should be a concern. Managers and sales reps need to pace themselves. Some who may feel less productive than usual should learn not to be so hard on themselves. People go into sales because they like to be measured, and because they want to exceed measurement, said Erik. Do your company’s frontline sales managers have the tools and skills they need to measure performance in the new normal? Ask them. If they don’t, then ask them what they need—and be sure they get it. What they measure might not change, but how they measure it probably will. And most important, sales reps will feel better about themselves and their work if they know they’re being measured and coached. They may feel like they’re being inefficient when in fact they are not. Measurement, as always, is key. Reps and managers alike need to know the activities necessary for the company and the account plan to succeed. What are the measures? Customer contact? Length of sales cycle? And front line sales managers, Erik said, need to know how to use data effectively. It’s especially important now that they aren’t walking the halls, sitting in the bullpen, and riding along with reps.

3. Write a new playbook, change your settings, get your ducks in a row

What does a pipeline review meeting look like today, now that everything has changed?

Coaching and selling are different, said Erik. “We need a new playbook.” It used to be that the whole team was together, and the coach could see everything. “But now we’re working out by ourselves….the coach isn’t there. So what does the new sales playbook look like?”

Erik suggested that sales managers change their settings. “For my standard meeting,” he said, “I don’t need more than fifteen minutes most of the time. We need to review an issue, get it done and give people their time back.”

On Erik’s calendar he has “DIR” blocked from 3:00 to 5:00 every weekday. Ducks In a Row. “I have ten hours a week­—more than a full workday blocked—to get my ducks in a row” for the next day. “It used to be driving and flying time were good for DIR,” he noted. “Now you have to make time for it.”

Look around at all that has changed. Front line managers must take stock and adapt accordingly. “Who has adjusted their plans?” Erik asked. “You can’t ask clients for their home address so you can send them swag” he said, pointing out one small example. “The personal side of selling is so hampered right now” if you don’t have a relationship with your customers. The personal relationship is hard to develop these days. There’s no more taking partners or clients out to dinner; think of all the corporate suites at sports stadiums that aren’t being used. “How do you replace that personal interaction?” he asked. It’s a good question with no easy answer. In fact, the answers may differ based on your company, what it sells, and to whom. How to best manage such changes is a creative problem solving exercise for sales leadership.

4. Get creative

Erik has a friend who teaches theater and directs plays at a college. Occasionally he recruits this friend to sit in on a Zoom meeting and offer feedback on body language, speech, diction, pacing, and other aspects of communication. Not every sales rep who is good with people is also good with online communications. And not every front line sales manager knows how to coach on Zoom. So, consider inviting in an outsider with expertise in communication—a theater artist, a courtroom attorney, or a storyteller who can deliver a solid critique on the managers’ and the sales reps’ performance.

Not your daddy’s sales management

As we all know, selling in 2020 is unlike selling in any prior year. Your offices may be closed or functioning at one-quarter capacity. The sales role has changed for many reps. Some who used to work in the field find they like working from home, while others feel like they’re about to bust out of their bunny slippers. Some have adjusted well to Zoom meetings, online presentations, and lunch with their school-age children. Others are ok with the change, but they might not present as well online as they do in person; or they may find that it’s tougher to manage their time when they’re working from home.

Erik brought up a critical question about the front line sales managers who are tasked with motivating and guiding those reps: Who did you promote into that position and do they have the personality today to do it? “The sales manager is not sitting next to the sales reps in the bullpen if it’s inside sales,” said Erik. “They are not flying out to see them if it’s field sales.” Let’s face it: working from home is not what most front line managers signed up for, and they might not possess the skills that the job requires today. Chatting with reps over Slack or Zoom is not the same as a daily sit-down. There is a lot of nuance that now seems to be gone from the role. With so many working remotely, it might not be possible to ask an inside sales rep to swing by your office for an informal chat. Similarly, it’s tougher today to glance over at a rep and think, “Hm, what’s going on? Jim doesn’t look like he’s on his game today.”

No one is saying that companies should replace their front line sales managers with new hires who have demonstrated the ability to coach over Zoom. But Erik did have a number of practical, creative ideas to help front line managers overcome some of the obstacles that COVID-19 has put in their way.

In case you missed our Round Table with Erik Charles, here’s the replay. Be sure to join us every Friday for insights and ideas from some of the world’s savviest business leaders.

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This was originally posted on LinkedIn Pulse