Frontline Sales Managers – Key Role, But Poorly Developed And Enabled

Look at any world-class sports team. Is there any public debate if the chief financial officer has been replaced? Not so much.

But there are big public discussions if there are any decisions around the team’s coach to be made. In business, it’s different.

Frontline sales managers are a sales team’s coaches and salespeople’s most important ally to leverage their own potential. FSMs are the key role to build world-class sales teams. When do we take time to discuss their role and their impact and – most important – how do we evolve this role to world-class performance?

Frontline sales managers – the key role to develop world-class sales teams

FSMs have a greater impact on sales execution, sales productivity and sales transformation than any other role. What makes the FSM role so demanding is the continuous challenge to balance between three often competing areas – customer, business and people, represented as the FSM triangle. Having been the best salesperson does not qualify an individual to be a stand-up top frontline sales manager. Poorly developed frontline sales managers drive top performers out of the organization and promote mediocre performance from those who remain. This is an untenable situation for any sales leader with ambitious performance goals. World-Class Sales Organizations understand  that  it’s  not  about  adding  costs  to  the  bottom  line, but adding growth and effectiveness to the top line. They understand that the cost of doing nothing is much bigger.

Reality looks different – what we learned

At the MHI Research Institute, we run Executive Forums for sales leaders two times a year in different cities around the world. These forums are focused on the latest research and on one topic that has been prioritized by our customers. “Frontline sales managers” (FSMs) was the most prioritized topic for our forums in October and November.

FSM’s role and scope:
While people agree with the huge relevance and the big leverage effect of FSMs, there is not much clarity on the role itself, its scope and the challenges associated with it. This was clear from our Forum discussions on the FSM’s triangle and the most important FSM activities, ranked by our clients. Mapping the FSM activities our clients had prioritized to the three elements of the FSM triangle (customer, business and people) was an eye-opening experience. This visualization helped people to understand how broad and how complex the FSM’s scope actually is. Imagine “managing customer escalation during buying phase” – this activity will impact all three elements, customer (how to get the customer relationship back on track), business (what does the escalation mean in terms of business impact) and people (how to better coach salespeople).

Rear view mirror versus wind screen perspective:
The FSM mantra “manage activities, coach behaviors” initiated a discussion on what is it really a FSM can control in his/her role. It turned out, that there is still way too much focus on asking for and measuring sales results, instead of coaching the quality of activities and behaviors to make sure that the results will be achieved. Our clients’ feedback showed that this situation is always combined with poor coaching, and too less focus on how to get to these results – managing the right activities and coaching the behaviors. One of the root causes we learned is a focus on the wrong performance indicators to look at, too many lagging indicators, and not enough leading indicators that help to adjust activities and coaching early along the way. This issue is closely connected to the previous issue, the lack of clarity on role and scope.

Current state on FSM development programs:
The discussion created a lot of clarity around the current state of FSM development programs. Those who indicated they have a FSM development in place also indicated that these existing programs were either HR driven general management programs, or specific programs that focus on one element of the FSM triangle only – on business management aspects or on coaching. If those programs are isolated from the sales system (e.g., a general business management program) or from the sales enablement approach (general coaching programs), they are costly investments with little to no outcome. The challenge here is to design integrated FSM development programs that connect the dots across these elements and that are based on the FSM triangle.

We will continue and focus our FSM research on the here addressed challenges.

Related blog posts:

What Triangles Have To Do With Frontline Sales Managers

Frontline Sales Manager’s Mantra: Managing Activities and Coaching Behaviors

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