Make or Break: The Front-Line Sales Manager as Critical Success Driver for Sales Enablement

01 Aug

Make or Break: The Front-Line Sales Manager as Critical Success Driver for Sales Enablement

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By Thomas Barrieau
Director, Sales Enablement Practice
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My last two posts discussed key opportunities for driving sales enablement adoption: the sales onboarding process and sales kickoffs. In each of these, I highlighted the importance of front-line sales manager (FLSM) engagement for these opportunities to be fully realized. In both cases, FLSMs are essential for transforming the training (classroom and other) and introduction of new knowledge into the desired behavior change we’re seeking (how reps engage with buyers). In this post, I’d like to drive this home by describing an accidental A/B test (a.k.a., split test) that provided unambiguous support for this concept.

After having completed two successful consulting engagements with a large national media company, we were asked to help them develop a sales operations function for their 7,000-person divisional (one of five) sales organization. Yes, there was actually a sales organization that large that did not yet have a sales ops group. To assess how a sales operations department could best be structured to meet the division’s needs, and how what the headcount would need to be for various functions within the organization, we conducted over 100 in-depth interviews with senior sales leaders, middle managers, front-line sales managers, customer-facing sales personnel, and sales administrators.

During these interviews, the price the organization was paying for not having a dedicated sales operations function became apparent: there was a tremendous amount of “administrivia” that needed to be managed at a ground level. This administrative work was either done by customer-facing salespeople, detracting from their time spent on selling, or by the FLSMs, who shouldered the burden to free up their salespeople’s time for selling. From previous work with this client, we knew that FLSM coaching was very important. Many members of the sales team were in their first position as salespeople and needed the experience FLSMs could offer to translate what they learned during onboarding into the practical reality of dealing with the many different selling scenarios they would encounter.

To explore the impact this administrative workload was having on FLSMs, we did a time allocation study. We asked each FLSM to indicate how much time they spent in a typical week on each of the following activities:

  • Coaching
  • Non-coaching one-on-ones
  • Sales team meetings
  • Training
  • Management meetings
  • Interviewing and hiring staff
  • Territory/schedule management
  • Human resource administration
  • Incentive administration
  • Customer/order escalations
  • Revenue/commission corrections

To assess the impact each of these activities had on sales team performance, we also gathered historical sales performance data for each team.

Two clear patterns emerged…

  • Wanting to take the burden of administrative activities off their reps’ backs, many managers were spending a great deal of time (nearly a third) on administrative work.
  • The biggest single predictor of sales team success (as measured by quota attainment) was the amount of time each FLSM spent on coaching. It was a strikingly linear relationship—the more time spent on coaching, the better the team did.

Around this time, our main point of contact within the company, the divisional head of sales and marketing, threw us a curveball. He informed us that our recommendations for the formation of a dedicated sales operations function needed to be headcount neutral. Meaning, for every person we wanted to add to the sales operations group, we would need to remove—either by reassignment or attrition—one from the quota-carrying sales organization.

Facing this constraint, we revisited the data and were able to conclude that each additional two hours of coaching time per week translated into a 25% improvement in sales team performance. With this as a basis for improving division-wide sales productivity, we advised phasing out 2.6% of their underperforming reps and reallocate that headcount to sales ops. We also recommended specific measures to unburden FLSMs from administrative tasks and additional training on effective sales coaching. Our recommendations were warmly received and implemented by the divisional Sales and Marketing VP.

Two quarters after our recommended changes were implemented, a reorganization took place, reducing the number of sales divisions from five to three. As a result, half the regions in the new division had a dedicated sales operations group while the other half did not. Shortly thereafter, a major (i.e., expensive), company-wide sales training initiative took place that had decidedly mixed results. When the VP investigated why some regions were not seeing the results that others were, he discovered that all the underperforming regions were those that did not have a sales ops function. Those that did were seeing great results. Further investigation revealed the critical success driver for sales training was the availability of FLSMs to extend the learning process by incorporating what was taught into their coaching activities. The FLSMs in regions without sales ops were not able to provide this reinforcement and the training did not stick.

It was a gratifying and validating discovery—rarely in the consulting business do you get this kind of A/B testing to gauge the impact of your recommendations. I’ve long maintained that front-line sales managers are the critical inflection point at which corporate selling strategy becomes customer-facing reality. This is the level at which all the work on building good sales and sales enablement strategies comes to fruition—or not—depending on how well FLSMs are empowered (i.e., recognized as the important players they are) and enabled (given the time and resources needed to do their jobs well). The value of effective sales enablement is now largely taken for granted. What’s critical is understanding the specific implementation strategies that allow us to do it well. As this story illustrates, FLSM engagement should be a critical component of any company’s sales enablement strategy.

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