Do you have what it takes to be an effective sales leader?

“The last few years have been the toughest ever?”

Decision-making processes are ever more centralised and “elongated” in a recession; while in terms of career progression, there are fewer senior sales positions.

Organizations with an eye on their overheads are merging the sales and marketing function, or meshing UK sales with European sales; or eliminating roles entirely, getting sales to report directly to the MD.

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If you’re aspiring to a sales leadership position, these are the attributes and skills that you’ll need – in addition to an impeccable track record.

We are taking a case study here of a real organization and its owner for better understanding.

Customer focus

Mike Kelly, owner of SkillsMAX, a boutique sales training business, points out that in a tough sales environment, you need to tailor a strong value proposition to the specific needs of the customer. However, many fail to do that, far less identify the customer’s “pain points” (which vary depending on the customer’s seniority within the organisation) and to refine their value propositions accordingly.

Thorough research is fundamental to draw up targeted and appealing sales messages. The Miller Heiman best practices study reveals that fewer than 40% of organisations understand the customer’s issues and business goals.

Steve Jessop says that even at the most senior levels, many sales people shy away from asking the right questions, and lack the credibility which comes from understanding the customer’s business and competitors’ offerings. Without this knowledge, it’s therefore much harder to be able to “dissect” what it is that you can do for your customer.

Strategy and direction

Changes in the B2B buying environment (such as an increasing use of requests for proposals) mean that sales leaders need to identify and prioritise prospects, advises Mike. Establish clear criteria around which requests to “run after”, and which to “walk after” – the latter being opportunities to get your foot in the door. Successful sales also hinges on getting to the right person within the organisation, notes Steve.


The one aspect that people in sales generally need to improve is in how they manage the customer relationship. Success comes from exploring issues with customers (and often taking a provocative point of view) rather than through a sales pitch. It’s crucial to manage the pressure from your own organisation to deliver quota and instead to “get the intention right, rather than the technique,” to be in the role of a “trusted advisor” rather than a supplier.

An agenda-less meeting allows you to ask the interesting questions and to probe issues that perhaps the customer hasn’t yet considered. Pitching too early is the biggest mistake in sales, adds Steve. It’s the “human skills”: quantifying the extent of the customer’s problem and then identifying where you can help, that creates strong relationships.

Sales leaders need to engage the rest of the organisation too, says Martin Knowles.

Cross-functional capability is necessary to get support for your budget at boardroom level, or timely involvement from other functions of the business such as production or marketing; and this is especially important when customers expect speedy response times. In sales you’re stretched a long way, he says, and sales leaders need to span strategic to tactical, with both an internal and external perspective.

Your network is one of your greatest assets, and can help you generate new business. In an environment where decision-making is more centralised, getting this access to the top level is even more important – particularly if you’re selling an intangible rather than a more established product or service.

Team management

Great sales leaders have the capacity to work out what motivates individual team members, enabling each to perform to their best. Developing your team is important to ensure today’s results and future results: the essence of a manager’s role, explains Stevep. As sales people are judged on results, at leadership levels it’s vital to be credible to your team by being “demonstrably competent” at selling.

Personal attributes for team leadership are never about your ego, but rather your ability to consistently manage the key aspects of sales activity to produce the desired result through your team. Making things happen through people is a tough skill to master – and not everyone possesses it.

An eye for data

“What you measure is what you get” – Mike Kelly.

Many businesses only know what has been achieved after they have achieved it. Just as important is to devise benchmarks as predictors of success. Be clear on what great sales performance looks like, codifying specific activities to measure.

Martin Knowles points out that sales people increasingly need to be data-literate to gain insights from the sources available, and then to apply these to customer relationships. Sales roles are becoming more analytical, especially in the retail sector.

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