Selling Managers: A Bad Idea
BY TOM REILLY
“We like our sales managers to be close to customers.”
“It’s more cost-effective to have a part-time sales manager.”
“Our salespeople are so professional they do not require a
These are a few of the explanations for not having a full-time sales manager. Because small compa- nies have limited resources, multitasking is a daily
reality. In some cases, the owner is the sales manager. In
other cases, the sales manager has account responsibility,
thus becoming a selling manager. This sounds like a viable
solution, but it’s not.
There are several problems with selling managers. It is
similar to player-coaches in professional sports. The NBA,
MLB, NFL, and the NHL abandoned this concept decades
ago because they realized that coaching and playing each
demand full-time focus.
One problem with selling managers is the motivational
impact on a sales force. Typically, the selling manager
maintains relationships with key accounts for the company. What message does this send to the salespeople?
It says that the company only trusts managers with
important customer relationships. In one distributorship,
the owner kept for himself their largest customer. The
salespeople responded predictably. They viewed it as an
equity issue. They felt that the owner did not want to
share the wealth with them. Now, they had two problems
— a lack of trust and perceived inequity. Both devastate
A second problem is a matter of priorities. I asked the
above sales manager what happened when his customers wanted attention and it conflicted with coaching his
salespeople. He said, “I have to take care of the customer.
The customer always comes first.” His salespeople got
whatever time was left over after he served customers
and handled administrative duties. This violates the first
rule of Coaching 101: If people report to you, your first
job is to coach your people.
The average span of control for sales managers is seven
to eight direct reports. Spending one day per month in
the field with each salesperson means that the manager
has little time to sell and service customers. One selling
manager confided in me that someone always suffers —
either the salesperson or the customer.
A third problem is the opportunity cost of manag-
ing and selling. It is not cost-effective for a manager to
split his or her time between selling and coaching. Dave
Cowens, the last player-coach in the NBA, said, “It was a
bad idea then, and it’s a bad idea now.” When Joe Torre
reflected on his coaching-playing days, he said, “It can’t
be done nowadays. I know because I tried to do it in
1977, and even 36 years ago, I couldn’t find the time to
take batting practice.” The outcome is a distracted player
and a mediocre coach. Each role is neglected. That is not
a winning formula.
For companies with few salespeople, it makes sense
to consolidate and realign managerial responsibilities so
that a full-time manager is coaching salespeople along
with other reports. Professional managers understand the
dynamics of effective coaching.
For companies that want managers to remain close to
the market, they can make joint calls with salespeople.
Managers cannot coach from the locker room. Coaches
must be on the field and in the field with their players
For companies that worry that their salespeople
cannot handle key customer relationships, they must train
their salespeople. This involves classroom time as well
as one-on-one time with the coach. Salespeople will not
develop fully by sitting on the sidelines and watching
For some managers, it feels good to be important to
customers. Feeling needed is a powerful motivator. It may
be great for the ego but terrible for employee development. Leaders prepare the next generation of leaders. A
secure manager accepts that his or her primary responsibility is to develop a replacement. Sales managers can
satisfy this need-to-be-needed by developing their salespeople. They need coaches as much as customers need
Focus is a key success dynamic. Success requires a full
commitment of one’s time and energy in areas that yield
the desired results. Salespeople focus on customers.
Managers focus on subordinates. Attempting to do both
deprives salespeople and managers of achieving their full
Tom Reilly is literally the guy who wrote the book on
Value-Added Selling. You may visit him online at www.