4 Sales Leadership Qualities You Need to Have in Your Armory

8 min read

Of all the different professions out there sales is probably the most difficult when making the transition from a front-line role into management.

That’s because the skills required to be a successful sales rep (egotistical, overly competitive and perhaps a little selfish) often don’t translate well to management.

Does that mean sales reps don’t make great sales leaders?

Of course it doesn’t – you are going to find it difficult to earn respect from the rest of the team if you haven’t “been there” and “done it” yourself.

But it does mean that sales leadership qualities will probably (not all successful sales reps are egotistical copies of Jordan Belfort…) have to be learned, rather than developed.

Before we get into exactly what these sales leadership qualities are, I want to first make it clear exactly what it means to be a sales leader

What is a sales leader?

There is fine but subtle difference, I believe, that needs to be made between sales leadership skills and sales management skills.

Let me explain why…

When I made my way through the ranks into sales management I read a whole host of books, podcasts and recommended leadership seminars to prepare me for my new position.

However, despite all the helpful material on how to do a sales forecast, sales pipeline management best practices and understanding the importance of sales reports none of it seemed to delve into the actual sales leadership qualities that stood out amongst the successful managers I’d worked under in the past.

Things such as:

  • Different leadership styles in sales management
  • Managing conflicts or disagreements
  • How to deliver feedback
  • How to be an active listener
  • Building a positive team energy

That’s why for me, being a successful sales manager (or sales leader) is about finding the perfect balance between both management skills and sales leadership skills.

Sales Leadership Qualities #1 Leadership Style

The first thing to understand when stepping into your new role is that there are many different leadership styles in sales management.

Obviously you can try to imitate the behaviors of sales leaders you respect or have worked under in the past but in order to be truly successful you are going to have stamp your own personal style of leadership on your team.

This is because salespeople respect authenticity.  

They want to follow somebody who is unique, with a clear set of values that are practiced (not only preached) across the entire team.

Somebody who leads not just with the heart, but with the head too.

Somebody, as Bill George states in his HBR study Discovering Your Authentic Leadership that understands who they are.

How to become an authentic sales leader?

Now it might be of some comfort to learn that while sales leadership skills may come more naturally to some, than others, you do not have to be innately born with them to be a successful sales leader.

What you do need to do is commit to understanding yourself.

To do that try asking yourself some of the following questions:

  1. Who had the greatest impact on your early life and why? Was there a particular experience you went through?
  2. If you had to choose 5 characteristics to define yourself, what would they be?
  3. What moral values are most important to you? Do you live by them on a daily basis? Has there ever been a situation where commiting to these values put you under severe stress?
  4. What are your intrinsic and extrinsic motivations?
  5. Do you have a strong support team to lean on?

Once you have written down a few answers to the questions above, mull them over and think about how you can apply these personal experiences into your own sale leadership style.

For example, you may have experienced a random act of kindness from a complete stranger as a child. The impact of this experience, in turn, changed your outlook on how to treat people regardless of whether you know them or not.

How do you translate this into a leadership style?

By creating an environment where your sales team feels comfortable in approaching your for advice, feedback or support with their work.

Of course this is just one example of how to learn from personal experiences when developing your own brand of authentic sales leadership. Your experiences, values and motivations will be unique to you, meaning only you can find the context with which they make an impact on your team.

Sales Leadership Qualities #2 Feedback

One of the fundamental skills of any sales leader is to provide feedback (both good and bad).

Not only does it help managers coach their sales reps and increase sales productivity, but it’s also an opportunity for individual development and potential career advancement.

Why then do sales leaders struggle when it comes to giving feedback?

Some of the most common complaints from sales reps are:

  • Sales managers are too vague with their feedback.
  • Negative feedback exceeds positive reinforcement.
  • Feedback involves psychoanalysis (you are behaving like this because of your personal situation, divorce etc.)
  • Managers use inappropriate humor when giving feedback.
  • Managers tend to drone on too long when giving feedback.

How to give feedback to sales reps?

As you would put in the the same pain-staking time and detail in analyzing your weekly sales report, so you should when giving feedback.

Effective feedback is about communicating a specific message, clearly, to your salespeople based on performance-based data. They should be able to walk away from your meeting with a clear idea of what it is they did right (or wrong) and the impact it had on their performance.

If you can nail this specificity with your feedback you’ll find salespeople are a lot more susceptible and even motivated to adjust their behavior.

However, being specific isn’t going be enough on its own – you will also have to work on the message’s delivery.

Approach a sales rep too aggressively or when their body language is telling you “now is really not a good time,” the meeting’s only heading in one direction…

So with that in mind, when you do get some face-to-face time with your salespeople try to create a sense of openness over the idea of giving feedback.

One way to do this is to ask for their permission before providing feedback.

For example, let’s look at a possible scenario between yourself and one of your field sales team.

You have both just returned to the office after attending a sales visit together. Your sales rep (Estefania) delivered a new product pitch to an existing client. During her pitch she paused, shifting nervously at key moments when probed about the specific advantages of the new product and how it differentiates between previous versions. Not only that, but she spoke over the client when questioned and promised capabilities of the new product that it’s not certain to deliver on.

Consequently, from the client’s point of view Estefania came across as hesitant, unsure and even discourteous in the manner in which she responded to their questions.

So, how do you deal with this particular scenario?

Remember, you have to be specific with your feedback: discuss the exact body language, tone of voice and choice of words she used yet disarm her natural self-defense response to criticism.

Estefania, if you don’t mind I’d like to make an observation regarding the sales presentation you just gave to the team at Marmite (permission). When asked about the specific advantages of our new product you rocked nervously from left to right and one instance, flirted with the truth about the product’s capabilities when being rolled out on scale (specificity). You also talked over the client when challenged on this particular issue making it seem as if you did not have a thorough understanding of the product’s capabilities.”

As I talk about this I’m aware of how uncomfortable it is (acknowledge uneasiness) however this is an area that needs addressing.”  

Giving “negative” feedback is never an easy thing to do, but by making sure you:

  • First ask permission
  • Are specific with your points
  • Acknowledge the uneasiness of the situation

You can defuse a potentially explosive situation and offer receptive, actionable feedback that will positively affect your salespeople’s performance.

sales leadership qualities and giving effective feedback

Sales Leadership Qualities #3 Building Team Spirit

It’s very difficult to manage a sales team when morale is low. If sales reps are unhappy about the environment and conditions they are working under their performance inevitably suffers as a result.

Before we can look at improving team morale we must first understand what causes it.

According to a study conducted by the University of Illinois the single most influential factor in determining a team’s morale is their leader’s vision and decision-making skills.

In other words, the biggest factor is you.

The good news is that means it’s completely within your power to affect positive change within your team.

How to boost team morale?

The first thing to understand is that every situation is unique. Therefore directors, managers and team leaders must discover who the unhappy sales reps are, uncover the problem and formulate a strategy to improve their morale.

Now because there are endless possibilities as to why your team is unhappy (lack of communication, distrust in management, no guidance, contract dispute etc.) I am going to focus on a couple of key areas.

Setting Goals

One of primary causes for low morale in a team is simply a lack of direction. Many field reps feel they are given arbitrary monthly or quarterly targets that the sales manager produced on a whim.

They are so far-fetched from the actual revenue figures generated in the field that the team has an impossible task on their hands in achieving them.

Therefore, to combat this make sure you set goals for sales reps that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-based

SMART goals are a win-win for the entire organization.

The individual reps like them as 1). They are attainable and 2). Measured against their daily tasks and sales activity. This means they have control over the attainability of their goals and a sense of empowerment in achieving them.

And for managers and directors these goals are relevant; directly attributed to specific  business objectives set by the board.

Deal with problems head on

If there is a festering issue between yourself and a salesperson (or between two reps on your team) then you would do well to deal with it as soon as possible.

The longer you leave it the more people talk, the more rumors spread and the more discontent is sowed among the team.

Depending on the issue you might want to deal with this privately or, if you think it’s something that is affecting the entire team it may be beneficial just to get it out in the open. Maybe through the organization of a meeting where everybody is able to sit down and throw in their two cents.

It will all depend on the particular situation of course, and you will have to make that judgement yourself as the sales manager.

Invest in sales training

Another area you could look to build morale is by providing sales training.

Many sales reps end up leaving their previous organizations due to a lack of education opportunities and career advancement. Those that stay tend to be less motivated or driven to achieve their objectives.

It is therefore important you work closely with your team and understand their career goals, and provide the resources and selling skills training they need in order to obtain them.

Not only will this help boost morale and performance, but also show you are invested in their professional development.

When team morale is high there is a direct, positive correlation between loyalty and cooperation among salespeople with tangible economic benefits for your company.

Sales Leadership Qualities #4 Active Listening

There is a difference between “hearing” and “listening”.

Hearing is a passive action; an on-boarding of words without any real effort to discern what they mean.

True listening requires concentration and focus; going beyond audio cues and processing body language, verbal communication and non-verbal communication to better understand what a person is really trying to say.

This is why the best sales leaders are generally great listeners too. They are able to adjust the tone of their message to suit the audience they are speaking to. If it’s a more aggressive profile they understand the need to take a more passive, neutral stance.

On the contrary, when communicating with a more passive profile they change to a more forceful stance.

For example, imagine a member of the sales team grabs you after a meeting and requests a change in territory.

This happens to be the top performer on your team who, as a result, just received a substantial financial bonus for their efforts.

Assuming they are merely looking to take advantage of the situation and seeing as you have to rush off to another meeting with the board, you inform the sales rep you’ll get back to them to about it.

Your forget, and 2 months down the line your best sales rep leaves the company…

So, what should you have done differently here?

The first mistake was to assume the sales rep was trying to take advantage of you and their current situation (coming off the back of a successful quarter).

However, if you took the time to actively listen to the sales rep they would explain why, for personal reasons a move to a different sales territory was absolutely necessary in order to continue working for your company.  

Assumption, as they say, really is the mother of all f*** ups!

Good listening skills also enables sales leaders to on-board different ideas and perspectives in tackling different problems. This helps them discover creative, more effective solutions that would have otherwise been impossible to uncover.

Overall, being an effective sales leader is about motivating and getting the most out of your team. Now although leadership might come more naturally to some than others, by working on and improving these 4 sales leadership qualities any manager can turn sales leader no matter their background.