People Management in Sales: The Basics


People Management in Sales: The Basics

“Business is easy. It’s people that are difficult.” – Warren Buffett

For 10 years, I would talk to owners of small businesses (up to 75mm in sales, if you’re wondering how I define a small business), and inevitably hear the following:

“I just want to hire someone who doesn’t need to be micromanaged, told what to do, or motivated. Give me someone who wants to do the job, doesn’t need training, and will show up every day without fail, and get it done. I just want to hire an (wait for it….) adult!”

To which I inevitably replied: “You know what we call that person, right?”


“An owner.”

The owner would sigh, grimace, and still go on hoping he or she wouldn’t have to manage people.

Because it’s hard.

Everyone has this hope of hiring superstar A players only motivated by the brilliant (but seemingly average and ubiquitous) comp plan this owner puts out. Everyone holds onto the hope that this person will show up, do their job without complaint or question, never take a day off, never have a personal issue or need for mentoring or coaching. But still, without fail, hit and exceed quota while being left alone.

Let me save you some pain. It’s a dream.

The material I help companies with around process, pipeline management, messaging, metrics and comp isn’t rocket science. The execution isn’t a walk in the park, but it works, and someone committed to getting it done will.

Managing people is where the rubber really meets the road.

If you’re thinking about people management, you likely have a lot of the blocking and tackling of managing sales down. (Or let’s hope you do.)

This includes:

  • Having a repeatable sales process people have a shot at executing
  • A comp plan your rep understands, believes in, and is somewhat motivated by
  • Tight messaging that resonates with the market
  • Ballpark metrics and KPIs people believe in
  • An understanding of your ideal client
  • A plan for ranking, managing and growing accounts
  • A behavior plan people understand and generally follow to hit their goals
  • A method of generating leads more sophisticated than simply calling on old accounts.

Let’s get into the meat of people management for sales.


Motivation is interesting, isn’t it?

Talk to many non-sales executives about salespeople, and the beliefs they hold are that salespeople are always coin operated, greedy, selfish, and several other pejorative adjectives.

Talk to many owners, and you’ll see they believe the comp plan should be sufficient motivation.

Spend any amount of time talking to salespeople, and you’ll find a much more complex picture.

Some are motivated by winning. Some by money. Some by recognition. Some by personal achievement. Some by mastery. Some by caring for customers. Some by the freedom of time they earn through sales. Some by their status in the company. Some by the responsibility they earn.

And you know what? Sometimes the motivation changes as the person does. As their circumstances change. As their life changes. A single guy has one set of motivations. Three years later with a wife and child on the way, he’s likely got a new set of motivations.

Great managers know what motivates their team. They take the time to uncover these motivators, to talk with their team about them, and to help them tap into these when they need to come together to achieve something for the rep and the company.


Accountability is a key success factor in high performing teams.

Or for simply hitting quota that hasn’t been sandbagged. But it’s far too rare to see it actually enforced.

Managers say, “I hire adults,” and then don’t pay attention when those adults don’t execute on any sort of realistic plan. The manager goes to his or her boss and says, “Well, we’re working on some things to get it turned around,” but strangely, those things too rarely involve finding tried and true ways to quickly get in front of new opportunities.

(You’ll still sometimes hear managers who say, “I don’t believe in cold calling,” either because they can’t do it, won’t do it, or are afraid of trying to press their team to do it. Unfortunately for these managers, their competition often enough does believe in it and is poaching their prospects quickly.)

Accountability is a commitment to consistently engaging in the right behaviors, mostly related to prospecting for new opportunities. As Bill Belichick says, “Do your job,” and the job is more than just “closing qualified leads,” but getting in front of them and qualifying them, too.

If “accountability” in an organization doesn’t involve some sort of consequence for failing to execute on the required activities, it’s not accountability.

A mentor of mine once said, “Here’s the three step process for changing behavior. Tell the rep, ‘Here’s what I expect. Here’s what happens if you don’t get on board. And this doesn’t start in 1 month. It starts today. If I don’t see it every day for the rest of the week, here’s what’s happening.’”

Only an owner can authorize that sort of approach, but in many underperforming organizations, it’s absolutely needed.

If accountability isn’t part of the fabric of your culture, and you don’t have some amazing and novel marketing or product that has customers lined up at your door, you’re in trouble.


Coaching salespeople is different from coaching your kids in sports.

Having coached kids, I know you can give little Sam a couple of pointers on how he shoots or catches and it sometimes makes a huge difference, especially if he’s coachable.

Coaching adults in something as emotional and unpredictable as sales is another animal altogether. It is more than a few pointers, and it involves regular rehearsal of scenarios so you and they know how they’ll perform when they go live.

It also involves a great deal of pulling information out of them so the reps discover their own answers; a thoughtful manager will be able to do this. However, the average manager tells reps what to do, pats them on the rear, and sends them back onto the field. He or she then marches to the CEO’s office and says, “Yeah, we’re on track. I’ve done this for years. Take it from me, this is how it’s done.” The business owner, thinking sales is some black art, believes this to be true.

The rep then proceeds to make the same mistakes again and again. A consistent and structured coaching process needs to be in place to develop people. If not, the rep who has 10 years’ experience may be simply repeating the same year of experience ten times.

What does this coaching look like? Per the above, it’s not incredibly complex.

It’s listening together to the reps’ calls and asking them, “What did you hear when she said this?” “If you could go back and do it again, what would you ask?” “What were you thinking about here?”

It’s role playing and rehearing scenarios repeatedly so they get it.

It’s looking for opportunities to praise (and thus reinforce) their best practices and achievements.

It’s multiple meaningful touchpoints per week.

It’s hard. But this is how people improve.


Prospecting is a process.

But because it is the work modern sales organizations have so graciously spared their seasoned reps from having to do (see roles titled, “BDR” and “SDR”), managers may find that they have reps who don’t know how to do this effectively.

See the above notes on “Accountability” and “Coaching.”

Because it’s fraught with rejection and a sense of failure, many reps will avoid it, saying, “I never really believed in cold calling,” or something similar. But if they’re to get opportunities outside of your marketing department or call ins, it’ll be something they must be held responsible for.

This will require regular work with them on managing their own emotions, beliefs, and imaginary dragons. Ask questions. Draw out what they think or fear, and then why.

This Bob Newhart skit on helping people manage their thinking is probably what you want to avoid, but it’s not far from what you’ll see in most management practice.


Firing is inevitable.

Some people have to go because they’re not performing.

Some people have to go because their presence is detrimental to management’s efforts to grow the company (we’ve all worked with one or two of these people).

Either way, every company needs clear guidelines regarding when and why they fire.

To not fire non-performers discourages top performers as they ask, “Am I really valued here? Does this company really want to win? Does it jive with my values of excellence? Because it doesn’t feel like it does.”

To keep people who are bad for the company poisons the well and ruins otherwise cheerful, positive employees.

Everyone needs to know what is not acceptable, and what the grounds are for dismissal. When this is clear, managers need to adhere to these guidelines.

Too many managers wait too long to fire, believing against all reason that “Johnny is really going to turn it around. He has a big one in the pipeline.” But Johnny will likely stay on, wallowing in mediocrity, wishing he had a manager with the guts to let him go so he could start over somewhere else. And hopefully with a manager who could motivate, hold him accountable, coach him, and make him a little more effective at prospecting.

Because that’s the job of a manager in this line of work.






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Adam Boyd