What is the art of sales leadership?

My personal Insights and observations as to what makes a well oiled sales machine tick. The insights shared here are applicable to businesses of any size irrespective of the budgets available to them.

I have garnered these insights across different countries during my professional tenure across the globe.

Developing and managing a world class sales team requires more than just measuring the teams monthly sales achievement. It requires guts, wisdom, analytical skills, the correct temperament, good management and motivational skills among others.

Most small businesses that sell products or services to other businesses are required to have a robust sales function. I am writing this article to share my insights based on observations on what makes a well oiled sales function versus one that is inferior, inefficient and ineffective. These insights were derived during my various tenures in the US, UK, Japan, India, Malaysia and of course now in the U.A.E. The thoughts here are applicable to businesses of any size irrespective of the budgets that are available to them.

So what are the elements that make a well oiled sales machine?  Sales performance is often defined as the product of: Readiness X Productivity X Efficiency X Effectiveness – and it is so true!

Based on my experience, the primary factors that drive sales performance are:

  • Marketing capability – Readiness
  • Superior people – Readiness, Productivity, Efficiency, Effectiveness
  • Robust rewards, incentive schemes and structure – Productivity, Effectiveness
  • Metrics – Efficiency, Productivity
  • Pipeline management process -Effectiveness
  • Account management process – Effectiveness
  • Systems – Productivity, Efficiency
  • Sales management and leadership team – Readiness, Effectiveness

Marketing capability

It goes without saying that you are not going to sell much if you do not have the right product, that is not priced correctly and one that has no visibility in the market. You might have the best sales team, but if the totality of the proposition including the experience is weak, then any business can forget about sales. Therefore, it is essential that you have superior marketing capability as well whilst you are trying to develop your company’s sales performance.

Superior people

As in any business function, getting the right people on board is job number one. Hiring sales folks require you to look out for peculiar personality traits that are imperatives to succeed in sales. I have summarized them into 10 traits that you should look out for. They are:

  1. Self confidence – When you hire sales folks look for people who believe that they can achieve anything
  2. Ambition – You need folks with audacious ambitions. An ambitious person is often very competitive and will not like to lose.
  3. People friendly – This is obvious. Anyone who is uncomfortable with strangers is definitely not cut for sales
  4. Empathy – You need people who can connect and relate with their potential customers
  5. Tough mindedness – You need to look out for folks who can accept rejection and often humiliation from their potential customers
  6. Composure – A seemingly calm, cool, composed and collected sales person exudes confidence
  7. Control – Sales professionals need to be self disciplined to achieve. They need to exercise self control to manage and reach their targets.
  8. Endurance – The ability to endure long, tedious and often unpleasant negotiations internally and externally is a critical requirement for any good sales person.
  9. Sense of urgency- A good sales professional would have a sense of urgency as if there is no tomorrow. This is often exhibited by good sales professionals as they do not want to take chances with any opportunity
  10. Individualistic – Good sales professionals are primarily motivated by the rewards and nothing else. Preaching about team work and collaboration will not go a long way with really good sales professionals. Don’t get me wrong here, I am all for team work and collaboration.

Robust rewards, incentive schemes and structure

Sustaining a high performance sales team requires a robust, dynamic and attractive reward and incentive structure. You might have the best products or even the best sales professionals in your team, but without an attractive incentive scheme, the sales performance will not be sustainable.

The primary motivator for excellent sales professionals is money. I know that this sounds crude and against conventional wisdom, which purports that there are other motivators beyond money. It could be so in other functions but definitely not for the top sales performers. Applying the 80:20 rules requires you to reward your top performers well.  If 70 or 80 percent of your incremental sales come from 20 or 30 percent of your sales team, then it behooves you to take care of the top sales performers beyond the traditional incentive structure.


An essential requirement for any successful sales organization is to have appropriate metrics that are fair, simple and measurable and one which adds to your bottom line. Some common metrics include a combination of acquisition, retention, up selling, cross selling and collection dimensions. The metrics should also include efficiency factors like number of customer visits, lead times, new accounts added and others.

Remember, what you cannot measure you cannot manage and If you cannot manage you have utterly failed in your responsibility.

Pipeline management process

Managing the sales pipeline aka the sales funnel is an essential requirement to building a world class sales organization.

Most B2B sales engagement goes through a classic cycle. First targets are identified from the prospect list, contacts are established, needs are assessed and a proposal is given to a potential customer. Then negotiations occur before a sale is concluded into a firm order.

As a small business, you need to know reliably the number of customers that you have, and the potential deal size in each stage of the sales cycle. You cannot let your sales folks assign arbitrarily, probabilities at each stage of the sales cycle. For example if no contact has been established with a key decision maker or an key influencer in a target organization, assigning any probability beyond zero percent is fool hardy will only inflate the size and value of your sales pipeline.

Assigning predetermined and correct probabilities will help your small business to identify risks, to achieving the desired targets. Based on my experience, a sales professional having a quarterly target of say $100k will need at least 5X to 7X of their sated target of US100K in the “contact established” stage of his or her pipeline to meet the quarter end target goal.

Knowing the pipeline of their team is an essential responsibility for any sales manager. If he or she does not know accurately the deal value in their team’s pipeline, they have miserably failed the business and should be sacked!

Another important aspect of pipeline management is to ensure that your sales teams are dealing with companies that have the budget (B), the person/s that they are dealing with have the authority (A) and there is a real need (N). Assigning a predetermined BAN score to the pipeline management will ensure that you are not plagued by GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out).

As you can see, having a robust pipeline management framework is critical to identifying and knowing if your company is really going to make it or not. You cannot leave this important task to others. You have to have a structured discussion with your sales management team to determine the accuracy of the pipeline. I have seen many start ups miserably failing from not having taken care of this important management function. The businesses that have failed were promised and shown a hefty and rich pipeline that was not validated and entirely only managed by the sales function.

Ensure that other functions including Marketing, Finance and others have full visibility to your sales funnel. Otherwise you will not see the light at the end of the tunnel (no pun intended).

Account Management Process

A structured account management process will have two primary components. They are the account planning and the account review process.

The account planning process

Every good sales professional will have a structured account plan for all major accounts. The account plan should articulate the prospect’s business, its compelling rational to consider your business, its end user needs and others. The sales professional should know if there has been a compelling event that might trigger an opportunity (like M&A, right sizing, cost reduction efforts, growth or lack of it etc. etc).

The account plan will also clearly identify the opportunity size, possibilities for all products and key competitor strengths and weaknesses. Other pertinent factors in an account plan should clearly identify all the key decision makers and influencers and the plans to engage with each of them. Knowing the account well  will help any sales professional in your team to offer a compelling value proposition to your potential customer.

The account review process

There should be a review process at all hierarchies in the company. Of course the number of accounts that are reviewed at the highest levels will only be limited to the largest opportunities. Every sales manager, Director or higher will need to conduct a review of the opportunities of their team. This will enable the management to identify potential weaknesses and identify areas where they could support the sales folks.

The account review of the largest opportunities should be cross functional as it should intend to get all the functions in the company engaged to achieve a win for the sales team.

A cross functional account review of the largest opportunities will also help identify risks and inconsistencies in the pipeline.  If reviewed frequently, often, seemingly exuberant opportunity projections will be proven to be not as optimistic as projected.


You have hired your sales teams to sell. Don’t overload them with bureaucratic paper work and back office work. Any sales team that spends less that 75 percent of its time out there selling is not doing what it was supposed to.  Put in place systems if you can afford. If you cannot, get cheaper clerical support to do the back office functions. There is a high opportunity cost for any business that uses its sales teams to do back office work.

To maintain the integrity of your pipeline, it is worth your while to invest in some systems for the opportunity management of the sales pipeline. There are many affordable pay per user monthly solutions available in the market, that even a one man sales team can afford. If you still cannot afford it, then use common spreadsheets!

Sales management and leadership teams

It is often misunderstood that a good sales manager has to be good sales professional. A good sales person often does not necessarily make a good sales manager. A good manager might make a good sales person.

Beyond the traditional competencies required of a manager, the art of managing a sales team requires that the person leading the sales team to be inspiring, motivating and fair.

The sales management’s primary goal is to ensure that there are no risks to achieving the sales targets. It is the sales manager’s responsibility to ensure that the team under his care are able to and can deliver the targets given to them. The sales manager has a responsibility to the company to ensure that there are no risks to achieving the sales targets given to the team. He or she is often expected to be a fair arbiter of conflicts within their teams.

Even if you have a fantastic sales team, having a bad manager will uninspire and often de-motivate your top performers, resulting in many of your top sales performers leaving the company. Therefore, it is essential that you pay special attention to the person that you hire to lead this very critical and important function.


As you would have noted, the insights and observations that I have shared here are applicable to businesses of any size. Any small business can have a world class sales organization by rigidly executing and applying the factors that I have shared with you here. If you are involved in B2B selling , then paying attention to and taking care of this very important function will determine whether your business will exist or not.

John.lincoln@gmail.com Twitter:  @lincolnjc – All rights reserved

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This entry was posted in Customer Experience, Customer Value Proposition, Customers, Management, Sales, SME, Strategy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to What is the art of sales leadership?

  1. jatin says:

    Lovely…..Great insight and I love it

  2. Joe says:

    Very nice John… a few good attributes of an excellent sales person I observed over the years are;

    - they are very good listeners
    - fuzzy loyalty (cannot tell whether that sales person is reporting to the customer or the company he/she is suppose to report to — at the end, the sales executive sells more)
    - honesty (this is true for any person but especially needed for a sales person)
    - adrenaline junkie (at times, it’s not the sales incentive alone but the “game” of selling one likes)
    - sales person who does not take “no” for an answer (selling starts when one says “no”)

  3. Bindhu says:

    Excellent!! Applicable to any organization big or small to get the basics in place !!!!

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