Selling Managers Who Also Sell: A Bad Idea

Tom Reilly discusses how just like a player-coach in sports usually doesn't work out, the same goes for business with a sales manager who also sells.

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This article first appeared in the November/December print issue of Industrial Distribution. To view the full digital edition, click here.

“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 full-time manager.”

These are a few of the explanations for not having a full-time sales manager. Because small companies 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.

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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 motivation.

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 managing 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 and salespeople.

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 managers sell.

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 salespeople.

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 success.

Tom Reilly is literally the guy who wrote the book on Value-Added Selling. You may visit him online at

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