Are First-Line Sales Managers In Danger Of Extinction?

April 06, 2018 | Jim Ninivaggi
Are First-Line Sales Managers In Danger Of Extinction?

First-line B2B sales managers could see their roles change as a result of AI technology adoption.

This post was originally published on Forbes on March 7, 2018.

The sales landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade as modern and empowered buyers, new technologies and competitive pressures forge new realities. This confluence of factors has imperiled various sales roles, creating adapt-to-survive imperatives.

For example, nearly three years ago, Forrester Research predicted (registration required) the impending death of the B2B salesman -- a role-turned-relic, they noted, thanks to buyers’ increasing reliance on self-service e-commerce. Since then, there’s been lots of hand-wringing, strategizing, further prognosticating and debate -- along with an emphasis on how sellers should evolve.

Whether the dire predictions come true remains to be seen -- though there’s sure to be more frenzied analysis in the interim. What hasn’t gotten attention, though, is another role in danger of extinction: The first-line sales manager (FSM), which is on the road to becoming a casualty of artificial intelligence (AI) unless serious adaptations are made.

What’s An FSM?

FSMs are the first layer of management in sales organizations, working directly with reps in the field and/or on the phone.

At sales-focused research firm SiriusDecisions, where I worked for 10 years, we noted FSMs should have five key responsibilities: as a leader (executing strategy), coach (onboarding new hires; improving existing reps), trainer (supporting learning delivery), recruiter (alongside HR and sales enablement) and typical “manager” (doing performance reviews, reporting, etc.).

Just because FSMs should occupy those roles doesn’t mean they always -- or even typically -- do. In many cases, FSMs are former successful reps promoted to managers and are then left to their own devices. They often default to being “super reps,” joining calls and meetings to be the hero.

Forecasting Focus

The hat that I see FSMs wear most frequently, though, is the manager one -- with most of their focus on forecasting. According to some estimates, managers spend nearly two full days/week forecasting sales -- and, as a result, spend less time trying to improve them. Instead of being in front of buyers managing their reps, managers are in front of computers managing spreadsheets.

Sales forecasting and pipeline management is an imperfect science, with most companies reliant on FSMs to interpret and massage numbers coming from their direct reports. FSMs pore over CRM data, get individual forecasts from reps related to in-progress deals/opportunities, and make adjustments based on knowledge of the rep (Are they usually an optimist? A sandbagger?). Applying their own intelligence, FSMs report, hopefully, a more accurate forecast to their VP.

The Way Of The Dinosaurs?

Is the manager’s role as a forecaster on its way out? You bet. As AI and machine learning mature, expect to see them frequently applied to improve sales forecasting and generate more accurate probability-to-close values. Computers will process vast amounts of data -- about an individual rep’s experience, track record and overall readiness; whether the buyer is a new or existing customer; competitors involved, etc. -- to make forecasts more meaningful in a fraction of the time.

When these numbers no longer come from managers’ interpretations, but from data, what’s an FSM to do? If forecasting prowess is all that separates FSMs from reps, their role is in danger of extinction.

Avoiding Extinction: Time To Coach!

There’s no doubt AI improves reporting accuracy. But better reporting on performance doesn’t actually improve performance. For that, you need a good coach.

That’s where FSMs need to come in -- occupying the most important role in driving sales readiness. In fact, the Sales Management Association (SMA) notes that companies providing optimal sales coaching realize annual revenue growth rates 16.7% greater than those that provide no coaching.

Still, 77% of organizations think they give too little sales coaching, with managers devoting only 15% of their time to it. It’s time for a change -- for the betterment of sales teams and to spur managers’ much-needed evolution.

Companies can help managers develop their people by eliminating these primary coaching roadblocks:

• There’s no expectation that managers will coach. Organizations should implement a defined coaching process, holding managers accountable. Support must come from the top, with the chief sales officer (CSO) prioritizing coaching.

• Managers don’t know how to coach. More often than not, this isn’t the managers' fault. When companies promote their best reps to managers, then simply hope for the best, the manager role becomes amorphous. Sadly, nearly one in five organizations makes no training investments in their sales managers according to CSO Insights (registration required). How can you expect managers to coach what they haven’t learned?

• Not enough time. Pulled in various directions, managers may need help from leadership to make coaching a priority and offload various administrative tasks. As AI starts playing a larger role in forecasting, FSMs will get time back too. Plus, with current video coaching technology, managers no longer need to be with reps to coach and can do so asynchronously. Reps upload videos of themselves (giving the company elevator pitch, demoing the latest product, etc.), and FSMs can provide feedback/guidance at their leisure.

[Related: 6 Key Sales Coaching Skills Reps Need To Master]

AI Isn’t The Enemy

While AI will improve sales forecasting -- rendering one function of FSMs’ jobs obsolete -- it will also drive a rebirth in how managers coach, making a trove of important data available to them and ultimately improving coaching effectiveness.

For example, AI-driven insights will highlight where individual reps struggle in deals so managers can create customized readiness paths and coach accordingly. In the near future, machine analysis will improve video coaching initiatives -- providing an extra layer of feedback that objectively analyzes reps’ tone of voice, delivery, etc. in videotaped presentations -- to augment manager efforts.

Just as I’ve used a golf simulator to try to shave strokes off my game, reps will step into sales simulators in the future -- where avatars raise objections, sneeze and even doze off -- preparing reps for the unexpected. My golf coach takes the simulator data and reviews metrics on my swing, projected ball distance and trajectory, outlining steps to make me better -- just as managers need to (and will) do for reps.

By embracing AI as an enabling technology, FSMs can become even more valuable to their organizations than they were in the non-AI world.

READ MORE: What's the Most Important Role of Front-Line Sales Managers?​

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