8 Skills Every Sales Manager Should Have

8 Skills Every Sales Manager Should Have

Sales managers are critical to an organization’s success, as they have a direct impact on driving revenue. A sales manager oversees and motivates an organization’s sales team members and contributes to developing sales strategy, setting goals, and tracking outcomes.

This article highlights eight sales manager skills to look for, whether you’re planning to hire a full-time worker or engage an independent professional for your team. We also share five activities top sales managers should avoid, along with firsthand tips and perspectives from two sales managers at Upwork.

Table of contents:

8 essential sales manager skills

While sales manager skills can vary, the most successful individuals possess many core competencies and characteristics.

Essential skills include:

  1. Active listening
  2. Leadership
  3. Effective communication
  4. Sales planning
  5. Time management
  6. Rational problem-solving
  7. Analytical skills
  8. Knowledge of CRM systems

1. Active listening

Any time a sales manager interacts with team members, leadership stakeholders, prospects, or customers, active listening is one of the most important skills to display.

A sales manager who is skilled in active listening makes it clear that they’re genuinely interested in what others have to say and asks relevant follow-up questions to overcome challenges or meet an individual’s specific needs. For example, actively listening to a customer or prospect’s pain points can help a sales manager empathize with them and position the product or service they’re selling in a way that addresses these issues.

Actively listening to team members in meetings and one-on-one conversations helps sales managers better identify how they can help individuals drive improved outcomes. And, in some cases, simply listening to team members can help them reach solutions on their own.

Brian Mulé, Senior Sales Manager, Enterprise Suite at Upwork shared his thoughts on active listening. “When team members come to me with issues, one thing I like to do is ask follow-up questions, like, ‘What do you think we should do?’ By focusing on listening and giving team members control, more often than not they end up answering the question themselves—and learning in the process.”

2. Leadership

Top sales managers display strong leadership skills in order to manage, motivate, and empower team members. As leaders, sales managers take initiative to put people first and help every team member succeed. This includes pushing individuals to improve and providing team members with the resources needed to reach their goals. Effective leadership also involves sales managers recognizing their own shortcomings and areas for improvement.

Matt Espinosa, Senior Sales Manager, Enterprise Suite at Upwork, summed up his leadership approach well. “As a sales manager, I believe in pushing everyone to be their best selves. I’ve never claimed to be the best leader or know everything. I’m constantly trying to advance my own knowledge in proven areas that I know I’m still missing, to try to be the best version of myself. I showcase what I do and the impact it has, and I encourage and facilitate opportunities for my team, too. Then when they learn something new, they come back and share with the team, which creates that environment of continuing education.”

Related: 25 Leadership Skills Companies Desire

3. Effective communication

In today’s work environment, many individuals work remotely while others are in the office, which can make communication a little tricky. In fact, 67% of sales managers say overseeing a remote sales team is more challenging than they anticipated.

When team members aren’t in the office, a sales manager can’t simply walk over to an individual’s desk to discuss an issue or share an update about a prospect. Effective communication is one of the most critical sales manager skills needed to overcome this hurdle.

Whether interacting via email, messaging platform, shared document, phone, or video meeting, sales managers showcase effective communication skills. They achieve this through clear and concise writing, articulate speaking, and active listening.

Sales managers should also follow up with team members to confirm messages are communicated clearly. Mulé shared, “Sometimes you think you’re saying something clearly and what they hear is very different from what you thought you communicated. To avoid this, I’m really big on recaps, such as ‘walk me through your three action items from this meeting.’ What I find is they often hear one thing when that’s not at all what you meant.”

To support smooth communication and drive productivity, sales managers can set expectations with their teams about how and when to communicate, so everyone is on the same page. For example, a sales manager might request that workers share status updates on their sales prospects via email or a tracking document once a week, in addition to any regular updates they make to the CRM system.  

Related: 17 Successful Management Tips for Leading Remote Teams

4. Sales planning

A sales manager is responsible for developing, implementing, and evolving a team’s sales plan, often in partnership with other leaders in sales and across the organization. When mapping out a sales plan, successful managers take both long-term and short-term goals into consideration. They also understand what has worked in the past and can outline areas for improvement to reach future sales goals.

Elements of an effective sales plan can include:

  • Product or service overview and key differentiators
  • Goals and objectives
  • Budget
  • Target market
  • Competitive overview
  • Team structure and responsibilities
  • Sales strategies and tactics
  • Required software and technology
  • Key metrics

According to Espinosa, understanding the target market is one of the most important aspects of sales planning. “One of the skills I focus on is identifying your target market, whether in new business or current customers, and knowing the best area for opportunity. You treat all clients with the same services and respect, but not all are created equal. Identifying the key category and target market and having a plan of action is first and foremost. How do you know where you’re going if you don’t put a target on the map?”

5. Time management

Between planning sales strategy, presenting to prospects, setting milestones for team members, and addressing other priorities, sales managers have a wide range of responsibilities. Time management and having a bias towards action is key to success.

Some time management tips for sales managers—which team members can also adopt—include:

  • Block time on the calendar for priority tasks
  • Maintain set working hours (with room for flexibility, as needed)
  • Check email only at specific times
  • Keep team meetings to a minimum so individuals can focus on work

When it comes to time management, sales managers benefit from supporting a trusting and flexible work environment. Rather than requiring individuals to work at specific times or attend all meetings, successful sales managers trust their team members to complete work and reach their goals based on their availability.

Mulé emphasized the importance of flexibility on his team, saying, “Creating a one-size-fits-all schedule or environment doesn’t work. Some team members work better in the morning, while others schedule calls late at night. It’s about having empathy and understanding that everybody has different priorities. Life happens, so we record meetings to help team members catch up later on. If I’m more trusting and flexible with the team, they’re more likely to go above and beyond.”

Related: 18 Effective Time Management Strategies and Techniques

6. Rational problem-solving

Sales managers frequently face challenges or problems that need to be quickly addressed, such as a stalled deal, dissatisfied customer or prospect, frustrated team member, or individual who isn’t driving business outcomes. Top sales managers use their rational problem-solving skills to anticipate potential issues and figure out proactive steps to resolve them, while maintaining control over their emotions.

Rational problem-solving helps sales managers stay calm under pressure and maintain objectivity in their decision-making. This sets the right example for team members to do the same when they face stressful situations in their day-to-day work.

By efficiently solving problems, sales managers can help empower the team to reach revenue goals, while empowering workers to do their best work. Mulé pointed out, “If I had to sum up what sales leadership is all about, it’s solving problems and removing obstacles for your team members.”

7. Analytical skills

Sales managers tap into analytical skills to review data and make actionable decisions to set and achieve sales goals. Analytical skills come into play when sales managers research market opportunities, prospective customers, and competitors.

A sales manager with strong analytical skills also effectively leverages data to forecast the revenue their team will generate in a given period. Once they have a revenue forecast or target, they can use this data to set goals for individual team members, such as total number of calls or meetings that need to take place to contribute to overall revenue goals.

Data can also be used to identify what isn’t working and make corrections when goals aren’t met, or to continue with similar actions when the team exceeds sales goals.

Related: Business Forecasting: How it Works and Real-Life Examples

8. Knowledge of CRM systems

Customer relationship management (CRM) software helps an organization manage relationships with customers and prospects. A recent Hubspot survey found that sales leaders rank CRM systems as one of their most important tools. CRM systems centralize information like a customer’s demographic information, past purchases, and any contact with your business.

Sales managers are skilled at navigating CRM systems and using their analytical skills to identify new sales opportunities, reengage prospects, identify customer advocates for references, and understand key trends impacting sales, among other activities. A CRM system helps sales managers track sales activity, metrics, and trends. This streamlines the process of preparing weekly, monthly, or quarterly reports for visibility across the organization.  

5 activities sales managers should avoid

Moving from the role of an individual salesperson to that of a sales manager can be challenging, as it requires transitioning from primarily being responsible for individual  outcomes to overseeing an entire team.

Similar to how effective sales managers display many of the same essential skills, they also know how to avoid focusing time or energy on things that aren’t productive or don’t provide a benefit for the team and broader organization.

We’ve outlined five key actions sales managers should avoid doing in order to set the team up for success. These undesirable activities apply whether you’re engaging a seasoned or first-time sales manager.

  1. Focusing too much on sales
  2. Overlooking responsibilities
  3. Setting unrealistic expectations for the team
  4. Avoiding conflict and awkward conversations
  5. Leading without direction

1. Focusing too much on sales

Much of a sales manager’s success is measured based on the team’s completion of sales goals. But when managers focus only on sales, little time remains for developing others, identifying areas for improvement, and building relationships with team members.

Espinosa discussed the importance of creating an environment where team members are motivated to do their best work, rather than exclusively focusing on sales. “A leader can create sales robots all day but a successful sales manager builds a safe environment in which team members feel comfortable talking about what’s on their mind. It takes a certain type of person to inspire a team to have intrinsic motivation. Creating this environment means team members will want to come to work every day, get better, and collaborate with their peers. That’s when you [as a sales manager] are successful and get the ultimate gold star.”

2. Overlooking responsibilities

When sales managers focus too much on sales or other financial aspects of the role, they risk unintentionally overlooking important responsibilities. These include touching base with team members, dedicating time to sales strategy, completing administrative tasks, and more.

Taking care of all responsibilities ties back to time management and leadership. Successful sales managers also take the time to identify team members’ roadblocks and offer to step in and help when needed. According to Mulé, “Focus on what’s taking up people’s time, what’s causing frustration, causing potential challenges in which they aren’t as happy or productive as they could be. Then, taking the smallest things off their plates sometimes goes a long way. People really appreciate that.”

3. Setting unrealistic expectations for the team

Effective sales managers know how to strike the right balance between setting reasonable expectations for their team while also encouraging challenging or stretch goals—without being unrealistic. A misstep some sales managers make is simply being unclear or vague with goals and expectations.

One example of setting unrealistic expectations is trying to play catch-up at the end of the year if the team is behind on annual sales goals. Another is holding team members accountable for a specific, high quantity of meetings, rather than focusing on quality.

Top sales managers—and managers across all departments—can set clear, realistic expectations using the SMART acronym:

  • Specific: identify a key area for improvement or focus
  • Measurable: determine a quantifiable metric to show progress  
  • Attainable: set a realistic, achievable goal
  • Relevant: tie to broader team or business goals
  • Time-bound: set a deadline for the goal to be achieved or expectation to be met

Mulé touched on this point, saying, “If you’re not clear and team members don’t meet your expectations, it gets really hard to hold them accountable for that. With metric expectations or goal setting, remind team members of the ‘why.’ For example, the historical data shows that if you run a certain number of meetings on a consistent, monthly basis, you’re likely to convert a certain percentage, which will help you reach your sales target.”

Related: Sample Goals for Employees: Measure Success and Accountability

4. Avoiding conflict and awkward conversations

Conflict and awkward conversations are never easy, but they’re sometimes required for achieving desired results. And if a sales manager avoids or delays such conversations, this will only make the situation worse, which—depending on the scenario—can lead to a lost sale, frustrated customer, or missed sales quota.

When approaching difficult conversations, rather than only covering what went wrong, effective sales managers tap into their active listening and communication skills to discuss:

  • The conflict or challenge at hand
  • Key implications of the challenge for the individual
  • How the conflict ties to larger team or business goals
  • Next steps to address or resolve the issue
  • An action plan to avoid similar setbacks in the future

Related: 6 Conflict Resolution Tips to Resolve Issues within Your Team

5. Leading without direction

Top sales managers have a thorough understanding of the organization’s mission and goals and communicate this information to team members to ensure they’re approaching their day-to-day work with a sense of purpose and direction. When team members understand that their work directly impacts broader company goals, they’re more motivated to drive successful outcomes.

Mulé touched on the importance of believing in the organization’s mission. “If you inherently believe in the bigger mission at your organization, it starts funneling down to individuals and has a positive impact on their work. If the sales manager doesn’t provide direction or have conviction in the overall mission or a directive from senior leadership to pivot, the rest of the team starts to see through that pretty quickly. Showing your team that you believe in what you’re selling and always being genuine, honest, and up-front is super important.”

Working as a sales manager

The right sales manager can help your organization achieve and exceed sales and growth goals. When evaluating potential sales managers to join your team, seek out individuals that embody the most essential sales manager skills.

Are you looking for a skilled sales manager to join your team? You don’t have to approach the search alone. Upwork is here to help. Leading organizations engage independent talent through our work marketplace to build more agile workforces, fill skills gaps, and reduce operational costs.

Get started now—search for talented independent sales managers who can motivate sales team members and help your organization reach revenue goals.


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Author Spotlight

8 Skills Every Sales Manager Should Have
Beth Kempton
Content Writer

Beth Kempton is a B2B writer with a passion for storytelling and more than a decade of content marketing experience. She specializes in writing engaging long-form content, including blog posts, thought leadership pieces, SEO articles, case studies, ebooks and guides, for HR technology and B2B SaaS companies. In her free time, you can find Beth reading or running.

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