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The Best Practices for Sales Managers, with Kevin F. Davis [Episode 416]

In this episode we unlock the methods sales managers can employ to multiply the output and effectiveness of their teams.

Joining me on this episode is my guest Kevin F. Davis, President at TopLine Leadership, and author of multiple books, including his latest, The Sales Manager’s Guide to Greatness: Ten Essential Strategies for Leading Your Team to the Top.

Key Takeaways

  • Kevin started selling for Lanier, and moved into their sales management, and then general management.
  • Kevin’s latest book comes from his years of specialized experience at TopLine, presenting skills workshops to groups of sales managers. His book shares what he learned in the process, to provide value to busy sales managers.
  • Sales managers need to stop and rethink their priorities.
  • Executives should evaluate burdens they place on sales managers. What is really important to a sales manager’s success? What happens when they spend time on coaching?
  • Kevin trains sales managers to lead themselves toward more observational sales coaching. Does a sales managers need to be everybody’s problem solver?
  • What are Kevin’s two magic questions to reply to a rep’s request for help? What question should sales managers ask themselves?
  • Sales managers hope that by solving reps’ problems, the reps will make more sales calls. Instead, the reps bring more problems. What happens when you take over for a rep?
  • The most successful people have the greatest difficulty giving up the things that made them successful to begin with. As a sales manager, stop selling. Let your sales reps sell.
  • Kevin discusses underperformance. What two perspectives does Kevin offer for observational coaching?
  • If sales managers can’t define a good attitude, they can’t nurture it. What trait precedes coachability?
  • Kevin talks about counterproductive behaviors of sales management. To build an elite team, which set of reps should be at the focus? Kevin explains about the ‘bell cow.’

Episode Transcript

Andy Paul  0:51  

Hello and welcome to the Sales Enablement Podcast. I am looking forward to talking with my guest today. Joining me is Kevin Davis. He’s president of top line leadership and author of multiple books including his latest, the sales managers guide to greatness 10 essential strategies for leading your team to the top. So Kevin Davis, welcome to the Sales Enablement Podcast.


Kevin Davis  1:18  

Well, thanks for having me, Andy. 


Andy Paul  1:20  

So take a minute Introduce yourself. I know you’re a big skier, but might tell us how you got your start in sales and how you ended up where you are today.


Kevin Davis  1:29  

Well, my first job out of college was selling for linear and today linear is part of Rico Corporation. It’s office technology products, but back then, we called it copiers and dictation equipment. And back when we sold those things, and then I moved up with them. First two sales managers where I managed a team of eight salespeople and then was General Manager for linear in Southern California, where I managed sales managers. So I’ve had experience at the two key transitions, the transition from selling into managing, which is probably the biggest transition in any profession. And then of course, the transition from managing salespeople to managing sales managers. 


Andy Paul  2:27  

Yeah, yes. I mean, postage machines go away.


Kevin Davis  2:40  

It’s all about connectivity. Facilities Management.


Andy Paul  3:03  

Why is this I mean, it’s it’s you’re not working a company these days and you don’t have the same parade of young, freshly scrubbed sales people knocking on the door every minute trying to sell you a copy machine or postage machine or a computer or something like that.


Kevin Davis  3:18  

And that’s how we knew straight commission sales, you would take the elevator to the top floor of an office building. And you would walk into offices asked to see the general manager or president and without an appointment, and that’s how it all started. 


Andy Paul  3:44  

Well, I was gonna say from an interesting perspective because I was reading an article yesterday and the author was talking about cold emailing and cold calling as prospecting strategies and it was interesting. Get your take on this because what the author said as well, you know, sellings not easy like it was 2030 years ago, you know, now it’s hard if he’s talking about prospecting because yeah, you’ve got these gatekeepers and voicemail and I’m sitting there thinking, yeah, you know, guys like you and I certainly meet at the same time when I got started my career selling a similar product what yours is, yeah, we were knocking on 40, 50, 60 doors, actual doors a day, where there was a physical gatekeeper inside that door. Yeah, I don’t think it was easier by any stretch of imagination.


Kevin Davis  4:39  

And you know, we were trained to just walk in and ask for the person whose name is on the door right. So I got back from training and my first territory was Palo Alto and Stanford. And I took the elevator to the top floor of the Union 520 Five University Avenue building which I know you know where that is and and the elevator doors open up and I’m just doing what they trained me on my initial sales training program. I notice it’s one of the big eight accounting firms. That’s what they were at the time eight of them. So, I walk up to the receptionist and say I’m here to see Arthur Andersen.

She says he’s dead. That was like, my first morning in sales.


Andy Paul  5:35  

Well for people listening to this that don’t really understand why we’re laughing is at the time. Arthur Andersen was one of the big eight accounting firms. That was the name of the big eight accounting firm. So yeah, it’s like it’s like Dude, walking in asking, Can I talk to Mr. Ernst or Mr. Young right?


Kevin Davis  5:52  

Yeah, exactly. The impression I got was, hey, maybe customers sometimes don’t do what you want them to do like they trained us. They probably wouldn’t do sales training.


Andy Paul  6:11  

Well, yeah. But I was thinking back about this guy saying it seems so easy back in the day and I’m like, yeah I mean I had guys that were my first territory our first manager was in the East Bay Area of San Francisco Bay area so Fremont to Vallejo out Pittsburg and Antioch. And you know, I had salespeople work for me that were held up at gunpoint, were shot at, like, Yeah, I don’t think that I think that was a little bit harder than making a phone call or cold calls on the phone. 


Kevin Davis  6:47  

That’s where we were. I was a sales manager in that same East Bay Area. And, uh, one of my sales reps’ cars got broken into and all the equipment was stolen while they couldn’t fence it, deceive and couldn’t fence it. So I’m in the office one day and I get a call from this guy asking me if I want to buy more equipment. I said, you can’t make this stuff up, right? So I said, well hang on a second, I gotta check with my boss, but let me get your phone number and call you back. I got his phone number and I called the Oakland Police Department. I said, Here’s what’s going on and they said, Okay, so then they called the guy back posing as my boss, and set up a sting operation and they busted the guy. I had to go in the police car, and they had like three cops converging on this. I mean, you know, that was back when $10,000 $20,000 worth of equipment was a lot of money. So, Hey, that was, needless to say, I feel your pain there, Andy.


Andy Paul  7:56  

Yeah, I was gonna say both jobs are hard. But I didn’t. I was just like, interesting, since you’re talking is like, let’s dispel that myth that somehow was easier when you had to make those calls in person. So, you’ve written a new book. I mean, you’ve written several books, which are written in a new book called sales managers guide to greatness. So we talked about 10 essential strategies for leading your team to the top. What was the impetus for writing this book? Because there’s been really within the last nine months 12 months has really been an influx of new books written about sales management seems to be sort of the I don’t say the topic du jour, but one that’s getting a lot of focus.


Kevin Davis  8:36  

This is an area of specialization that I’ve had for the last 20 years. And so I’ve had the opportunity to, to work with a variety of different corporate clients delivering our two day sales management skills workshop, one of our clients believed in it so strongly that they had over 3000 Sales Managers attend our two day program. So that’s being in a variety of different, you know, venues with groups of anywhere from 10 to 25 sales managers for a couple days, over 15 or 20 years. I just learned a lot from the audience along the way, and examples and stories and things of that nature that, you know, you have to tell these days in order to, you know, provide value to busy sales managers, I mean, companies, if they’re going to take their sales managers out of the field for a couple of days there. They don’t want to do it unless what they’re going to get is something that’s proven and works so it seems like so I think we have something that’s proven and works for sales managers, and I just finally got around to writing a book about it.


Andy Paul  9:57  

What seems like one of the themes that comes up in a lot of the books that have been published in the last year about this, and I’ve interviewed a number of the authors is that, you know, sales managers job has become increasingly difficult given, you know, the technology is available the data, there’s so many demands on them other than managing and coaching their teams. And that sort seems like less or like a first order issue that the logbooks tried to address. How do we how do we help sales managers focus and make the best use of their time


Kevin Davis  10:34  

Certainly is extremely important for sales managers to take a step back and rethink their priorities.


Andy Paul  10:46  

What do they have control over their priorities?


Kevin Davis  10:49  

They have more control than they think they do.


Andy Paul  10:54  

Because this is one of the recurring themes that you know, people are talking about is that, yeah, senior management is saying putting so many requirements, reporting requirements and so on, on frontline sales managers that that’s what becomes the big distraction. And that these managers feel like they have to prioritize and count paying attention to what the bosses say, versus what they think they should be doing for their team.


Kevin Davis  11:17  

Certainly one aspect of, of sales management productivity that many companies would benefit from, would be looking at the, you know, the time wasters that they inflict on sales managers, for sure. But another part of the problem is our sales managers accept too many meeting invites and sometimes make their calendars available. So, you know, all the other departments in a company always want to get sales as input on everything. And the sales manager is the one that gets dragged into that. 


Kevin Davis  12:16  

Because, you know, having a to do list is important, but what’s on your to do list? What are the things that you need to stop doing and accepting all these meetings? I mean, the average sales manager who spends two hours a day in email that adds up to over 60 days a year on email, if there are ways in which we can manage that time loss a little better, perhaps reduce that from 60 days down to 40 days that gives you an extra 20 days of coaching every year. I mean, the research on sales coaching is pretty compelling. The sales management Association 2015 research found that companies that have optimized a coaching program for both quality and quantity of coaching, see a 17% increase in revenues. And according to CSO insights, just part of MH, our global sales, you know, sales coaching, good sales coaching, commitment and implementation will result in increased win rates for salespeople. So, the question is, as a sales manager, what’s the best use of your time? I mean that that’s the leadership question that everybody asks or should ask. And that is, I’m going to continue to make everybody else happy and respond to people’s emails within 20 minutes of them sending it to me and continue to play this reactive game? Or am I going to focus my time and attention on increasing win rates and increasing the expertise of our salespeople? I mean, what do you want to be remembered for? 


Andy Paul  14:18  

Let’s unpack that a little bit, because I think that at the top, and I advocate this for sales managers and, I found myself in this position when I was managing teams and I had to do this if you have to a certain degree, you have to exercise to serve a form of passive resistance to some of the demands on your time, from people above you. And I recall a situation where one company I was working for. You know, there was a completely useless monthly meeting that in my case actually was on the other side of the country. I was supposed to attend and what I did Just made my schedule such that, you know, every month at that time I was out with a customer. And after about 10 months, you know, the CEO called me and said, so we haven’t seen yet this meeting I saw Yeah. I’m out talking to customers and my numbers were great and the team was doing fantastic. But I was really frustrated that I was not attending a meeting. But yeah, on the other hand, he sort of understood that I was making that call. Yeah. So I mean, managers, I think you have to serve, have some for your intestinal fortitude, and push back. Because if you don’t push back, people are gonna continue to demand more of your time.


Kevin Davis  15:44  

So just last week, I was working with a group of sales managers in Toronto, and they had flown in for a meeting plus my workshop from all over North America. And you know, one of the first modules we talked about is this whole issue of belief. yourself making choices yourself that focuses on swinging the pendulum back towards more observational sales coaching. You know, how do you do that? How do you buy time to make that happen? And certainly one of the ways is, repurposing the conversations you’re having now, we can get into that topic a little later. But let me finish my thought. And our two day workshop progressed, several of the sales managers commented, it’s like, wow, you know, my salespeople are doing so much more. Now that I’m gone. And they’re actually applying some of the techniques that we were talking about during the first day in there, you know, taking breaks and responding on their iPhones and things of that nature to their salespeople. And their salespeople. were solving a lot of these problems themselves. There’s this core sense that many sales managers have kind of evolved into a habitual path or process of I am responsible for solving everybody’s problems.


Andy Paul  17:11  

It is, you know, this is just I workshop yesterday talking about one of the topics was about managing different multi generations in the workforce. And, you know, what you’re describing is like, sort of a helicopter parents. Right? Yeah. Now the helicopter parent helicopters into solve the problems for, for, you know, for the kids and and, man, there’s a lot being written that that’s, you know, that’s not necessarily working out well for the kids. So the subject of that is so because they don’t know how to solve their own problems.


Kevin Davis  17:47  

So when somebody brings you a problem, I encourage sales managers to ask two magic questions. What have you done about it so far? And what do you think you are to do, and at the very least, that gives the manager an opportunity to observe the knowledge and expertise of the salesperson bringing the problem and whether or not that sales rep is capable of solving it themselves or not. But, you know, so there are a variety of different techniques that aren’t terribly difficult, but it is. It is certainly about asking yourself on a continual basis, what is the impact on my sales team? 


Andy Paul  18:44  

It’s just to me that’s such a great thing for people to think about because certainly in the line of thought I talk about sales in general is, if we’re not robots, we’re not operating on autopilot. Everything we do has to be deliberately done for a reason. Absolutely. Whether you’re a manager or a sales rep, you know why I am calling this customer. I was just talking about this at a speech I gave yesterday . What’s the plan?


Kevin Davis  19:19  

Many sales managers kind of have this thought that if I solve this problem for this sales rep, he or she will go make more sales calls. And so there’s this self propaganda mindset when and the outcome of that when you turn it into a habit is if you solve other people’s problems for them, they’ll bring you more problems. And it’s a vicious cycle. You are chasing your own tail without ever catching it. And the net impact of that is that I mean, let’s say somebody brings you a problem, right? And, and usually what they say is, hey, Andy, we have a problem. Right? Notice they’re using the pronoun we and because you don’t have the information to 13 players, correct and because you don’t have the information, you know, you’re anxious you want to pull the trigger, you’re action oriented manager, you you crave the speed, you love to kind of make important decisions and on the fly, and so because you don’t have the information that you need to solve this reps problem, you say, let me look into it, and I’ll get back to you. And in the blink of an eye, two things that are typically associated with a subordinate in a relationship have just occurred. Number one, you accepted a delegation from your sales rep. And number two, you agreed to provide them with a progress report.


Kevin Davis  21:04  

So, again a lot, you know, effective sales management starts with self leadership. It begins with accepting that some things you do have higher payoff than other things. And that you will be a more effective leader if you apply yourself to the more high value high payoff, sales management tasks. And it’s just, that’s one of the issues and of course, the other issue is when you delve into the reason why, why we get involved in these problems, why we solve reps problems, why we do this, why we do that, why we spend, sometimes 8:30 to 5, doing tasks that are on other people’s job descriptions and not ours. The reason is because of our instincts. I mean, the underlying cause is that when we were peak performing salespeople, we developed, honed, and we’re rewarded for certain sales competencies that distinguishes us from everybody else. And that’s why we got promoted, but in effective sales manager, in some ways requires a completely different mindset. And so these sales instincts that contributed to our success in the past, hamper our effectiveness as leaders and one of them is this, you know, focus on results, this bias towards action. And one of the ways you see this in when you’re out with one of your salespeople is when the customer is talking, your salesperson is talking to the customer. And you don’t like what’s being said. And so you do what I call move over rover, let the great one take over. And you you, you kind of take over the meeting and run it your way. But that sends a message to the customer that your sales are qualified, right? And it said, and it sends a message to your sales rep that you don’t trust them. And, and you destroy any coaching opportunity. So this is just one of the examples. You know, a much more effective leadership characteristic is observation and just watching your people so it’s this bias for action. And it’s not just taking over the call. That’s one of the examples. The other is taking over the problems. I mean, we’re kind of control freaks. But we have to manage that. Because if you don’t, then at the end of the quarter, you have to look back and ask yourself, is your sales team better today than they were three months ago? And if they’re not, then you didn’t do your job.


Andy Paul  24:25  

Well, yeah, possibly because you’re doing their jobs. If you do the tactics, you talked about where you and I’ve seen this on numerous occasions where the impatient sales manager jumps in, does the move over things you talked about? Yeah, customers never gonna talk to that sales rep. Again, not in a meaningful way, because they’re gonna wait for the sales manager to come back.


Kevin Davis  24:46  

Well, and they’re gonna contact the sales manager because that’s where the authority is, and that’s where they get bigger discounts.


Andy Paul  24:52  

Well, there’s that there’s that too. Yeah, but don’t get me started on that because I’ve written whole articles. Some of that one time. made or posed this question about, you know, how do you stop salespeople from discounting? I would say salespeople don’t discount managers just some.


Kevin Davis  25:13  

We know that that kind of on that other topic is that the most successful people have the greatest difficulty giving up the things that made them successful to begin with. And so, as a sales manager, we keep selling. And we keep engaging in these selling competencies that we are excellent at. And yet, we’ve got to completely change our mindset. 


Andy Paul  25:46  

I was gonna say I think one of the watchwords that a manager gave me early on in my first management job, work for a guy who was really smart and yeah, it said your job is to be In control, but not obvious control.


Kevin Davis  26:05  

Yeah, that’s good.


Andy Paul  26:06  

And I always thought that was a really great way to think about it. Yeah. You know, as you’re leading a team, you know, everybody needs to know who the bosses are, you know, because that’s where ultimate responsibility flows, but, people need to feel enabled and empowered to do what they need to do.


Kevin Davis  26:20  

Absolutely. That’s a source of motivation.Needless to say, a motivated sales team is better than one that’s not. Well, in your book, you talk about motivation. 


Andy Paul  26:36  

I think you make the point that there may be perhaps as high as six, using the term 75% of performance issues on a team or due to the bad attitudes or willingness problems. As opposed to so really attitudinal versus skill deficiencies, I guess, is really what you’re boiling down to.


Kevin Davis  26:55  



Andy Paul  26:56  

And so why do you think that’s the case?


Kevin Davis  27:01  

Well, you mean why? Why do we have more attitude problems these days?


Andy Paul  27:07  

First of all, you know, how did you arrive at the conclusion that it’s more attitudinal versus the deficiency and skill or behaviors? 


Kevin Davis  27:15  

Well, on Tuesday of this week, I did a webinar where we had 135 sales managers on the one hour webinar, and we had a poll question, and that was a poll question. And then I did another one back in, in, in May, with 160 sales managers. So that’s what they said.


Kevin Davis  27:47  

So attitude is part of it, but when you have a sales rep that has a bad attitude, I mean, there’s two issues here. One is why is this attitude problem happening. So I would suggest sales managers when they’re thinking about a sales rep that’s underperforming or one that has been good in the past but isn’t good now, or has productivity has fallen off is to analyze each sales performance problem you encounter by looking at two through two different lenses, skill and will.


Kevin Davis  28:29  

That’s one of the exercises we work on with sales managers is to think about your peak performing salesperson, that best sales rep who’s on your team right now? What are the qualities that he or she possesses and invariably 70% of those qualities that sales managers articulate our attitude and qualities? And yet this is kind of one of those truths that every sales manager can agree to. But if you ask the sales manager What is great , what is a great attitude in sales rep. They will probably answer. I can’t tell you. I just know it when I see it.


Andy Paul  33:03  

Another question I wonder what topic I want to get into, we talked about coaching, I just want to jump back to that second because you’re interested in your book too about ways to be more strategic about your coaching time. And you referenced a Harvard Business Review study that said that it’s I think I’m quoting it here and research involving thousands of reps found that coaching even world class coaching has a marginal impact on either the weakest or the strongest performers in a sales organization. What are you advocating people do?


Kevin Davis  33:39  

Well, there are two and again, these two ways are instincts that many sales managers have, that are counterproductive to a developing sales team developing an elite sales team. One is they tend to chase the big deals. Right. And invariably, that leads them to work with their best salespeople who are working the biggest deals, who actually need them the least. Because they typically have the best attitudes, not always, but often, and then the most skilled on the team. So, the other instinct, which is counterproductive to developing an elite team, is a tendency to work with the poorest performers.


Andy Paul  37:38  

And so, Kevin, we’re in the last segment of the show where I’ve got some standard questions I asked all my guests and in the first one, this is probably dead simple for you. But the first one is a hypothetical scenario where you’ve just been hired as a VP of sales at a company whose sales have stalled out. The CEO is anxious to hit the reset button, get things back on track as quickly as possible. So Your first week on the job? What two things could you do that could have the biggest impact?


Kevin Davis  38:07  

I would suggest doing nothing. You got to figure out what the problem is. and observe, put yourself in a situation to observe the salespeople and how they interact with customers. And this isn’t just the parachute type of meeting, it’s to go out and spend a full day with each of your salespeople. Maybe sometimes do something where they’re not expecting you to spend the day with them. You’re trying to find out what their work habits are. And you want to figure out who’s part of the solution and who isn’t because if they’re not, I mean us, assuming you’re brought in because there’s a problem and they want you to fix it or they want me to fix it. got to figure out who’s going to be part of the solution. And, and look at it from a skill and will perspective and assess the skill and an attitude of each of my people before rendering any opinions. And that’s, that’s the first step is to just figure out what the problem is. Okay. So that’s in some respects why, you know, you hear a lot of political leaders say, Well, here’s what I’m going to do the first hundred days and Well, I suppose, but you gotta get closer to your sales team and playa prescription without diagnosis is malpractice. Right? So you got to diagnose it, and you can’t diagnose it by not getting close to the problem. 


Andy Paul  39:56  

Good answer. So, some rapid fire questions for them. Just give me one more One word answer you can elaborate if you wish so when you Kevin Davis are out selling your services, what’s your most powerful sales attribute?


Kevin Davis  40:39  

To work with sales managers in a workshop format. I mean, if you listen, sales managers have a lot of great things to say. And I’m delighted that many of them are listening to us today, Andy, but it’s just every workshop. Deliver, I keep a yellow pad sitting in the front. 


Andy Paul  41:23  

Okay, who’s your sales role model?


Kevin Davis  41:26  

My sales role model would be, well, I would have to tip my cap to Neil Rackham as being the thought leader in transitioning the, you know, sales world from from transactional to strategic and backing it up with research. 


Andy Paul  41:53  

Other than any of your own books, which one book would you recommend every salesperson read?


Kevin Davis  42:34  

Well certainly I’ve read the challenger sale recently.


Andy Paul  43:33  

All right. Put that on the list. That’s a new one.


Kevin Davis  43:36  

Yeah, it’s, it’s really good because he’s got a lot of mentions and references a lot of the research on coaching. 


Andy Paul  43:49  

Yeah. All right. So last question for you. It’s this last sometimes difficult question is what music is on your playlist right now.


Kevin Davis  44:00  

Right now Van Morrison keeps me singing.


Andy Paul  44:04  

Love Van Morrison greatest hits.


Kevin Davis  44:06  

Oh, well Yeah, that’s true, but keep me singing as a new album that he released just in September.


Andy Paul  44:14  

That’s a new one on my list. Here we go. New Van Morrison I love and Morrison All right, Kevin, thanks for being on the show today. tell people how they can find out more about you and connect with you.


Kevin Davis  44:27  



Andy Paul  45:02  

Excellent. Well, good. Well, Kevin, thanks for being on the show. And friends, thank you for spending time with us today. And remember, make it a part of your day every day to deliberately learn something new to help you accelerate your success and easily to do that, take a minute to subscribe to this podcast. And that way you won’t miss any of my conversations with top business experts like my guests today, Kevin Davis, who shared his expertise on how to accelerate the growth of your business. So thanks for joining me and until next time, this is Andy Paul. Good selling everyone. Thanks for listening to the show. If you like what you heard, and want to make sure you don’t miss any upcoming episodes, please subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.com for more information about today’s guests, visit my website at AndyPaul.com