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Sales manager vs. sales controller

Oct 1, 2009 12:00 AM

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A big-time issue that has received little or no recognition during the past several years is the role, perhaps even the legitimacy, of the position of sales manager. Admittedly, the role differs from company to company, depending upon the culture, history, individuals, customer base and objectives of an organization.

As the sales landscape has fundamentally changed, the role of sales management, the attributes of sales representatives, the mindset of suppliers, and the role of competitive differentiation have changed — or have needed to change. It is rare that the needs of any two customers are identical. The notion of “one size fits all” approach to sales has lost validity as customers are also trying to differentiate themselves from competitors in their respective industries. The key sales issue has subtly but importantly shifted from “What do we do best?” to “What does this customer need?”

A team effort

As most graphic arts companies have greatly expanded their capabilities, it has become more difficult for even the most technically proficient sales representative to: (a) be knowledgeable about all phases of file preparation, manufacturing, and customized distribution services; and (b) make commitments on behalf of the company to provide customized products and services. A team effort is required, a reversal of the former management attitude that the best salesperson is the rep who works alone and provides good specifications to be estimated.

In the past, sales management was largely a control function. Expense reports and call reports were (allegedly) closely monitored. An unreported lengthy lunch was a sin. That is changing. Sales management today should be strategic. That starts with the notion, heretical in some quarters, that a salesperson is no longer the sole instrument of sales acquisition. (This is a cultural/mindset issue that needs to be adopted whether or not an organization has someone with the title of “sales manager.” There needs to be recognition that everyone in a graphic arts company is in a direct position to win and lose accounts.)

Account development should be strategic. Management involvement, planning, direction, and coordination are essential. Account development should be a conscious, planned process. Once the account need has been identified and the game plan has been developed, the sales representative becomes the on-field quarterback. Along the way, patience and information become increasingly important factors, along with the recognition that nothing works as originally planned; mid-course corrections are necessary due to unanticipated changes and developments.

The new style of sales management needs to operationally redefine “sales success.” Success can no longer be measured exclusively in terms of gross sales volume. Sales volume has a quality as well as quantity. Many companies learned this the hard way during the difficult couple of years beginning in the last calendar quarter of 2000.

A “good customer” is now defined in terms of market share within an account and mutual importance. A salesperson may be compensated in terms of gross sales or even value added sales, but those metrics might not reflect the long-term value of a customer. Even in the business world, there's a difference between a marriage and a great date. Sales management needs to maintain the organizational focus on relationships and planned business development and on the needs of selected customers while addressing the reality of today's cash flow needs.

It's important to have salespeople who understand these changing needs. However, the presence of even great reps does not obviate the need for direction, coordination, and support by whoever is fulfilling the sales management function. There needs to be a person to mentor those with regular customer contact and to make commitments to customers requiring customized products, services, programs and communications.

The sales manager as sales controller is — and should be — rapidly disappearing. A memorable example of that role involves a newly appointed sales manager at a client many years ago. He announced that he wanted detailed, timely reports of every contact with a customer or prospective customer. One rep made a year's worth of copies of the previous week's call reports. It was 55 weeks before the sales manager realized that he'd been had.

Today, customers need to be managed

And that is an organizational role. It's not sufficient to manage, or to try to control, the daily activities of a sales representative. All the quotas and objectives in the world, however mathematically defensible, will not produce more competent, more successful sales representatives.

Dick Gorelick is president of Gorelick & Associates and the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation. He can be reached at

Core issues

Today's sales management needs to address:

  • Management of information so that the graphic arts company has elevated understanding and appreciation of the needs, objectives, perceptions and challenges of targeted customers. It is necessary to understand a problem before addressing a solution.
  • Creation of conditions that will make targeted customers want to buy from your organization. Simply establishing sales and profit goals is an academic exercise without this critical intermediate step.
  • Systematic creation of more perceptive, skillful salespeople and other members of the “customer contact team.”