What do different sales roles actually do?

My background is primarily in sales, and so it pains me to hear more and more often that a super sales guy has been promoted to Sales Manager and then has left the company three to six months later.

To my thinking this is just sloppy management by the company, and probably sloppy career planning by the new manager that leads to the exit.

Over the years I have witnessed sales people struggle after being promoted out of the field into the office- i did when i was first promoted. Usually they don’t fail, as some of the skills that made them good sales reps can help, but they are often not able to make the same outstanding contributions as a manager as they did as a sole contributor.

To understand why this happens,  you can first think through how the roles change from sales rep. to field sales manager, to Sales Director/VP Sales.  He’s my take on how the roles differ, to enable you to consider if you fit the promotion bill, or when you seek to promote are your promoting for the future role, or because they are a great rep.

Sales Representatives responsibilities – The core of any sales position is making a sale. While each industry commands different responsibilities and practices, the primary focus is common to all – to successfully complete the sale. This includes;

  • Making initial contact with potential customers, ensuring they are qualified to buy.
  • Meeting with customers to identify, understand and seek concurrence of their specific needs AND the implications of not addressing those needs.
  • Maintaining continuous communication with customers throughout their buying process, while building a coaching network.
  • Continuing to pursue the sale in the face of potentially rigorous resistance/competition.
  • Identifying & communicating the benefits of addressing their customers’ needs to decision makers and key influencers inside their organisation.
  • Closing the sale with the customer.
  • Implementing the purchase and supporting after sales service

So along comes the first promotion…field sales manager. So the refined skills that made the sales rep. a stand out are a good basis to work from but look how the job changes.

Field Sales Manager – The theme of this position is driving the team to sell. The sales manager cannot personally ensure every goal is attained, they must reach goals through the efforts of others. The first level sales manager is a player coach. The best usually invest about 30% of their time helping close the sales among their most valuable customers- assisting overcome buyer resistance of to explain the deal through the buyers or their own organisations-  and then invest 70% of their efforts ensuring that the team results are maximized. This co-ordinating-coaching role is very complex. It is most natural for a newly promoted sales person to mismanage their time. They may very well spend 70% of their time helping make sales and only 30% of their time developing the team, if any time. This will most often result in a sales plateau. So in addition to the skills listed for sales rep the sales manager has additional skills required,

  • Refocusing from tactics to strategy – A sales reps role is to win every sale. A Field Sales manager must know how to deploy his resources to ensure he wins the right sales.  Typically, there are many more opportunities than resources to meet these opportunities. A good field sales manager knows within his territory/channel/group of clients, where the biggest opportunities for both gains and losses are. They are plugged into maintaining business relationships with good existing customers as well as focusing on bigger prospective customers. They know its occasionally better to loose a small customer to win a much bigger one. They also know- should their Boss ask- where to deploy extra resources to increase performance, and where to trim resources to have the minimum impact should this become necessary.
  • Concern for Process and Order – it is very easy for a manager to run from task to task trying to meet all due dates while investing what little time is left helping complete sales. An effective manager will arrange their calendar to ensure they are spending time with all team members. Maybe not the same amount of time with each, but allocating time so that the team results will drive more success than the manager’s personal sales contribution. While keeping up with necessary paperwork.
  • Coaching and developing others – This is more difficult than it sounds. Many of the skills that made them successful as a sales rep have moved from conscious efforts to subconscious habits. It is a difficult transition to move from doing to consciously observing and helping others do what is ‘natural’ to them.
  • Creating & maintaining effective work teams. This includes internal team members as well as collaborating with other symbiotic departments.

Okay, let’s say our candidate is an incredibly entrepreneurial and is able to make the transition from rep to sales manager. What’s next? Sales Director/VP-Sales.

Sales Director/VP-Sales – The core theme of the role pivots again from driving a team to sell, to managing a larger organization. The job has pivoted towards analytical thinking, matching resources to potential opportunities, creating efficient infrastructures of materials and organizational resources to support the regional sales efforts. The SD must communicate upwards to clearly and honestly keep senior management appraised on forecasts, product and customer input. Additionally the entire sales team looks to this person as the Company’s idea of how they define leadership.

  • Analytical Thinking – The SD must be able to rise above the level of any one particular Regional or channel team, one customer or prospective customer. They must look at the sales pipeline (current stocks + reordering cycles + potential sales losses + potential sales gains) as an aggregate indication of the effectiveness of all teams. They must be able to translate pipeline analytics into action plans including training, product/service redefinition and as a tool to coach & develop their sales managers.  And while typically Sales Reps think in terms of units, and Regional Managers typically in terms of revenue and expenses- the SD must think in terms of boosting contribution margin… after the SD,  people in the organisation can only save money, he’s the money generator.
  • Using Business Expertise – By now the successful incumbent has accumulated enough industry, product and customer experience to understand not only what the sales pipeline looks like…but is able to anticipate what it should look like and is able to formulate tactical plans to guide the field sales teams  to sales plan attainment.
  • Enabling teams – The incumbent is accountable to communicate to senior management exactly what is needed in order to make plan. When sales teams face obstacles they rely on the SD to identify and acquire resources to help them overcome these roadblocks.
  • Selecting, Assessing, Training and developing people – The SD must make themselves accountable not just to their direct report’s development, but for every member of the sales team. Keeping up routine inspection of individual, team and regional performance metrics can help the SD see trends.

So why do people struggle as they move along this track?

People believe they should be ‘promoted’ although don’t understand, that a promotion takes them away from what they a great at and gives them typically a different job, with different skills.  Many sales people confuse recognition with promotion. They seek recognition and believe promotion is the only way to achieve this. A sophisticated and mature sales force can cope with recognizing great sales people – insurance companies excell with diamond performing reps, Presidents tables, great titles for their Reps. They don’t want to take their most potent performers away from their customers and sit them behind desks, and so they create a culture of sales recognition.


Well, I’ve worked within some very large sales organizations and made it to top sales officer. From my perspective the failure of the rep to succeed as manager falls on the shoulders of their employer.

Field sales is one of the only departments in a company where you sit miles away from your boss. You do not get the daily coaching sessions. The accidental conversations that take place in the hallways simply never occur in field sales. To make matters worse I have rarely seen leadership training offered to newly promoted field sales managers on how their remote roles are different.  Worse still, the processes offered to help have been created in the central office and focus more on form filling and data collection. There are no training courses on how to interpret the sales performance pipeline nor on how to allocate resources to maximize performance. Nor how to create developmental action plans around the analytics of the pipeline. We do a disservice to the organizations most valuable commodity…sales people. Not only do we leave the newly promoted manager swinging in the wind…but we withhold excellent leadership from the sales people who depend upon their manager to help them succeed.

OK, enough said from an old salesman like me. I hope to remedy some of these challenges in future, but would seek your feedback on my views here.

2 Replies to “What do different sales roles actually do?”

  1. Thanks for sending this through, I am a board member of a small company thats expanding and its good to know how to think abut Sales Roles and how they should interact. Keep up the ideas and information

  2. A good brief introduction, but I don’t think it goes into great enough detail. Plus each company is different so I cant see how generalizing can help much.

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