Five critical skills of a sales leader

Whether you are new in your role as a director of sales, or sales manager, or fancy yourself as an “old hand,” at my company, we believe there are five important skills a sales leader should develop over time to be successful:

Be engaged. As the leader of your team, you’ve got to be engaged on a personal level. When you talk with your people on a regular basis, you know where they are likely to be having problems. You can see the performance trends occurring before they happen. As a result, you’re seen as a resource and as someone who offers value to the individual salesperson on a personal basis. In today’s environment, engagement can be difficult. Everybody is remote. We’re all Zoomed out. But the fact remains: We must be engaged on a personal level with what’s happening in each salesperson’s world. 

Be inquisitive. Taken as a group, sales leaders don’t act particularly curious because, very often, we’re pressed for time. But we need to get better at asking the right questions and listening, with authentic interest, to their responses. How interested are you in getting to understand your sales representatives? What is their thinking? What conclusions are they making? Asking good questions, from a position of genuine curiosity, allows you to be a bit of a psychologist. You should always want to get a better understanding of how they reached a certain conclusion on their next course of action with a particular sales opportunity.

Roleplaying. Yes, it has a bad reputation among some salespeople (and managers), so rename it as modeling, practice or “situational simulation.”  Whatever you call it, this skill builds confidence, and conviction, within your team. Use it. Roleplay what they’re supposed to say, and do, in specific situations. Identify the top issues that your people may face in your sales process and make sure they can deliver a fluid, compelling talk track when the moment comes to discuss that issue with a buyer. Roleplaying gives your salespeople the strength, and the poise, they need when it counts during discussions with buyers. And, be honest: You don’t want them practicing on buyers. You want them practicing on you.  

Pre-call planning.  This is a critical sales leadership skill that produces positive outcomes in two realms: yours as a leader aiming to support a self-correcting team and the salesperson’s as a revenue producer aiming to close a given deal. Pre-call planning is one of the best ways to coach salespeople, one-on-one. This conversation enables you to agree ahead of time what’s going to happen before the sales call even begins—as opposed to learning about what happened after the call. It also lets the salesperson know what you are likely to ask during your next one-on-one discussion.

Feedback. As a leader, the goal is to make sure the feedback you’re giving your rep is focused on the job and not the person. We often tend to focus on what the salesperson is or what the salesperson always does, rather than the job. (“You know, you always do X. You should do Y.”) Those tend to be an attack on the person. Truly effective sales leaders give feedback on the job, not the person.  (“Have you thought about possibly doing Y instead of X?  What would happen if you did Y next time?”)  When we fixate on what a salesperson is or what a salesperson always does, people feel rejected. They tend to take it personally, and they don’t improve their performance. We want to help our people maintain self-esteem and at the same time giving them honest, helpful feedback on the job they’ve done. 

All leaders should consider these skills to ensure their teams are highly effective in today’s competitive business environment.  How would you grade yourself on each one and which will you choose to make a personal priority for the balance of 2022?

Jim Marshall is owner and president of Sandler Training of Tampa Bay, which provides sales, corporate and management training to high-achieving companies and individuals. Contact him at 813.287.1500 or

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