Steps to Becoming a Sales Manager - Experience & Certifications

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Sales has always been an art, but sales management turns it into something of a science. Where a salesperson focuses on putting a product into a consumer’s hands, a sales manager drives an entire salesforce to meet strategic goals that grow the wider business. Whether working in a B2B or B2C environment, the role of a sales manager is a critically important one—and it requires both business fundamentals (finance and analytics) and strong leadership qualities (communication and management).

Sales managers oversee a company’s salesforce. On a macro level, they set sales goals, manage quotas, design sales plans, and align a team with a company’s broader strategic objectives. On a micro level, they hire, train, and mentor the sales team. They analyze sales data and experiment with new and agile sales schemes. To be a top sales manager requires one to marry the tried and true fundamentals of an old school sales professional with the cutting edge techniques and data-driven tactics of the modern business world.

There were over 385,000 sales manager positions in the U.S. in 2016 and the industry was expected to add nearly 29,000 new positions by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is a job that handsomely rewards performance: the average salary for a sales manager is over $124,000 per year. But competition is getting more stiff and employers are increasingly looking for sales managers with the right blend of experience, education, and keen management skills. To get a look at the recipe to becoming a top sales manager, check out our step-by-step guide below.

Personality Traits of Successful Sales Managers

Sales managers come in many different shapes and sizes. Their end-products may range from software to hardware to services. But throughout all this diversity, some key unifying themes emerge as the common personality traits of successful sales managers.

  • Communicative. This isn’t just selling a product but also motivating others to sell a product for you. Sales managers need robust communication skills to get their message across to their staff and to understand the unique needs of each staff member.
  • Mentally Agile. Whether their team is overperforming or underperforming, successful sales managers don’t get stuck in a rut. They must be willing to experiment with new strategies or revert back to old ones, in a constant re-optimization.
  • Analytical. The 20th-century image of the suited salesman going into a business meeting armed with little more than common sense and gut feeling just isn’t competitive in a world of data-driven analytics. Today’s sales managers have all the bravado and confidence of their storied predecessors, but they supplement it with hard numbers and complex statistical analyses.
  • Goal-Oriented. The yardstick for sales managers hasn’t changed much over the years and goal-orientation is a key factor for success in this industry. But it’s not only about achieving strategic goals; it’s also about setting realistic goals for the salesforce that align with the company’s broader aims.

Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Sales Manager

Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

After graduating from high school, aspiring sales managers need to earn a bachelor’s degree. Advantageous major choices include management; marketing; accounting; finance; economics; or statistics. Admissions requirements vary from school to school but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive high school GPA (3.0 or greater); SAT and/or ACT scores; letters of recommendation; and a personal statement.

Arizona State University has an online bachelor’s program in business administration that prepares graduates for managing business groups of all sizes. Students learn how to forecast demand, conduct negotiations, build long-term strategies, and analyze financial data. Courses cover subjects such as mathematics for business analysis; communication in business; problem solving and actionable analysis; organization and management leadership; and marketing and business performance. The program consists of 120 credits and costs approximately $640 per credit.

The University of Illinois, Chicago has an on-campus bachelor’s program in management that teaches graduates how to direct and motivate others. Its varied curriculum draws upon human resource management, strategic management, managerial logistics, and overall leadership. Courses include topics such as organizational theory; leadership theories; managerial effectiveness through diversity; negotiation and conflict resolution; and marketing channels and e-commerce. The program consists of 120 credits and costs approximately $6,542 per semester for non-residents.

Step Two: Gain Early Work Experience (One to Five Years)

Sales management isn’t an entry-level role and it’s extremely rare for an inexperienced college graduate to be hired for such a position. So after graduating from university, aspiring sales managers need to gain some hands-on experience. Employers generally seek out candidates with one to five years of work in sales. Often this period of time is extremely formative: on-the-job experience is some of the best education money can buy. Not only will aspiring sales managers get a feel for the day-to-day operations of a salesforce and what’s required to lead one, but they’ll also learn which niche of the market they feel most comfortable working in. Furthermore, some employers will subsidize an employee’s forays into graduate-level education.

Step Three: Earn a Master’s Degree (Optional, Two Years)

Graduate-level education isn’t a requirement for all sales managers, but it’s increasingly becoming the norm for those in top positions. A master’s of business administration (MBA) gives graduates a deep understanding of the business fundamentals and leadership skills that are necessary to motivate teams towards short-, mid-, and long-term operational targets. Admissions requirements vary from school to school but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive undergraduate GPA (3.0 or greater); GMAT or GRE scores; work experience; letters of recommendation; and a personal statement.

Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business has an MBA program that can be completed entirely online. Students may choose to concentrate in areas like finance, international management, or marketing. Relevant courses for sales managers include managing people and organizations; managing ethics in the workplace and marketplace; creating and sustaining customer markets; strategic decision making in a changing environment; and market-focused strategy. The program consists of 50 credits and costs approximately $80,000 per year.

Southern New Hampshire University offers an online MBA program that is both affordable and flexible. Students may choose from over two dozen different concentrations and add focus modules in areas like economics, finance, leadership, or Six Sigma. Relevant course options for sales managers include statistics for business; human behavior in organizations; economic decision making; the psychology of leadership; and leading change. The program consists of 12 courses and costs approximately $1,881 per course.

Step Four: Consider Professional Certification (Optional, Timeline Varies)

After earning their master’s degree, many sales managers seek out professional certification as a way to continue their education and demonstrate expertise. Offered through professional societies, these certifications are a peer-reviewed mark of distinction that can move one’s resume to the top of the stack and convince employers of one’s commitment to best practices.

The National Association of Sales Professionals (NASP) offers certification as a Certified Professional Sales Leader (CPSL). Designed for sales managers and other sales professionals eyeing top leadership positions, the CPSL builds on the strategic leadership process and incorporates the emotional and psychological drivers of team action. In a 45-day online training program, applicants learn to influence behavior and lead diverse teams towards strategic goals. Once completed, applicants will earn the CPSL designation. The program costs $695.

Sales & Marketing Executives International (SMEI) offers certification as a Certified Sales Executive (CSE). Designed for sales professionals either in or aspiring to a management role, this program consists of an online self-study course that covers the theoretical foundations and practical applications of leading a globally-focused salesforce. Upon completion of the online course modules, applicants must pass a three-hour, 180-question exam in order to earn the CSE credential. The program costs $1049 for professional members of SMEI. CSE-holders must renew their certification every year by paying an annual fee of $95 and completing 20 hours of continuing education.

Helpful Resources for Sales Managers

Sales management is centered around relationships and networks. While each corporation sells a slightly different product to a different set of consumers, the general tactics and best practices of sales management are often universally applicable. To get a glimpse into the world of sales management and find out where it’s headed, check out some of the resources below.

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