How to Keep Your Relationships Professional as a Sales Manager

By Butch Bellah

In many cases, being a new sales manager means you were recently a member of the sales team — your friends, your buddies, your girlfriends. Well, not anymore. One of the changes you must make as you accept your new position is that you can no longer have the same type of relationship with your salespeople as you did before.

Here’s a guess: Of the people on your sales team, there are some you really like and some, eh, maybe not so much. That’s all in the past. As a leader and a manager you can’t play favorites — positively or negatively.

It’s difficult, uncomfortable, and awkward at times, but it’s imperative that you keep all your relationships as professional as possible. In some cases the people you’re now managing have more experience and are older than you — and you have to earn their respect by how you conduct yourself.

One example, a manager’s career path led him to be a division sales manager at 25 and vice president of sales at age 30. The problem was he was supervising, managing, and leading the exact group of people he’d just been laughing with, hanging out with, and talking about management with. Well, those things had to stop immediately. It’s the only way the job can be done professionally.

If you find yourself in the awkward position of becoming the boss to your former teammates, immediately schedule one-on-one meetings with every member of your sales team. Have the following discussion with those who may feel like they are in trouble because they weren’t your best friend or you’d had some disagreements:

“Mary, I know we’ve had an issue or issues in the past when we didn’t see eye to eye, but I want you to know that’s all in the past. my main goal in this position is to make you as successful as possible. Anything that’s happened before is in the past, and I want you to know I’m professional enough to make sure that I don’t let it influence how I make decisions or lead the department. I’d like to ask you to give me the opportunity to prove this, and I am going to ask you put our differences in the past as well and let’s move forward today, together, focused on growing your sales and satisfying your customers. Fair enough?”

Guess what? Nobody has ever said, “No that’s not fair enough.” This speech accomplishes several things:

  • You acknowledge the past issue. Don’t try to ignore it and hope it goes away.

  • You express your own professionalism. You put past difficulties behind you and pledge to make Mary successful.

  • You ask someone you had disagreements with to work with you to make her successful.

That’s a pretty strong statement and one you should seriously consider.

You also need to deal with the person or persons who were your good buddies when you were a member of the sales team. As important as the conversation you have with people you had issues with, the conversation you have with your friends is even more important. You need to let friends know from the beginning that you’re going to keep the relationship professional.

Now, there are different schools of thought as to whether you can socialize with these people. Personally, I believe it’s a bad idea and creates situations you’re better off without. That’s not to say you can’t ever go out to dinner or over to a friend’s house, but the relationship has to change — it has to be one of manager and salesperson, not two friends.

Just like you sat down with the people you’d had negative issues with, you must also sit down with your friends:

“Hey, Marisol, I know we go way back and I hope you appreciate the position I’m in. Everyone is expecting me to treat you differently because we’re friends — and, I am going to treat you differently. I’m probably going to be harder on you than the others for two reasons: I don’t want there to be any perception of playing favorites, and I expect more out of you. I’m not going to let you get by with average work. Please understand this is extremely hard for me and I’m going to have to make decisions that you and I may not agree on, but I’ve got to do what I feel is best. Fair enough?”

Again, what can Marisol say? “No, I want you to treat me like the teacher’s pet!”

What you accomplish with this conversation includes:

  • Your friend knows you’re still friends, but the relationship must change.

  • Your friend also knows she’s going to be treated differently — but because you expect more from her than the others.

Wow, how powerful is that? Do you think your friend will come out singing your praises? If she’s a true friend, she’s happy for your promotion, and if she’s a professional, she understands the predicament you’re in.

The main thing is to not ignore the situation with former peers — face it head on and keep all your relationships professional. Setting those ground rules in the beginning will serve you well in the weeks, months, and years to come.