Sales Superstar Going to the Competition?

A client asks, "One of the sales representatives on my staff is a superstar whose revenue generation far exceeds any of the other salespeople. While I appreciate their stellar performance, there is a downside: they periodically threaten to go to the competition. Do you have any suggestions on how to handle this situation?"

Having a sales superstar on staff has many advantages. They are able to open new accounts, substantially increase sales revenue within current accounts, and serve as motivation to others on the sales team. As many business executives have found out, however, their super-sized sales production often requires super-sized management. Here are some tips on managing the superstar more effectively.

Look for patterns

Think back to when most of the conversations about going to the competition have occurred. Do they take place at the end or beginning of the year, during slow periods, or right after they close a big sale? Could it be right after you hire a new sales representative or give them their annual review? Do they bring up any other subjects? Going through this exercise might help you to see some patterns.

Talk with them

Set up a time to speak with them during a relatively calm period in your company's business cycle and not when they have just threatened to go to the competition. Ask them what they need to be happier and more productive at your company. Make a list of their suggestions and requests. Take all of the requests seriously but do not make any promises or immediately say "no" to anything they ask for – no matter how outrageous something may seem. Read the requests back to them and ask them to rank those requests in the order of importance. Thank them for their candor and then schedule a follow-up meeting right then and there.

Categorize the requests

Divide their requests into two categories: monetary and non-monetary. To be sure, most of their requests will be monetary, but others may surprise you and not involve compensation. Are they upset about their title or the fact that you have vetoed their request, which they feel would bring in a lot of business, to golf on Wednesday afternoons? Would a special parking place make them happy? Do they want more or less involvement with the new sales representatives? Have you begun to take their stellar performance for granted and not given them the recognition they deserve?

Match revenue to requests

Rather than say "no" to the upgraded company car or the President's Club trip to Portugal outright, get out your calculator, determine the real costs, and see what you can do. If you consider their monetary requests outrageous, set some high-level goals for them. If they can increase sales to Company X by 25%, you might be only too happy to buy them a couple of plane tickets to Portugal. If they can convince Company Y to buy from you instead of the competition, the idea of leasing a Lexus for them might be a lot more attractive.

Treat the other reps fairly

Use the possibility of the other sales representatives coming to you and complaining about the superstar’s preferential treatment as an opportunity to set some high goals for them too. Have some fun with it. Tell them that if they were to achieve a 30% increase in their territory, you will be happy to send them on a trip to the Bahamas and will personally drive them to the airport to catch their flight!

Call their bluff

If you feel you have done everything to accommodate your superstar and they are still threatening to go to the competition, it’s time to get a little tougher. Ask them questions such as: "Have you formally met with the competition?" "How do they compare with us culturally?" "Have they in fact offered you a position?" "What appeals to you about their company?" "Will you be their top producer?" "What if things don’t work out?" A conversation like this should tell you how serious they are about leaving.

Speak with your attorney

Regardless of whether you have this conversation with your superstar, if the departure of key employees to the competition puts your business at risk, you should have your attorney draft a non-competition agreement to protect your business from such an eventuality. Then have all your key employees sign it.

Be ready

Superstars sometimes leave no matter what you do. Make sure that you are accompanying them on visits to their largest accounts on a regular basis (see "Meeting Customers is Critical for Executives," May 2005) and have a contingency plan in the event that they do resign. Think about who on your staff would be able and willing to handle their accounts.

Discussions with the staff superstar can be a nerve-wracking event for many people. Instead of avoiding them altogether, which may lead to an unnecessary resignation, prepare for them as you would a major presentation and they will be much more productive and much less stressful.