Frustrations with the Mediocre Rep

A reader writes, "Eight years ago I hired a rep that has been a mediocre producer from day one. She hits her sales goals - but always just by 1 - 2 percent. A pleasant enough person, she spends an inordinate amount of time in my office, asking for help closing deals and discussing company policy. I'm beginning to feel a sense of diminishing returns for her staying with the company."

Ah, the average rep. Sales managers all over the world, in every industry, spend countless hours coaching, listening to, and trying to motivate this rep. They want desperately to figure out how get them to the next level. 

The Conundrum

Most average reps possess some sales skills, represent the company well, and get along with their co-workers. They rarely have really bad months or quarters. When other reps sometimes struggle, their steady production occasionally saves the day.

Conversely, as other salespeople realize 30 to 40% gains - or higher - this rep comes in right at quota. They demand a lot of attention from management, struggling with the same issues again and again.

Rep Profile

Average salespeople have one thing in common - abdicating responsibility. They take their issue and email it to you.  Start placing accountability back where it belongs - with them.

Assess the Rep

If you've never done so before, have them take a sales assessment. Their scores, usually on the low but acceptable side, show they can sell but that the role doesn't come naturally. They need to work harder than most of their peers to achieve the same results. 

Discuss the findings with them. Next, ask them to draft a plan for working on any problem areas identified by the assessment. Have them select a book to read on the topic.  Discuss one chapter each week, during your one-on-ones.  Assign homework.

Change up the Interactions

Mediocre reps have a talent for steering the conversation off course and off subject. Even seasoned managers get caught off guard. Grab the steering wheel back.

Prior to all one-on-one meetings, send out an agenda. Start off with the book discussion and a review of their assignments. Next, discuss their sales performance against quota, and minimum performance standards like prospecting, calls, and presentations. Schedule the meeting for a certain amount of time and end it promptly.

When they call or come into your office for help, push back.  Say things like:

  • "We've discussed addressing that objection on several occasions. How have I advised you to respond?"
  • "That's company policy. As part of this sales team you need to follow the rule. Can you do that?"

Impromptu Visits

When having yet another time-draining conversation you know won't go anywhere, tell them "I have ten minutes right now, or all the time you need after five."

Enough said. We both know they won't be back at 5:05pm.

Review the Numbers

Show the reps the group numbers: 

  Quota Actual Difference %
Julie $2,100,000 $2,675,000 $575,000 127%
Connor $2,000,300 $2,800,000 $799,700 140%
Ann $2,073,000 $2,099,000 $26,000 101%
Nate $2,200,000 $2,100,000 ($100,000) 95%
Zachary $2,195,000 $2,544,000 $349,000 116%
Total $10,568,300 $12,218,000 $1,649,700 116%

Ask fair but thought-provoking questions like:

  • "Why do you think you consistently finish in the middle?"
  • "Zach started two years after you. He's at 116%. Why do you think that is?"
  • "Do you want to get out of the middle of the pack?  How do you intend to do that?"

Weigh the Costs

This rep achieves quota but comes in 15% below the group average. That's costing the company at least $300,000 annually. Your competitors gain ground in her territory. Provided she has all the same tools at her disposal, yet continues to lag behind the rest of the group, it could be time to consider probation for failing to achieve the group average.

Final Thoughts

Most average performers stay that way throughout their career. Each sales leader must decide whether to terminate their employment and train a new rep or stick with the status quo.

No matter which side you come down on, change the relationship. Set different expectations. Minimize your interactions with them. Don't allow them to monopolize your time. Allocate the majority of your management efforts to high-performing and up-and-coming reps. 

Sales Reps with Closing Issues

A reader asks, "One of my reps excels at uncovering new deals and filling the top end of the pipeline. But once he's sent a proposal to a prospective client he waits for them to respond rather than being proactive.  Coaching and working closely with him on high-value deals works well until one of us is out or traveling. Then we fall out of sync and lose momentum on his late-stage deals.  I have considered pulling deals away from him and moving them to a solid closer as a split. How can a seasoned sales professional who is exceptional at prospecting and developing new deals be so bad at advancing late-stage deals to close?"

You are far from alone.  My clients continuously tell me their various reps:

  • get through to decision makers with ease, then stall at the product demonstration phase
  • present the product very well then put together a poorly written and priced proposal
  • close effectively when they have a deal to close

What do you do?  Place them on formal written warning?  Turn late-stage deals over to other reps?  Terminate their employment?  Let's look at the possibilities.

Scope of the Problem

Review closed and lost sales for the past few years.  What number and percentage did you assist with?  When working on his own, how many and what percentage did he lose / close? Tally the sales revenue for the different scenarios.  Come to some solid conclusions about the seriousness of the issue.

Invest

You've come this far, devoting tremendous time and energy trying to help him close deals.  See it through.  Meet with him to discuss the problem as you see it.  Go over the sales numbers.  Listen to his thoughts and ideas. Remind him of the many skills he possesses to succeed in sales.  Offer your full support. Discuss next steps.

Have him take a sales assessment. Look at the whys and hows of his closing issues.  If the budget allows, arrange for targeted training or coaching specifically around closing.  Otherwise, ask the rep to select a book on closing.  The two of you should read it together and discuss.  

Coaching versus Enabling

You've worked with him to close many deals and he still cannot close on his own.  He either isn't listening or has become dependent on you.   As a manager, you need to make some changes as well.

When discussing potential deals, get him to tell you what he plans to say and do.  If he hesitates say something like, "This seems similar to the Smith Company sale from last year. What were the president's objections? How did you finalize that deal?"

Start pulling back.  Before accompanying him on sales calls, remind him that you are there to support him.  He must close the deal.  Resist the urge to jump in and close it yourself.

What Next?

Should training and/or coaching fail to turn his performance around, you have two alternatives to consider.

Alternative #1

You could create a position for this rep that focuses primarily on identifying and working opportunities to an agreed point in the sales cycle. This approach requires you have another rep or reps take those deals from that point forward and get them closed.

Taking this path would require assessing the strengths of your other salespeople, altering the sales process to manage the hand-offs (both for this salesperson and others), and adjusting quotas and compensation to accommodate the changing workload for the entire staff.

You'll need to review the consequences of making the change either with a trusted adviser (if you're the boss) or with the boss (if you're not) before moving forward with the plan.  Be sure it's worth all the trouble. The rep in question might quit, or the hybrid position may not work for the other salespeople.

Alternative #2

The second alternative involves putting the salesperson on a performance improvement plan as a prelude to moving him out of the organization. Tell him that to continue to have the title and privileges of a salesperson, he must meet or surpass sales quotas consistently and take potential deals from a cold call through to close. Failure to do so in a time period you specify will result in his being terminated.

Whether you choose the first or the second alternative depends on how good they are at everything but closing, and how much you want to navigate around their weakness. Contrary to popular myths, sales managers should not close sales for reps, save the occasional high-level, particularly complex deal.  The stress involved in "carrying" this rep makes him dependent on you and leaves you depleted for your other reps and responsibilities. 

Salesperson's Wardrobe Issues

A reader writes, "One of my outside sales representatives dresses in a manner that makes me uncomfortable. He practices good hygiene but suits are baggy, shirt sleeves are a little too long, and his pants bunch up around his shoes. When I've broached the subject a few times, he reacts defensively. He feels that customers buy integrity and honesty, not fancy clothes. I have no complaint about the overall good service he offers his customers. He isn't my top performing rep, however, and I think his attire costs him sales. How do I get through to him?"

This sensitive and tricky topic comes up frequently in my discussions with clients.  For some helpful tips I turn to Annie Kip, a Style Consultant for J. Hilburn Men's Clothier
(anniekip@jhilburnpartner.com).  "As much as we might like to ignore it," she says, "appearances do matter.  Your sales force serves as the public face of your company and should accurately reflect your business and its brand.  One of the easiest ways to convey authority, credibility, and value is through professional clothing and a polished appearance."

Seek to Understand

Kip recommends addressing the problem of your sales rep's appearance with some of the same tactics you might use to sell to a reluctant client.  "Ask questions about his resistance to wear what he calls 'fancy clothes.'  Clarify how he defines that term and his thoughts about spending money on clothing. Segue into discussing the impact personal presentation has on one's ability to connect with customers."

Talk Compensation

Put some numbers together.  If the rep in question started paying attention to his work wardrobe, how much more do you think he could reasonably earn?  Take an educated guess.  You aren't being held to an exact number.  Say it's $7,000 the first year and $10,000 the next. Helping your sales rep see how dressing well benefits him financially helps motivate him to improve his overall look.

Collaborate

"Rather than criticizing, you might share your experience with seeing the difference that dressing professionally has made in your own career," adds Kip.  "Tip him off that the local discount store just got a shipment of Italian cotton dress shirts. Offer an interesting statistic such the fact that the human brain processes visual information 30 times faster than verbal information. Mention the name of your tailor."  

Overwhelming Details

Your rep may not understand what he needs to do to clean up his look.  Especially if he isn't a standard "off-the-rack" size, finding clothing that fits and feels comfortable might prove difficult. "Does he know," she asks "that sleeves should extend no more than an one-half inch beyond his suit coat sleeves or that trousers should be hemmed to reach the top of the back heel of a dress shoe? These details matter. Once your sales rep is in the tailor's shop," says Annie, "the tailor will most certainly offer suggestions about other adjustments he can make to help his clothing fit better."

Dressing Professionally Not Expensively

"Expensive brand names intimidate a lot of people," offers Kip, "they think a big investment is the only way to get a polished look. This is not the case.  A professional wardrobe of clothing can be acquired on any budget and expanded over time. Sales reps can build many different looks mixing a few shirts and ties with one well-tailored, good-quality suit."  

Win-Win

Some executives Annie has worked with generate awareness and create a team focus on professional dressing by running sales incentives rewarding the top performer with a new, custom-made shirt, suit, belt, and tie.  The winner receives positive feedback from colleagues and begins to feel the sense of pride that comes with wearing a polished look.  "Structure the competition creatively," she stresses, "so the reps needing it the most will get the intended benefit of the incentive.  This helps remove barriers to dressing more professionally and encourages a sales culture that places value on a polished personal appearance."

Conclusion

"Though what someone wears is a very personal matter, his appearance impacts your business.  So help this rep reach his potential by understanding his reluctance and offering information and guidance -- just as you would help a customer come around to seeing how much they could benefit from buying your product," says Kip.

Annie and I know from experience that top salespeople ensure that everything about their appearance and manner communicates attention to detail, inspires confidence, and creates a personal connection with buyers.  Your sales rep should be dressed at least as well as his customers. His appearance makes a lasting statement long before he makes an impression with his presentation.

Minor Quota Misses Result in Big Frustration

A reader asks, "One of my sales representatives often misses quota by just a bit - 5% or less. No advice I've given them so far has seemed to work. They're frustrated and I am too. I'm not sure how to help them. Any suggestions?

So close - just not close enough. This all too common problem leaves many of my clients perplexed and confused. Because they almost always achieve their revenue target, clients tend to advise the rep in vague terms such as, "Be at your first call a little earlier in the day" or "make 5 or 10 extra dial outs."

Though well intentioned, those managing sales reps need to drill deeper and look for particular problem(s) such as:

  • not spending enough time prospecting
  • selling a lot of one product and very little of another
  • calling on favorite customers too often and other customers not often enough

Prospecting

A client of mine hired a rep for a sales position that involved 85% prospecting. In their previous position this salesperson spent only 25% of their day cold calling. Visits to current accounts took up the majority of their sales day.

Sales reports and conversations with the rep revealed they were really only spending 40 - 50% of their day prospecting - an increase to be sure, but not enough to succeed in their current position.

The sales representative and my client worked out a plan to gradually increase the number of daily prospecting calls over the next three months. In addition, the rep enrolled in a refresher course on cold calling skills.

Selling the Entire Line

On average, sales reps #1 and #2 achieve their revenue goal by selling 70% of Product A and 30% of Product B. Rep #3, always struggling to make quota, sells 84% of Product A and 16% of Product B.

Presented with this information my client took action. She showed Rep #3 both his numbers and those of the other two. Rep #3 met with and accompanied #1 and #2 on calls to specifically observe them presenting both products. Additional in-house product training has been scheduled.

Rep #3 understands he needs to increase sales of Product B by at least 15%.   He and his manager set a goal of improving sales of Product B by 3 or 4% a month for the next 4 months. With specific and reasonable targets set, the rep feels optimistic about his ability to reach those goals.

Inconsistent Customer Visits

Another client of mine manages a sales rep who "practically lives with" her top 15 accounts. She anticipates their needs, solves any problems, and personally delivered a part they needed the next day. Delivering that part, however, took the entire day (the client being several hours away). Not an emergency, the regular driver could have handled it.

After reviewing the reps "top" 15 accounts, we discovered those accounts were her 15 favorite. She treated several of the top revenue producing accounts as an afterthought. In adding up the revenue for the rep's top 15 accounts, my client and I calculated an overall decrease of 5% YTD.

Discussions with her revealed that she felt uncomfortable with - and discouraged about - the lack of progress with some of the top accounts. She and my client worked out a call schedule that has her spending most of her time with her major accounts and the right amount of time with her mid-level clients. My client will also accompany her on calls to clients where she isn't comfortable, to help her make some progress.

Take the Time

When a rep "just misses" quota regularly, don't reluctantly accept the situation. Avoid labels like a "disappointment," "underachiever," or "mediocre hire." Put some effort into discovering what the problem(s) might be. Review their numbers. Drill down a bit. Compare their performances with other reps. Consider their strengths and liabilities.

Managers need to isolate issues, ask questions, use examples, offer guidance, set goals, and hold reps accountable to improve the situation.   But above all else, when you speak with them, be specific about where the problems lie and what changes need to be made going forward.

Putting Sales Reps on Probation - Part II

In last month's column, I outlined five reactions salespeople have when they are put on probation for failure to achieve quota.  I described those behaviors as "I Dare You," "Waiting for the Ax to Fall," "Surprise Resignation," "Committed to Improvement," and "The Holding Pattern."

No matter which attitude your salesperson assumes, the following suggestions will help you get through this challenging process.

Warning Letter

After making the decision to put a rep on probation, spell out the terms in writing.  Specifics should include:

  • Length of probation period
  • Minimum sales revenue expectations
  • Non-revenue related goals
  • Required reporting / meetings

Have a place at the end of the letter for their signature and yours.  Both of you should sign it after the terms of probation have been discussed and you've answered any questions they might have. As with any important document, consult your attorney beforehand.

Passive or Aggressive

After they've been formally placed on probation, reps fall into two broad behavioral categories: passive or aggressive.  Passive reps feel they'll be terminated regardless and let the probation process take its course.  Aggressive reps fight back by trying hard to save their job or acting hostilely or belligerently towards their manager. 

In my own experience, I find that categorizing their behavior one way or the other allows me to deal with the rep more consistently day to day.   

Managing the Rumor Mill

As a sales manager, I give the rep in question advice on how to deal with gossip.  After we sign the letter I say something like, "Two other people know you're on probation, the Vice President of Sales and the HR Director. If you confide in other staff members everyone will eventually know, probably within hours.  I advise you to keep this to yourself."

Some choose to disclose the information to a peer, others do not.  By making this statement, I help them decide for themselves.

Mandatory Appointments

Those wishing to save their jobs will choose to meet with you frequently.  Most will avoid any interaction with you.  Regardless, hold a formal meeting with reps on probation at least once a week.  If they're remote, speak over the phone. Review their productivity and provide any coaching and support they need. 

The letter of warning should indicate that these conferences aren't optional. Schedule the dates and times right after signing it.

Staff Meetings

Most reps on warning stop actively participating in sales staff meetings.  They attend but don't speak up much, if at all.  Others act combatively, taking you on in front of the group. Either way, their peers take notice.

Discuss their behavior.  Encourage the withdrawn rep to participate occasionally. Set limits with the one acting out. Especially if they want to keep their probation quiet, remind them it's in their best interest to behave as normally as possible.

Casual Conversation

Though awkward and difficult, make sure to informally chat with the rep on probation once in a while.  This is especially important if they come into the office most days. Ask questions like "I know you like baseball, were you able to watch the play-off game?" or "That was some rainstorm this weekend, wasn't it?"

Most will answer briefly but politely.  All will appreciate the fact you made the effort, even if they don't show it.

No matter how justified, it's almost as uncomfortable putting someone on probation as it is being on probation.  For managers, the first time through is the most difficult.  Always choose the higher ground when dealing with the rep and remember you're making the right move for your company

Putting Sales Reps on Probation

In the past, I let sales reps who weren't achieving quota remain with the company until they quit or I fired them. For the first time, I'll be putting an underperforming sales rep on warning.  I'm apprehensive about how he'll act around the office in the days and weeks after I give him the news.  What should I expect?  

Once a sales rep has been put on probation, warning, or a PIP (performance improvement plan), their behavior can only be described as interesting.  I can't predict how your rep will conduct himself.  I can review the patterns I typically see.

Surprise Resignation

Get ready. A week or two after you put him on warning, the rep may resign.   "Why did I bother to go to the time and effort of putting them on warning?" you might ask yourself.

In this case the sales rep knew he wasn't performing up to expectations.  Most likely, he'd been job hunting for a while.  Being put on probation was the catalyst for him to move things along.  Salespeople in this situation may take a job they don't really want to avoid being terminated.  It happens.

Your efforts were not in vain.  The time you invested in the warning process resulted in a quick and relatively painless exit on the part of an underperforming employee.  Look forward. Put your energies into hiring a new sales representative.

Committed to Improvement

In the early weeks of being placed on probation, these salespeople jump into action. If they're supposed to make 25 prospecting calls a day, they'll make 30.  Instead of the required 10 product demonstrations, they'll conduct 12.

These reps realize they value their job. Upset about letting their production slip, they refocus and work hard to prove themselves.  Managers find it very rewarding when salespeople make a real effort to get off of probation.  After all, they hired the rep with the idea that they would be successful. 

The Holding Pattern

Other reps will display the same sort of newfound dedication as "Committed" and put up strong sales numbers -- initially.  However their effort is only about staying employed until they can find a new job.

Observing this rep in action, you may optimistically say to yourself, "I guess being put on warning was what they needed all along. This may work out."

Don't be fooled. This rep's rise to the occasion is temporary. 

Waiting for the Ax to Fall

Some salespeople accept the inevitable almost right after you put them on warning. They'll never reach their sales goals and they know it.

Their energy level quickly deteriorates. Lunch hours get longer and longer.  They call in sick frequently, and take unused vacation or personal days.  Most distance themselves from their manager and peers.  It's a slow, awkward crawl to the finish line.

I Dare You

Perhaps you've threatened him with probation before.  Have you ever started the process and then quietly backed off with out following through? 

Whatever the case may be, probation doesn't phase this rep.  He makes no changes to his behavior at all. He's waiting you out.  Aware that he's not the most talented salesperson, he knows you could do better.  But you could do a a lot worse too. 

Confident you don't have the nerve to fire him, it's business as usual until you get back to normal.

Moving Forward

Forget about how you may or may not have handled underperforming reps in the past.  Put that behind you.  Commit to this process.  Go into it knowing that not following through on probation is worse than doing nothing.  It shows the salespeople that they can push you around.  Placing below-quota reps on probation is the right thing to do for you, your business, and the rest of the sales staff.

In next month's column I will offer tips on navigating the management of and interaction with a rep on probation or warning.

Salesperson Should Focus on Selling, Not Website

A client asks, "One of my sales representatives is somewhat technologically savvy. To save money, I made them responsible our website, rather than outsourcing this to a professional. They created the website and manage the content and updates. Though we agreed that they would only spend a certain number of hours working on it, it seems as if they are always tinkering with it and their sales are suffering as a result. I am guilty, as well, of asking them to make changes to it with little advance notice. Am I doing the right thing?"

In an effort to economize, many small business executives give additional job responsibilities to sales representatives. It is rarely a good idea. Here are but a few of the many, many reasons why.

Proper Focus

Being a sales representative is a difficult job that takes a tremendous amount of discipline and focus. From time to time even the best salespeople look for an excuse not to meet with prospects or pick up the phone. By putting them in charge of the website, you are actually providing a safe haven from the hard work and accompanying rejection that is part of the sales process.

Motivation

Really good sales representatives are money motivated and typically resist getting too involved in activities that waste their time and take them away from their main objective – closing sales. Is this sales representative money motivated? If they are not, or if the compensation plan doesn't motivate them properly, their sales results will be mediocre and they will always welcome a distraction.

Professional Image

Though your salesperson may have created fun homepages for family and friends, they are not a trained professional. Does your company website really have the pulled together look that a dedicated marketer and web designer would provide? Put another way, would you take a web designer and make them a salesperson? Ask a few friends and trusted advisors to tell you what they honestly think of your web page. They may say it looks like it was done by an amateur.

Saving Money

Are you really saving money? If your website is somehow discouraging customers from calling your company, and the salesperson is taking valuable time from their selling day to work on it, how much have you really saved? Could it, in fact, be costing you money?

Objectivity

It's very difficult for any employee to be totally objective about website content. They are emotionally close to the topic and are often reluctant to disagree with ownership about what should and shouldn't be on the website. Not so with a professional. They know what works and what doesn't and aren't afraid to respectfully disagree with some of your ideas.

It is sometimes tempting to let a sales representative who has an interest in another field take over some of those responsibilities. The owner or company president often finds that the sales representative's job responsibilities become more and more murky. Let salespeople sell. It's what they are paid to do and what they should want to do. If not, you may have the wrong person in that position.

Salesperson Spends Time on the Phone, But Not with Customers

A client asks, "One of my salespeople makes far too many personal calls. Some of what they discuss during these calls is personal in nature and though they don't speak loudly, it is not difficult to hear what is being discussed. They are an otherwise solid performer, at or above quota most of the time. How do I address this issue with them?"

What seems like an annoying problem, a sales representative making too many personal calls, can turn into a larger issue if it continues unchecked for a prolonged period of time. Your instincts are right, and by the way a similar issue exists if a salesperson is spending too much time at work on personal email or IM. Start a dialogue with them right away.

Track the calls

Analyze this salesperson's call report for a week. How many work-related calls are they making? Exactly how many of their calls are personal? What is the total amount and percentage of time being spent on these calls? Are they calling the same phone number repeatedly or are they calling a variety of different numbers? What is the average duration of the calls?

Discuss the situation

Set up a time to speak with the salesperson and restrict the conversation to this topic. Have the data on their phone calls handy, but only use it if they deny that this behavior is occurring. Instead, start off by saying something like, "I couldn’t help but observe that you have been making more personal calls than usual. Is everything alright?"

Many business owners and managers are surprised to discover, when they open the discussion with that question, that their sales representative is actually dealing with a difficult issue. It could be that they are buying or selling a home, solving a daycare or eldercare issue or going through a divorce. If it's the case that they are dealing with a temporary crisis, ask them what kind of assistance they need to solve the problem. Discuss the possibility of their taking a few vacation days or a short leave of absence. Try and help them come up with some potential solutions.

If it turns out that they have just been making a lot of random personal calls and they don't appear to be dealing with a crisis of any kind, ask them about their job. Are they still enjoying what they are doing? Is something / someone bothering them? Do they need a new challenge? If you have made any recent changes to their compensation plan or territory, could it be affecting them? Could they be job hunting? Be open to whatever they have to say.

The end result is the same

Whether they are in crisis or have just been abusing their telephone privileges, one thing needs to be clear at the end of the conversation. Their personal call volume is too high and the content of their calls is too personal for the workplace. This behavior is affecting their productivity, their income, and their relationship with their co-workers. Somehow, they need reduce the number of personal calls they are making and/or make their private calls offsite and during a lunch hour or break.

Failure to address the issue will lead other staff members to believe that making a lot of personal calls during the work day is acceptable. At best, the salesperson making all the calls will become fodder for office gossip. At worst, the other salespeople will be distracted by these calls and their own productivity will suffer. The sooner you have this conversation with the offending employee the better.

Salesperson Doesn't Use CRM System

A client asks, "Every member of my sales staff is using our new Customer Relationship Management system (CRM) except one. I have made it clear that keeping account and prospect information in the CRM system is an important job responsibility. This person is an otherwise strong performer. What can I do about this situation?"

This is a frequent occurrence in sales organizations and you are right not to ignore the problem. But it's a tricky dilemma to solve because this person is doing the majority of their job well. The key to success in this case is creating a plan and following it through.

Discuss the Situation

Set up a one-on-one meeting with the salesperson to talk about their non-compliance with your policy. Let them know, in advance, what the meeting will be about and don't discuss other issues. Ask a lot of questions. Why aren't they using the CRM system? Why do they feel that way? Are they comfortable using the system? Which screens are the most difficult for them? Which do they find useful?

Re-train

If they acknowledge needing additional training, offer to provide it, but avoid repeating the previous training. Select an instruction method that matches their learning style, such as some one-on-one tutoring. Regardless of which training method you choose, put a plan in place to track their progress.

Sell the System

Explain your side of the issue at this meeting as well. Tell them why you invested in a CRM system to begin with, and reiterate why you chose this particular one. Show them some of the reports you are now able to run and share some of the insights they have provided about the business. Talk about successes the other sales representatives have realized by using the system and relate the stories to increases in income and/or account size. There may be a computer whiz on your sales staff they may feel they have to compete with, so stick to selling-related benefits.

Follow-up

During your talk, schedule a follow-up meeting for a week later and then keep a close watch on their use of the system. It may be that they just needed to know how serious you were about their using the CRM system and will start using it from this point forward. If this is the case, be sure and tell them how pleased you are with their progress during the follow-up meeting.

If they continue to avoid using the CRM system during that week, let them know how disappointed and confused you are by this. Then log on to the system and ask them to demonstrate their knowledge of it to you. Ask them to enter a new account or set a call- back date. If they are able to perform these tasks then you know they are simply refusing to use the CRM system. If they cannot, then you know for certain that you are dealing with a training issue and can plan accordingly.

Set Expectations

Let the sales representative who is refusing to use the system know that using it is a job requirement for everyone on the sales staff and all future hires. Remind them that their actions will exclude them from being considered for any promotions or greater responsibilities within the company. Ask them, should they ever decide to accept a position elsewhere, how many really good sales jobs would be available for someone unwilling to utilize this new technology. Give them a time frame in which to learn the system, meet with them periodically to monitor their progress, and tell them that failure to use the system will result in potential penalties.

Look at the Real Costs

If they are still not using the CRM system after a reasonable period of time, you need to hit them in the wallet and reduce payable commissions. Keep the following in mind: the other sales representatives are aware that you are not holding everyone accountable to the same standards and they will resent it. This will result in underperformance and unnecessary resignations. The sales representative who is not using the CRM system is not maximizing their sales territory and your competition probably is. These factors alone will reduce your profitability. If their refusal to use the CRM system is costing you money, it should cost the salesperson financially as well.

 

Is Salesperson Devoting Too Much Time to a Few Customers?

A client asks, "One of my sales representatives spends an inordinate amount of time with their two biggest accounts. They will often personally deliver small items, a task typically handled by the U.S. Mail. These accounts are valuable to our company and I'm not aware of any major problems, but I worry that the sales representative is there too much and might be neglecting their other customers. How should I handle this situation?"

Just being aware of this is good management and you are right to be concerned. The salesperson you mention is acting like a "mother hen" with these accounts, and usually this does not yield high sales productivity.

Do Your Homework

Resist the urge to jump in and insist that they stop this behavior. Do a little detective work by reviewing their call reports for the last six months to look for trends. How many calls are they making per day / per week / per month? Which accounts are not being called on? Which products / services do they sell most often? Which do they rarely sell? How many of their accounts are up for the year and how many are down?

Schedule a Review of Accounts

Next, plan a one-on-one account review session with the salesperson. While a sales forecast review examines those accounts that have a high probability of buying in the next business quarter, a review of accounts examines each and every account in detail to determine if their potential is being maximized. In this particular case I would recommend starting with your salesperson's smallest accounts first and working your way toward the larger accounts, thereby focusing on the salesperson's entire territory rather than on the superstar accounts. Do not let the salesperson gloss over the accounts at the bottom of the list. Ask probing questions such as "Why is this account visited / called only twice per year?" "Why does this account buy only one of our products?" Set a goal to discuss each account for a minimum length of time. Depending on the number of accounts, this type of meeting can be lengthy, so the discussion can be spread out over several meetings.

Meet and Greet

If you haven't done so in a while, accompany the salesperson on some sales calls. Make sure the calls include the two accounts in question. Observe the salesperson as they interact with their customers. Where do you think they are strong? Where might they need some help? Discuss the calls afterwards. Solicit their opinion on how they went.

Discuss the Accounts in Question

After you have invested the time to find out how things really stand in your salesperson's territory, you can ask the hard questions about the accounts in question. Your first-hand knowledge of the situation will increase the chances that the sales representative will be more forthcoming. Share your observations and concerns with them. It may be that they didn't realize they were spending a disproportionate amount of time with those accounts, or they might have thought that you wanted them to be this devoted. Perhaps they made a mistake with the account and were overcompensating by being there all the time. Maybe they are concerned about competition in the marketplace. Possibly they are coasting on the commission from these two accounts. It could be that they are suffering from boredom or burn-out.

Whatever the issue or issues turn out to be, assume that they probably had the best of intentions. Work with them to uncover the problems, and then develop potential solutions. Keep working with them regularly to ensure that all of their customers are being called on and that all of their accounts are achieving their full potential.

Addressing Disruptive Behavior

A client asks, "One of my company's top-producing sales representatives can be very sarcastic. Though sometimes entertaining, this behavior can be unpleasant during staff or one-on-one meetings. I would like to improve this situation. Any suggestions?"

The good news is that this individual is good at selling. Like many salespeople, they are probably verbally quick and have a good sense of humor. The bad news is that there is a dark side to the wittiness that manifests itself - surprise - verbally. This situation is not uncommon and it is manageable. But it will take time, patience and consistency on your part before it is under control.

First, hold a meeting with the sales representative to discuss this situation only. Do not mix it in with a review of their monthly sales forecast, for instance. Tell them what you have observed and experienced and how it affects you and others. Appeal to their competitive side. Let them know that customers might find their sarcastic demeanor unpleasant and that it may well affect them financially. They will deny this, but it will get their attention.

Ask them why they are sarcastic at times. Hear them out. Is it possible that they are upset about an issue within the company? Do they have trouble being direct when they are angry? Are they trying to prove that they can do whatever they want because they are a top producer? Promise to look into issues that may be bothering them. But stress that no matter what problems occur in the future, sarcasm is not the way to deal with them. Tell them that people will be more receptive to hearing what they have to say if they communicate more pleasantly.

Next, have a strategy in place. If they are being sarcastic during a one-on-one meeting with you, calmly end it. Say something like, "Let's meet again tomorrow when you are in a better frame of mind." Do not let them bully or apologize their way into letting the meeting continue. Stand your ground. If they exhibit this unwanted behavior in a staff meeting, discuss it with them immediately afterwards.

Schedule meetings on a regular basis to discuss the situation. Talk about setbacks. Bring up specific situations in which you have noticed their old behaviors coming out. Most importantly, "catch" them communicating in a more straightforward style as often as you can and praise them for it.

Remember, if you have lived with this conduct for a quite a while it will take some time to make the situation manageable. Don't expect perfection. There may always be the occasional sarcastic comment; it's part of their personality. But with consistency and patience, progress can be made. Good salespeople are hard to find and this one sounds like they are worth putting effort into.

Salesperson Manages Accounts but Doesn't Sell

A client asks, "About a year ago I hired a sales representative. Their rapport with customers is excellent and they manage their accounts satisfactorily, but they do little in the way of account development or prospecting. What should I do with this individual? Are my expectations unreasonable?"

You are not being unreasonable. You are observing some strong pro-customer traits in this individual which you would like to capitalize on. But you hired them to sell, and you're asking yourself, "Are they a salesperson or a customer service representative?" To answer this question, first take a look at the problem from the company perspective.

  • Job Title / Job Description: When this individual was hired, were the job title and description accurate reflections of your goals for the position? Did you hire to the job description?
  • Productivity Standards: Do you have standards and does this individual understand what percentage of their time should be spent on prospecting, outbound calling and sales presentations?
  • Incentive Plan: Does your compensation plan reward the behavior that you want, namely account development and prospecting? Is the plan too comfortable, allowing them to be financially satisfied without earning the commissions associated with achieving the goals?
  • Accountability: Do you hold meetings at least monthly with individual sales representatives to review their sales numbers and hold them accountable for their performance against plan?

Now let’s take a look at the problem from the perspective of the sales representative. The first thing you should do is have a discussion with this employee. Position what you have to say as a factual observation ("I have noticed that your sales numbers over the last few months have been…") rather than as criticism. Be specific. Ask a lot of questions, such as:

  • Do they understand the requirements of the position?
  • Could it be that they lack the necessary skills to sell?
  • Are these skills that they want to develop through coaching or training?
  • Do they enjoy the prestige of being a sales representative but not the pressure?

A good discussion should bring some of this out in the open, and together you can develop a plan to improve the situation.

If over a reasonable period of time they are not performing at least at or above the group average, it’s time to make a decision. If you need an additional customer service representative and they are willing to accept the position and the change in compensation, offer it to them. If this is not what they want, they need to be placed on warning and potentially terminated.

Allowing an individual hired for a sales position to create their own "hybrid" job is rarely a good idea. They must be held accountable to the same standards as anyone else on your sales staff. Despite their winning ways with customers, an underperformer who is tolerated will bring down the morale of your sales organization and undermine your authority as a manager.

Maintaining Sales Momentum

A client asks: “In these more challenging economic times the number of formal pricing proposals that my salespeople generate for prospects has decreased significantly. Now, after seeing our product demo, prospects tell the sales representatives that they are very interested, but not ready for a proposal. When the sales representatives follow-up with them on an agreed upon date, they are still interested but not ready to move forward. How can we increase the number of clients willing to accept the proposals that will ultimately lead to closed sales?”

You are off to a good start in two ways. First, you are not pressuring your sales staff to aggressively turn out pricing proposals for prospects that aren’t yet ready to receive them. Secondly, you have identified the specific place in the sales cycle where sales are stalling. What you need to do now is analyze the message the sales organization is presenting to the prospect prior to the product demonstration.

Talk to your customers

Interview those customers who have purchased software from you very recently, in spite of the economic conditions. Why did they decide to purchase your software? Did they forego other purchases in favor of your product? Why? What else were they considering buying? What made them decide that your product was a priority? How has your product helped them improve their bottom line?

Review your sales and marketing materials

Were your company’s marketing materials (paper and electronic) designed in more robust times? When were they last updated? If it has been awhile, re-do them so that all sales presentations and marketing literature are focusing on the benefits just mentioned by your most current customers.

Ask for the objections up front

If the sale is stalling after the product demonstration, improve the sales dialogue that takes place before, by asking better pre-demo questions such as: If they like what they see during the demonstration, what will the next step be? What large purchases are they planning to make this year? Is a software program like yours a top priority? Who at the company is in favor of a software program like yours? Who would likely lobby for other purchases? What other factors could put the purchase on hold?

These three exercises will help the sales representatives put together a sales presentation that works with the current economic conditions and makes a more compelling case for the prospect to buy your product in the near future.