Why you should replace 20% of your sales staff – NOW

I have strong opinions about sales staffs, having managed them in some shape or form since 1996.  As I’ve previously written, I believe only 20% of salespeople are more than order takers.  Given that assertion, I was asked recently, “What about the other 80% of our sales staff?  How should I manage them so that I can hit my sales targets?”
To answer that question and to understand the needs of your sale staff, I’d plot the entire sales organization on a bell curve.  If we look at such a standard distribution and assume that only 20% of your sales force are getting it done, as stated in the above-referenced article, then I would also suggest there are two remaining categories, both of which are underperforming.  They represent 60% and 20% of the sales staff, with the larger number those that may have potential, while the smaller number represents those who won’t ever improve sufficiently.
How can one manage an organization composed of these three different groups?
The Top 20%
Give them aggressive quotas and get out of their way.  Give them a sense of ownership – that what they work on is theirs.  Effectively it’s their business to make successful.  Make sure they are hitting their monthly quotas and be available with resources if and as they need them.  Otherwise, let them do their thing.  They will exceed their goals with minimal help.  These folks are your rainmakers.
The Middle 60%
The difference between this group and the one above is skills and results, while what distinguishes them from those below is attitude.  These folks need help and guidance, but they are willing to learn.  If guided properly they can be ‘fixed’.  You should ensure they have monthly goals and are doing the requisite outreach to prospects.  Perhaps include roleplay exercises, either with you or one of your top 20% performers.  When they show signs of making headway, offer rewards of formal training classes that can help fill in the gaps in their skillset.  Make the investments that can enable their growth into your top-tier category, as there always will be turnover in that group that requires replenishment.
The Lagging 20%
Unfortunately, you must get rid your organization of those who fall into this category.  Some of your best sales performers can drop into this category, becoming lazy and entitled and lacking the effort that previously drove their success.  They may try to game the system so that they can generate a solid income without having to do much.  Their negative attitude may attributable to missed promotions or the loss of juicy territories to others, but they won’t respond to encouragement or direction.  Furthermore, they will disrupt your efforts to make changes that require their effort and improvement.  That response will be negative motivation for others, who will see them resisting your efforts to make changes, which will hinder your effort to improve the middle 60% group.
When I have been called upon to consult with event companies with sales generation problems, the root of the issues frequently concerns staff in the last category who are trying to maintain the status quo despite the need for changes to be made.  As I said, for the sake of your own goals, you must dispense with them, as there is no ‘saving’ to be done.
Beyond addressing the bottom 20%, these are other steps I would take to both retain the top 20% and incent the other 60% to get there.
  • Pay well beyond what is available from your competitors. Your top salespeople are well aware of the options they have to make money.  Preempt their wandering elsewhere.

  • Pay for performance. You’d be surprised how many salespeople have more guaranteed income from salary than incentive from commission/bonuses.

  • Allow them to share their opinions about matters beyond what they are working on. Salespeople are on the front line and may know more of what’s going on than you do.

  • Give them guidance. Most people never have had mentors and their careers suffer as a result.  Either build this support within your own company or allow your salespeople to find mentors outside the company.

  • Hold each salesperson accountable monthly for effort and results.
When approaching the subject of letting poor performers go, I’ve heard comments along the lines of “I know I need to get rid of him, but I worry I find an immediate replacement who’s better.” Though making a change is difficult, when you let someone go, the vacancy hastens the effort to get a replacement. It also creates opportunity for others who remain to expand responsibilities (temporary territory assignment, increased commission). Though it’s not easy, removing underperformers is the right way to go.
Unfortunately, the people who have slowed my own performance are those that I didn’t replace when I knew it was needed.  I certainly have learned that lesson. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.

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