How Many Chances Should Salespeople Get?

My company has a few salespeople who are great people, but not such great salespeople—at least when it comes to selling advertising for online publications such as ours. I was chatting with our publisher about this last week, and much to my surprise, he talked about the performance of the salespeople the way you would talk about bad weather—like something entirely out of his control. “Well, I hope they get better!” I said as I walked away. “You and me both,” he responded, smiling.

That exchange bothered me. I turned it over in mind, and kept wishing I had felt the liberty to advise: “You know, there are things you can do about under-performing salespeople. You can set goals for them with timelines for improvement, and let them know way in advance that if their sales don’t reach a specific level by a specific date, they will be let go. You can provide them with training and other resources to help them meet their goals.” I didn’t feel my advice would be welcome—and assumed it was advice he probably already had thought of on his own—so I kept my mouth shut. 

As you would expect, when I Googled “Latest ideas for improving sales performance,” pages and pages of search results came up. One common tip about sales training is the need for setting clear expectations. Our publisher noted the discomfort our salespeople feel about selling what we call content messaging, meaning the sale of advertorials. It may be that they were never taught how to do it, and don’t understand that the expectations of both their bosses and customers are different when selling this kind of advertising. Those are two fixable problems. They may need practice sessions in which they role-play how to sell advertorials in which they are selling both the running of an ad, as well as the development of the messaging on behalf of the client. 

It dawned on me that in sales training, it’s just as important to train those managing the salespeople as it is to train the salespeople themselves. It’s the manager who is responsible for setting goals, providing training and job-support resources, and then holding the salespeople accountable for their performance. What is the best way to train sales managers? Often, the sales managers are former salespeople themselves, albeit salespeople who haven’t worked in the field for many years. They may have lost touch with the needs of the current-day salesperson, and at the very least, may not be aware of how young people today expect to be prepared for their jobs. What was intuitive to an older generation of salespeople—that they would lose their jobs with or without warning if they didn’t perform well—may not be intuitive to today’s salespeople. There may be an idea among young, and even middle-aged, salesforces that sales is a work-in-progress in which chronic failure and low numbers will be tolerated indefinitely. Is there a way of maintaining a positive culture while teaching salespeople that they will be held accountable for low sales numbers, and that they definitely will lose their jobs at certain point?

I’ve never been a salesperson myself, but being empathetic, I can imagine that I would want to feel I had been treated fairly. The first thing would be clear setting of expectations of the level I was expected to perform at, then I would want to know of specific deadlines for meeting minimum numbers. In the meantime, I would want to have an easy-to-access line of communication and support from the sales manager via which I could reach out anytime during business hours and that same day or a day later get an e-mail or phone call answering my question or providing needed resources. I also would want training to help fix my weaknesses. If all those things—expectations, deadlines, and resources—had been provided to me, and I still didn’t meet my goals, I could say I had been treated fairly.

How does your organization handle under-performing salespeople? How do you ensure fair treatment and humanity, while also ensuring your salesforce is generating strong profits?


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