Almost anyone can be an effective leader with enough favorable tailwinds. It’s during periods of challenge that we see true leadership skills. In sales management, challenges can take several different forms. The most frequent – and usually the toughest for sales leaders to navigate – are those related to lower than expected results from one or more of a team’s members. Why? Because regardless what performance numbers may say, progressive leaders know it’s best to dig deeper than monthly or quarterly sales results. Thankfully, the days of simply firing the lowest sales person on the sales chart are gone in most businesses. Success today demands effective communication and decisive action instead.
The Importance of Feedback and Communication
Progressive leaders start by tactfully identifying the real reasons for a shortfall in output. Usually, that involves both communication and study. Every top leader we’ve encountered always starts the process by talking with an underperforming salesperson to get perspective. Are there some specific issues in his sales territory? Is she dealing with different competitive pressures? Did operational issues contribute to the shortfall? These are only a few among dozens of questions leaders can ask to understand specifically which issues need to be addressed to help a salesperson get on track with performance expectations.
We find effective leaders also tend to be effective listeners who pay attention to a salesperson’s concerns and make genuine efforts to determine the root causes of a deficiency. In the rush of day-to-day business conversations, it’s easy to focus on the first ‘excuse’ a sales person provides and make judgments according to what we hear. However, if we take adequate time to explore all the factors a sales person thinks contribute to his or her performance challenge, effective leaders are best able to identify which issues can be addressed and corrected by management and which issues can be remedied only by the individual salesperson. Proactive action by management can usually fix processing delays or operational snafus. But, different factors like absences from work, problems at home, ill health, or relationship issues with customers or colleagues that influence selling performance can only be fixed by a change in a salesperson’s behavior or circumstances.
Effective leaders are quick to listen, slow to judge and deliberate about solutions.
Use All Available Resources to Remedy Concerns
Once the causes of performance issues are identified, progressive leaders take clear and decisive action to correct the concerns. If poor operational performance is slowing deliveries or quality problems are creating problems with sales, effective leaders know they need to take concerns to the management responsible, and work with them to address the shortcomings quickly. If sales performance is related to individual issues, progressive leaders use all available resources to help remedy the adverse circumstance. In most organizations, those responsible for human resources can be valuable assets.
Is a sales person having trouble identifying new buyers? Does the sales person find it difficult to accurately determine (or help create) a customer’s needs? Is the sales person experiencing a lot of rejections or canceled orders that suggest challenges with qualifying customers? Is the way a sales person explains features and benefits less effective than desired? Is a salesperson having trouble closing sales with interested clients? Any — and all — of these issues can be addressed with training and skill development. And training may be advantageous at any stage in a sales professional’s career. Often, human resources professionals or outside consultants can identify various sources and programs that help even seasoned salespeople refresh skills to rejuvenate enthusiasm and improve performance results.
It’s almost always preferable – and more profitable — to provide training or assistance to struggling sales people than dismiss them and start again with a completely new hire who will also require training and development! But there are times when a sales person does not respond to the remedial strategies you agreed upon or change behaviors as desired.
Drawing a Line in the Sand
Progressive leaders have learned it’s usually better to not only establish a remedial strategy for challenged employees but also be sure the action has a specified period and mutual agreement on the steps to be taken. We’re not talking about threats here; we’re talking about communication clarity. Once a sales leader has used all available resources to develop the best remedial plan for an individual, it’s imperative the salesperson buy into both an entire strategy and the defined timeline. Why? Good leaders know they need to monitor progress at intervals and provide feedback. If there is progress, positive feedback usually accelerates the pace of improvement. If progress is not satisfactory, effective leaders know it’s better to keep a person informed with honest feedback. Team members with both a desire to correct identified weaknesses and remain on the team appreciate the guidance and will usually strive for better results. Salespeople who lack the motivation or ability to respond to the remedial strategy will be aware of the probable consequences. And, leaders must take decisive action for the good of the team.
When Termination is the Only Remaining Option
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out as hoped. Progressive leaders recognize that only salespeople themselves can choose to change their behaviors or upgrade their skills. When an employee demonstrates he or she chooses not to comply, termination of employment usually must occur. Local labor laws and defined company termination policies will certainly drive actual severance practices, but we’ve found the most progressive sales leaders sever relations with salespeople in a way that is as positive as possible – for both the individual and the company. Most companies realize that an employee who is disgruntled with a company can create great expense and damage a company’s reputation. Instead, effective sales leaders want severed employees to be good ambassadors for the company regardless.
If a sales leader has effectively listened to the concerns of a salesperson, discussed issues positively and helpfully, reached agreement with that person on a remedial strategy with clear timelines, and provided honest and objective feedback as the remedial program progressed, a severed employee won’t be surprised with a decision to terminate the relationship. With such expectation and fair severance terms and conditions, a salesperson will leave disappointed but not angry. And, leaders can then focus on a mission to identify, recruit, train and develop another candidate more suited to the company’s culture and business needs.
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