The sales team is the engine of your company. Sales drives profits, growth and success.
Like any engine, your sales team needs to be maintained and looked after in order to keep it humming along nicely.
But as any mechanic can tell you - even the best-maintained engine can break down due to the unexpected failure of individual parts.
As a sales manager, your job is to make sure your individual team members hit their targets.
When they do, managing your team can feel like one of the easiest jobs in the world.
Unfortunately, statistics show that around one-third of all salespeople fail to hit their quotas either permanently, or from time to time.
The reasons for this failure are varied and diffuse. Each salesperson is different and each product, company, and industry has its own challenges.
However, there are three common situations where a sales manager may have to deal with an under-performing salesperson, and you need to develop a proactive plan to make sure you can help your team member bounce back to hitting those targets nice and fast.
Remember - failure in sales is inevitable and you need to steer clear of fear
The pressure on salespeople can be immense.
Their success or failure often determines the fate of the company. Each individual in your team carries a huge responsibility.
While some people thrive in this pressure-cooker environment, many others buckle under the strain.
Your job as a sales manager is to manage and balance stress levels, help your team deal with expectation, and find ways to keep them motivated and on track. You need to understand the psychological drivers leading to sales anxiety, empathize with the fear of failure and recognize each individual’s unique response when things go wrong.
The way you manage failure of a team member should not be a one size fits all approach. Different situations call for different plans. You need to tailor your response to get the best result for the individual and your business results.
To help you do this, we’ve compiled a list of the three most common failure scenarios in sales and added some practical advice on how to overcome them.
Scenario A: The New Guy
New employees often pose the biggest challenge to a sales manager. While they usually don’t lack motivation, at least initially, failure is somewhat inevitable, especially in the first few months.
A recent study from Bridge Group Inc. shows it usually takes up to four months for a new recruit to get up to speed.
That’s a big problem for most sales teams.
You can only afford to carry passengers in a sales team for so long before it starts hitting the overall bottom line, while the impact of missed targets on new staff members’ long-term motivation and job satisfaction can be severe.
Clearly, slow and sluggish starts are to be expected - but they are not to be accepted without proactive management. You need to make sure you’re helping the new starter to come up to speed quickly (while reassuring them about their ability to hit targets into the future).
Here’s how you develop a plan to help new sales team members survive and thrive quickly:
1) Training and development
Put in the hard hours in the beginning. This tactic will pay off quickly.
Make sure you have a solid induction and onboarding system in place for new recruits. If you’re expecting them to learn on the job in the traditional ‘sink or swim’ style, you’re doing both parties a disservice.
Your new starter needs to feel they’re being brought into a structured, organized system. You need to arm new salespeople with the required tools, knowledge and strategic support to succeed.
Take the time to ensure new team members understand the company culture and the values you expect them to uphold.
Most importantly, don’t ever assume that they know the product as well as they should. Take your time to help them understand your company’s product on a very deep level. Extensive product training will breed the confidence your new salesperson needs to convince their prospects.
2) Mentoring from a senior colleague
Here’s an interesting statistic: 75% of Fortune 500 companies have some form of mentoring program. For companies outside the Fortune 500 - that number drops below 50%.
You have a great resource in your most experienced staff. Use these veteran experts as a pseudo sales coach. Reward your experienced staff member and treat this new task as an additional part of their role. Offer training for the expert staff member to improve their coaching and mentoring skills. Position this as an opportunity for them to learn a new skill too.
Pairing a rookie with a seasoned pro is a surefire way to speed up their onboarding and also serves to foster a great team culture.
And there are also additional added benefits beyond hitting targets sooner. The Journal for Vocational Studies found that mentoring leads to better career success, greater organizational loyalty and increased job satisfaction for both the mentor and mentee.
3) Help them discover their own style
Your sales process should never be so rigid that you don’t allow scope for individuals to get creative and develop their own style.
The problem - and this relates to beginners in particular - is that many people are the worst judges of their own abilities.
Spend time listening in on a new employees calls, discuss their sales strategy in detail and identify what they’re good at, where they can improve and how they can best develop their own sales technique within your organization.
Quality reporting and visual pipelines are immensely useful here, as they offer a quick, factual way to support your suggestions. Teaching them a proven sales methodology, like activity based sales, will also give them a great head start.
4) Keep them motivated
Starting a new job is hard and emotionally testing at the best of times, but salespeople have the added pressure of immediate targets you need to hit.
If a new recruit can’t close any deals in the first few sales cycles, their motivation will inevitably take a serious hit.
Many sales managers find it useful to create an introductory period without revenue targets.
Instead of daunting sales goals staring down at a new starter, consider setting learning and activity milestones which divide the job into smaller, more easily attainable chunks. Making $5000 in sales in your first week is very daunting, but making 20 sales calls, attending 10 hours of training, following up with 15 leads and adding 10 new leads to your pipeline looks a lot more practical and doable.
The sense of achievement gained from these smaller targets will work to keep the newbie motivated and, if set correctly, should actually help him or her make some sales.
Scenario B: The Inconsistent Seller
Problems with inconsistency plague so many salespeople.
Most managers have that team member who hits their targets for a month or two, then drops off with a disappointing result the next cycle. This type of character makes it almost impossible for you to create accurate sales forecasts, and this inconsistency isn’t fair on other teammates who have to pick up the slack to hit the team’s targets.
This type of salesperson clearly has the ability and the talent to become a dominant performer, they just need a guiding hand to generate results each and every sales period.
1) Find their motivational levers
Not everyone is motivated by money, and an inconsistent salesperson is a person who is driven by motivation beyond pure commission.
It is the sales manager’s job to know what motivates each individual staff member. Find the specific little rewards and incentives that you can use to trigger lasting performance in your inconsistent seller.
Are they ego driven? Maybe some public praise is in order.
How about a day or two of paid leave if they hit their targets for three months running?
If money does turn out to be what drives them, maybe you need to set some stretch targets with a generous bonus system attached.
If the difference between missing, making or exceeding your target is negligible, there’s not much drive to shoot for the moon.
Remember - you’re responsible for the motivation and morale of the entire team. Rewarding your inconsistent performers with an extra incentive can be the fastest way to put your other reliable salespeople offside. How would you feel if your constant performance was taken for granted, only for a more inconsistent teammate to receive some special treatment?
Different salespeople respond to different incentives, but your team deserves the same level of reward. Equality is important. Just find the right lever to pull for each individual to have your machine running with reliable consistency.
2) Figure out exactly where things are going wrong
Talk to your team member about their performance. Explain that you are there to help, not to heap pressure onto the already anxious salesperson. Work with your team member to find a solution together.
Sit in on a few of their sales calls, study their pipelines, compare their stats for successful versus unsuccessful periods. Ask them about any specific support or training they think might help.
You may find they simply need constant reminders to feed the early stages of their sales pipeline. Many salespeople will build up a healthy list of prospects, then spend so much time focusing on closing those deals that they reach the end of a sales cycle before realizing they have no new prospects. This results in those regular stale months, where they break the rhythm of hitting their targets regularly. As a sales manager, you can help them to make sure they keep this balancing act going.
It is simply human nature to want to focus on a deal that has a 50% chance of closing rather than chasing leads that you have no certainty of even turning into prospects, especially when there’s a target hovering over your head.
Unfortunately, successful selling requires both.
You need to show your team how to keep filling their sales pipeline while closing deals at the same time. Commission now may be more alluring than building a foundation to hit targets in the next sales cycle - but it’s your job as manager to set the expectation that consistent, repeat performance is more important as smashing sales targets one month out of three.
3) Give them clearer (non monetary) targets and goals
Once you’ve analyzed the results for one of their successful periods, you should be able to extract a detailed list of activity targets.
So let’s run a possible scenario:
- In a successful month, Steve adds at least 30 new prospects to his pipeline and calls every one of them.
- He moves at least 10 of these to the next stage which is an in-person sales pitch.
- He does this by the 10th of the month before doing the next thing, of which there is also an easily verifiable number.
You can now turn these actions and pipeline milestones into actual targets, helping Steve to play the long game and making sure that Mr. Inconsistent becomes Mr. Reliable.
Scenario C: The Flatliner
Sometimes a sales slump is a somber event.
If someone has been performing at a consistently good but not great level for an extended period of time - they’re usually stuck in some sort of rut.
This is a more complicated challenge for a sales manager. Technically the team member might be getting close enough to their targets to think they’re doing just fine.
But mediocrity doesn’t equal sustainable success. You’re responsible for managing the expectations of your sales team and your superiors. One of those stakeholder groups will not accept ‘just fine’ as a baseline for performance.
You need to make sure your salespeople know a target should always be seen as the bare minimum. Your team needs to know a defining aspect of success is growth, not stagnation.
You don’t want to heap anxiety and pressure on top of your team when they are continually hitting targets - but you need to find a way to continually speed up growth.
So how do you put the zest back into an employee who has gone a bit stale?
1) Give them more responsibility
This dovetails nicely with Scenario A. Assigning a flat performer the role of a mentorship for new hires will often serve to shake them out of their stupor. This gives a flatliner a fresh challenge and a new spark of engagement. They will want to strive to achieve and demonstrate a stellar standard for their pupil.
The same study mentioned above found that role model mentoring had a hugely positive effect on the mentor’s career success and job satisfaction.
It shows the mentor that the company values him or her and also provides a break from a job he or she may have been doing for a long time.
2) Teach an old dog new tricks
Maybe it is time you took a deep look at the flatlining salesperson’s skill set and sales technique? Does either need refreshing?
A training course or strategy workshop may be just the boost they need to get out of third gear.
It also pays to check whether they’re using all the tools you have supplied them to their fullest potential. Humans are creatures of habit, so they may still be using only the basic features of the company sales CRM because that’s what they’ve always done. Some team members might not have moved to the CRMs mobile app version yet as the desktop one has been good enough to make their targets for the last five years - but this tech will allow them to save precious time by updating contact profiles in real time on the road.
The technology available to your veteran salespeople cannot be neglected. A small investment in time needed for training will lead to compounding returns in time saved and deals closed.
3) Give them better leads
Anyone who grew up in a large family will tell you that it is often the most well-behaved, quiet and obedient child who ends up getting the least attention.
Flat performers who have consistently delivered decent results are often slightly forgotten.
Maybe you’ve been giving all the best leads to your star salesperson, which ends up reinforcing that position. The problem might lie in your management rather than the flatliner’s actual performance.
4) Increase their targets
This may seem a bit counterintuitive at first.
Heaping more expectation on someone who is barely making their target can feel a little sadistic.
But - your flatliner might need a challenge to trigger their competitive spark. If a salesperson consistently just about scrapes through, they most likely have total control over the situation and just don’t feel motivated to deliver more.
If you tie this stretch target to a healthy reward system you may soon have to increase that target again. More commissions paid means more revenue for the business.
You’re doing your team a favor by pushing them out of a rut.
A study conducted at the University of Leipzig in Germany found that people who are mentally and intellectually challenged at work showed a much lower level of cognitive decline as they age. People who feel challenged at work also tend to be happier employees than those who just coast through.
If no one ever failed to hit targets a sales manager’s job would be one of the easiest in the world, and we all know that simply isn’t the case.
A modern approach where you support your employees emotionally and organizationally works much better than the old school ‘fire fast and worry later’ way of managing sales teams.
Invest in your people, really get to know them and treat them as individuals with different needs and motivations. Demonstrate that you care about your salesperson and not just their targets and your KPIs.
You want to build a successful team. That engine is a combination of different parts with different servicing requirements. The best mechanics know each and every part better than their aunt or uncle!
Don’t let a few dips in performance put pressure on each cog in the engine. Work together with the individual to make sure everything runs smoothly for months and years to come.