When do you let a new sales rep go?

Evaluating a new rep’s performance shouldn’t be an expensive game of wait and see

By Karen Jackson for NYER

Have you, at one time or another, kept an underperforming salesperson for too long? Perhaps the following scenario sounds familiar: You hired a rep who demonstrated a world of promise—their resume first rate, track-record verifiable and references stellar. Their soft skills lined up with your culture: their attitude was excellent, they showed up on time, appeared loyal, and were enjoyable to have around. But then they didn’t perform, and the months turned to quarters. You kept hoping for the best, while simultaneously wringing your hands in concern. There was gnashing of the teeth; passive-aggressive behavior kicked in as you got angry, but none of that improved performance. Yet you kept them nonetheless, waiting for the proverbial corner to be turned, believing it would happen soon. The salesperson assured you it would, but it didn’t. And, there they were, still on the payroll.

If you’re in the majority of business owners who have experienced this debacle (or witnessed your sales manager in the middle of it), see if you can answer this question: “Why did I wait so long to let them go?”

Why Are You Still Hanging On?

The three answers I hear most frequently are:

1. “He always seemed to have a deal on the table—I just had to give him a little more time to close.”

2. “The idea of starting the hiring process over again was exhausting.”

3. “I couldn’t afford to leave her territory uncovered.”

Pushed to think about it more deeply, most managers agree that the true reason they hung on so long was they didn’t really know how to measure the salesperson’s success. Were they really making progress? Did their promises hold water? Was the deal really imminent? And, in the absence of good measurements, the decision became subjective instead of objective—dangerous ground for making hiring and firing decisions. So the rep stayed in the seat, and it cost the company—not just in rep compensation (please don’t tell me you reduced comp as a solution) but in opportunity cost, wasted resources throughout the organization and, less obvious but equally damaging, team morale.

With short, transactional sales cycles, it’s easy to measure rep performance based on revenue. But in the B2B space, particularly in complex, enterprise environments, the sales cycle can take 18 months or more before booking revenue. Using revenue as the sole measure in that scenario is foolish. You must find a way to determine within 60 to 90 days of a hire whether a rep can be successful in your company or not.

The Objective Solution

The solution is not magic; it’s process and metrics. It’s about creating certainty instead of wishful thinking and placing objectivity ahead of emotion. Here’s where to start:

Identify your sales process, creating quantifiable milestones for each stage. A simple process could be: prospect, qualify, demo, propose, negotiate, and contract. The milestone achieved at the end of each stage informs you that you’ve successfully moved on to the next. If you haven’t achieved a milestone, you can’t propel the sale forward. In this example, the milestone at the end of stage 1 (prospect) might be “meeting.” The milestone at the end of stage 4, (propose) might be “commitment secured.”

Create measurable productivity goals, tied to your process, for the first 90 days of employment. Using the example above, some obvious productivity goals are 1) number of meetings each week and 2) number of proposals per month. Knowing how many meetings, demos, proposals, and so on are required to close a deal is important for creating reasonable goals. In absence of that data, start with anecdotal evidence and adjust as the data comes in. A CRM system is an invaluable tool for such tracking. Tracking actual versus goal allows you to identify where your new rep might be faltering and whether they can develop sufficiently to meet their productivity goals.

Implement a coaching program for the new rep with qualitative activities each week. Successful sales managers create “playbooks” for their teams, a fancy way of saying they identify the best tools and tactics their top reps already utilize for success. Examples are email and call scripts, opportunity assessments, exploratory questions, and objections response. On a weekly basis, train your new rep on the intricacies of the playbook. Do some role playing and analyze whether they are effectively incorporating these best practices into their activities. The evidence will show up in their ability to meet your defined productivity goals.

These are not babysitting techniques, and they’re not just for newbie sales reps, though obviously the metrics will adjust to the experience of the rep. These are realistic, quantifiable activities that you know, if followed, will result in closing a sale. By identifying the appropriate measurements, you can define an accountability framework for the new salesperson, creating certainty both for the rep and for yourself. It will become easy to identify whether the individual is doing what they said they would do, where they need support, what problems they are experiencing, what obstacles block their path, and what training they require—in essence, whether they’ll make it or not. Follow this strategy, and you’ll never again retain an underperforming salesperson. CEO

Karen Jackson is president of Jackson Solutions LLC, a sales growth advisory firm whose mission is to help business owners drive top-line revenue profitably. Drawing on her deep experience as a CEO and sales executive, Karen helps CEOs reinvigorate their organizations by uncovering their obstacles to growth and developing immediate, practical, actionable strategies for accelerating revenue generation. She can be reached at jacksonsolutions.com or @karenjacksol.

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