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Would You Fire Your Top Sales Person?

by David Brock on July 14th, 2009
A good friend (and top sales executive) and I were having an interesting conversation this morning. One of his regional VP’s was having great difficulty with one of the organization’s top sales people. We were talking about what to do about the sales person.

The issue was that the sales person was refusing to have anything to do with the company’s CRM system. Despite constant reminders (accompanied with training, etc.) the sales person would not update the CRM system. The sales person would do some nominal updates, but not provide the information expected of each sales person in managing the CRM system. In conversations with the RVP, the sales person would always say, I’m one of your top producers, why don’t you just leave me alone and let me sell. The CRM system is a waste of my time.

My friend and I were discussing how the issue should be handled. While it might sound crazy, I suggested the sales person’s manager have a serious discussion, put him on a 90 day plan to get the sales person into compliance, provide coaching and training to help the sales person meet the standards management had set for performance. If at the end of the 90 day period, the sales person was still not meeting expectations, the sales person should be terminated.

Many managers face this issue, it may not be about the CRM system, it can be any other issue, but if your top revenue producers fail to meet performance expectations, they should be terminated — like any other sales person who does not meet performance expectations.

I’m a bit hard nosed about this, but great performance with sales people is not just revenue production. We have other expectations for performance from sales people: Expense management, team work with others in the organization, customer satisfaction, price/margin management, and, yes, paperwork and administration.

Management should define performance expectations in a way that focus on building the business and has eliminated all non value add elements. These expectations are built on executing the strategies and priorities of the organization. They are based on the culture and expected behaviors of the organization. And, inevitably, Hopefully, these expectations truly define what management expects of performance and behavior of all people in the organization.

If the performance management system/process does not reflect management’s expectations of performance and behavior, then they system needs to be fixed. When people don’t meet performance expectations, it is the manager’s responsibility to identify the performance deficiencies and to coach the person in meeting expectations. However, if the person fails to meet performance expectations, despite all coaching and training, the person needs to be terminated.

If we don’t hold our people accountable for meeting performance expectations, then we have no performance management system in place. No one is excepted from this—including the top revenue producers. Great sales performance is never one dimensional, we need to make sure our sales people are performing on all dimensions.

I went further in my discussion with my friend. I suggested if his RVP was not holding his people accountable for meeting performance expectations, then his RVP was failing in his performance. Perhaps it was time to coach the RVP on managing performance.

Am I being too hard nosed in my views?

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16 Comments
  1. Kimmo Linkama permalink

    It's easy to see at least two sides in this argument.

    1) The salesperson just doesn't see the value of the CRM system, in which case coaching is definitely in order.

    Or, the CRM system is so complicated that it takes unproportional amounts of time to comply with what the person may see as mere hindrance to doing his/her job properly.

    (I've had the misfortune of working at a company where most of my time went into reporting instead of doing my job.)

  2. Dave Brock's Blog permalink

    Kimmo, thanks for your comment. You make good points. In this particular example, for the sake of brevity, I didn't review the CRM implementation. It was a good implementation, the management team and others were using it well, this one individual didn't want to be bothered by it.

    The issue of poorly implemented CRM systems, offering no value to the sales person can fill any number of posts—you've given me an idea for some new posts 😉

    Thanks for the comments.

  3. Jeff permalink

    As a professional seller with 15 years outside technical sales experience, I find a few disappointments in your thoughts regarding CRM implementation:

    a) Taking a SUCCESSFUL salesperson away from what he/she does best to focus on admin does not make sense from a business point of view. If it is so critical to have the CRM information entered, isn't it cheaper to have someone in an admin role do the data entry and keep the seller focused on driving revenue?

    b) One of the worst faults management can make is trying to shoehorn everyone in to the same size and type of shoe. Perhaps this sellers external focus is what has made him/her successful. Shifting that focus internally could be a fatal flaw to the employer that has the net result of that seller working for the employer's direct competitor-who may be more flexible and realistic in their expectations. We should learn what has made this seller successful and try to take those positives to the others on staff while gently coaching the negatives.

    At the end of the day, the company fails by losing key personnel. Putting your top seller on a probationary period for not adapting to something he/she sees no value in will cost the employer in the long (and perhaps short) run.

    Happy Selling,
    Jeff

  4. Dave Brock's Blog permalink

    Jeff: Thanks for your comments, I appreciate you taking the time to give such a thoughtful comment. I think you may have mistaken what I was saying.

    The article is not "about CRM." Like you, I have seen too many CRM systems that have been implemented poorly, imposing a terrible burden on sales people and decreasing their productivity.

    The article is about performance management. If the example had been that the sales person refused to provide forecasts, or refused to comply with budget/spending standards, or was abusive in their relationships in the office, or only showed up for work 2 out of 5 days; if after coaching the person refused to comply with these standards, that sales person should be fired.

    Everyday, we see people exercising tremendous creativity and innovating in their jobs, but still meeting the performance expectations of management.

    If we have no performance expectations or do not enforce them, we have no strategy for the business, we have no consistency in execution, we have no consistency in the way we service and support our customers. The business quickly fails.

    There are many appropriately aimed barbs on CRM systems. It is true,we see many CRM systems that reduce productivity. At the same time, a well designed and implemented CRM system can have a tremendously positive impact on productivity.

    The fault is less that of the tool but on bad management/leadership in implementing the tool, lack of understanding and commitment to what results can be produced.

  5. Jeff permalink

    Dave, my response was not specifically about CRM, it is more about the fallacy that you can manage everyone the same.

    At the end of the day, give the top seller a little less than perfect review, but to consider getting rid of a top seller because they are not fully engaged with a policy (that will probably be changed in a year or two, anyway) is quite short sighted, in my opinion.

    I would place forecasting, budgeting, and the others you mention as mission critical in a sales organization. Showing up for work is as well. [However, if that top seller is producing top sales and working only 2/5 of the week, management really needs to find out why the other staff isn't performing while working 100%]

    I would argue that a quicker way to for a business to fail is to lose the top sellers and the relationships they carry with them as they walk out the door. A top performer is driven to perform. If you ask them, most will tell you that internal bureaucracy is (including admin tasks) keep them from selling even more. That same person will perform elsewhere to the detriment of your company if you run them off.

    My management manages everyone differently and focuses on their strengths, not their weaknesses. Why force someone to be miserable if they will produce results when they are satisfied?

    Now, an underperformer not meeting expectations? That is a different story altogether.

  6. Dave Brock's Blog permalink

    Jeff: Thanks for keeping the discussion going. Your points are very thoughtful.

    Everyone is different and needs to be managed, coached, and developed in a manner that is most effective in motivating them to perform to meet or exceed expectations.\

    Managers blindly enforcing policies are very dangerous and add no value. Managers enforcing performance expectations, coaching and motivating people to perform to or exceed expectations are doing the right thing.

    Focusing on building strengths is important to developing people. Minimizing the impact of weaknesses is also important.

    Unfortuantely, there is a certain amount of administrivia that is a part of the sales person's job. Badly designed systems are bureaucratic and a waste of productivity and resource. Well designed administrative processes will minimize the impact on productivity.

    I really think we are in violent agreement, but may be talking past each other. Feel free to contact me directly if you would like to explore this issue on the phone. It would be my pleasure to speak. Email me directly at dabrock@excellenc.com.

    Jeff, thanks so much for your active participation in this discussion. I really appreciate it and the points you are making.

    Regards, Dave

  7. Allan Himmelstein permalink

    Great and interesting post. Although the salesperson is an employee, they still have to be sold in what's in it for them. The filling out of "paperwork" has been a chronic problem with salespeople for years. The chronic complaint, do you want me to write all this stuff or talk to the customers. Come up with a financial scenario for this particular salesperson, and demonstrate to yourself and to the salesperson whether the business he brings in is profitable. It is worth devising a scenario where all your salespeople are judged like a separate P&L or ROI. It maybe that when you consider all the ops problems that this person is just not worth it. Or you may find the other CRM Salesperson generates more $$$.

    • Allan, thanks for the great comment. The “CRM” issue needs to be set aside, there are too many bad implementations and processes around CRM. The point you make about a P&L or ROI for evaluating sales people is interesting. I prefer to think about that as the sales person’s Performance Plan. The performance plan should address all aspects and expectations of how the sales person should perform and behave. Revenue and orders are one component, but not the only component of outstanding sales performance.

      Thanks again for your comment!

  8. Awesome post David!

    At what point do sales people NOT have to follow the company guidelines? At quota? 25% above target? 50%?

    A prima-donna attitude simply doesn’t cut it with me. Top performers are not entitled to preferrential treatment in the form of ignoring company policies and procedures. Allowing top performers to do what they want establishes a dangerous precedent that could severely jeopardize the overall performance of the team/division.

    I have seen sales actually increase when a top performer has been fired because the rest of the sales team then starts to improve their performance.

    Is it a risk? Absolutely. But, I don’t believe sales managers should allow top performers to hold them hostage. If they refuse to abide by the company’s standards, action must be taken.

  9. Dave, as much as the issue isn’t CRM, neither is termination. The thought that came to mind reading your inciteful/insightful post is motivation.

    You define great performance as much more than great revenue generation, which I agree with. Herein, lies the problem with sales performance management. I think too many companies focus so heavily on revenue generation that management relegates the importance of other performance levers to mandatory activities, neglecting to train the their value.

    Good salespeople want to perform well. The primary measurement is revenue generation. Creating a value system that promotes the importance of “teamwork” and other non-sales duties in such a way that salespeople are rewarded for all of their work, not just income generation lacks in most sales management. When management hires, fires and pays based on revenue only, management reduces the value of other duties. Training compliance with the threat of termination sends a mixed message that leaves salespeople confounded.

    “If I’m supposed to drive revenue and I’m paid for driving revenue, why the heck am I spending so much time on administration?” And the more revenue a salesperson generates, the less important non-sales activities becomes. This is management’s equation monster.

    Pay commissions on CRM input, expense reporting, teamwork, customer satisfaction and other non-sales activities and compliance skyrockets. Pay your salespeople for reporting and they’ll write reposts all day long. My dramatic suggestion makes the point that driving behaviors takes many forms.

    The best way to get what you want from a customer or employee was best said by Zig Ziegler, “You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.”

    What you hear me saying is demand for any type of performance with the threat of termination is not an ideal motivation tool. If top salespeople are not complying with management, perhaps management needs a deeper analysis of their training and motivational strategies.

    Thanks for inciting great though as you always do Dave.

    Regards,
    Gary

    • Gary: Thanks for the thoughtful ideas. Sorry for the slow reply, I had to reflect on this a bit. I think we are in agreement. While revenue generation is and always will be a key metric for sales people, it drives too many of the wrong things. First, revenue generation is a trailing metric–therefore we don’t know if a person is performing or not performing until it’s too late. Managers don’t spend enough time understanding the structure of their business and their customers’ buying processes to understand the leading metrics and start measuring people on those.

      Likewise, there are all sorts of things that contribute to success, measuring these, making sure behaviors are aligned to support these, is critical. A person may make their short term revenue goals, but they could be destroying the organization–therefore not making long term goals.

      I don’t like tying everything to compensation–I think that drives the wrong behaviors/expectations. Getting compliance/buy-in only if compensated creates real weakness in the organization. There are many levers for driving performance (which is what you are saying). I think it is laziness on the part of management to tie everything to compensation.

      Thanks for the great discussion.

      • Craig Bullock permalink

        As a salesperson who is trying to decide what I want to do with my career, I see a mirror image of the SVP of the company I work for. Our business is truly a transactional business. The customer either wants it or they don’t.

        I am one of the top performers in the country. I drive business through working with referral partners and people in industries that compliment mine. I am reading this post and it is screaming a word at me that is a cancer in our organization at this time. MICROMANAGEMENT.

        Our SVP looks at the sales organization from 10,000 feet and does not recognize that there are different ways certain salespeople work the most effectively in order to be successful. Here is an example of how a policy or a “playbook” so to speak has destroyed our organization from the inside out. The most successful sales reps here have been recently micromanaged to a point to where they can’t get the proposals out to the customers who are begging to buy something. Instead of servicing these customers, we are forced to leave the office at 11:00 in morning and not come back until 4:00. This leaves us 2 hours in a full work day to get 8 hours of work done in many cases. In the hours between 11:00 and 4:00 we are supposed to be in the field pulling doors and generating new interest in our line. The bottom line is that the top performers are forced to do something that hinders their performance to a VERY large degree. Morale and faith in the company go away and eventually the top performers don’t have to be fired. They quit and work for the competition with a chip on their shoulder to take as much business from their previous company as they can.

        If the salesperson is not breaking any rules of engagement with customers and is not using sleazy tactics just to make the sale, why does it matter how the customer prospects for business as long as he / she gets the job done?

        • Craig: Thanks for the very interesting discussion. Many organizations do suffer from managers micromanaging. Like you, I remember a time when we were fined if we were in the office between 9-4 (other than for certain reasons). My colleagues and I ended up seeing lots of movies during that time–if we were going to lose the money to a fine, we might as well spend it doing something we enjoyed. Fortunately, management recognized what they were doing and eliminated the policy.

          Managers should be looking at top performers, assessing and tuning the processes against their best practices. So top performers are involved in improving overall organizational performance. Likewise top performers always look to improving their performance, they would be fools not to adapt sales processes and other practices based on these best practices.

          Likewise, sales people exist as part of a larger sales team–so they need to leverage some standard practices to improve their overall effectiveness with the overall team.

          So top performers, don’t like micromanagement. At the same time, top performers recognize the importance of working with the team. The days of the lone wolf are fast disappearing.

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  1. Firing Top But Toxic Performers — Additional Thoughts | Partners in EXCELLENCE Blog
  2. Firing Top But Toxic Performers–Additional Thoughts — Future Selling Institute

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