3 Reasons Sales Leadership Is Getting Messy (And How to Clean It Up)

Tom Searcy, CEO of Hunt Big Sales

Sales leadership has never been easy. I once heard a senior vice president of sales refer to the job as carrying “a carrot and a baseball bat because a stick isn’t enough.” Of course this is a bit dramatic, but motivation was a large part of the job. Push and praise were the key roles of a sales leader for a very long time, but the game has changed in the new era of sales. Things are messier and more complex now. Sales leaders have to deal with numerous additional factors beyond motivating and rewarding the sales force. Below are potential roadblocks that often complicate sales leadership efforts, as well as three corresponding cleanup strategies to try.

The Mess: Increased Job Hopping 
A major complaint I hear from sales leaders is how hard it is to find and keep good sales talent. When you do find candidates who appear to be strong, those candidates often do not work out as well as their resumes might lead you to believe they will. Complicating matters, salespeople are often aggressively scouting the market for greener pastures. According to a recent survey from Glassdoor, of 1,000 salespeople surveyed, more than 68% admit that they plan to look for a new job in the next year, and 45% said they plan to look in the next three months. Just one in five, or 19%, were sitting tight with no imminent plans to switch jobs. Mess, mess, mess.  

Clean Up: Hire Fewer
I work with a company who has a wash out rate of over 30% when measured over eighteen months. Training takes the first three months, so the real wash out rate is 30% over fifteen months. You understand the arithmetic. Your company may have different numbers but possibly similar problems. The solution? Hire fewer. While building a company that grew from nothing to $200M in revenue in less than four years, I learned the value of hiring fewer salespeople. It was a services business with thousands of employees, but we had only five salespeople – the right five salespeople – who knocked it out of the park. And guess what our turnover rate was. That’s right, ZERO!

The Mess: Increased Limitations on Firing
Depending upon the laws in your state, it can be a messy process to fire a salesperson, even if they aren’t performing up to your standards. Protected class rules, internal policy and paperwork, compliance rules and legal fees often make it a messy battle to terminate an employee who is incapable or unwilling to perform his or her job at peak performance levels. Does this mean your company is stuck with underperformers? Thankfully, no.

Clean Up: Create Clearer Policies
One way to avoid getting stuck with underperformers is to establish clear periods of initial hiring probation. This provides your company with an opportunity to evaluate successful behavior patterns early in the process that go beyond quota numbers. Continue that process by defining at the initial hiring meeting what the performance thresholds will be for newly hired representatives over the course of the first year and then stick to them. This accountability provides you with a system for addressing under performers. The key to making this work is consistency.

The Mess: Identifying Low Performers Early
Longer sales cycles have made it difficult to quickly determine if a salesperson is effective or not. It used to be that within 90 days you could look at a salesperson’s results and gain a good sense of future performance. In some industries this is still true, but in many industries sales cycles are longer, making result-based measures harder to track early in the process. So what’s the solution?

Clean Up: Focus on Personal Assessment
Since results based metrics often require more time to collect, many sales leaders have turned to metrics of activity for more immediate measures, but these metrics are often very deceptive. Tracking the number of phone calls, e-mails and sales calls tells you very little except volume. If you really want to know how a seller is performing, spend time with the rep one-on-one to personally assess their capability. The most important period of time for making a difference in a rep’s skills is at the beginning of their career with your company. This is when they are most open to learning culture, skills and the market insights that a sales leader offers.

Tom Searcy is CEO & founder of Hunt Big Sales, a sales strategy company. Searcy is the author of “RFPs Suck! How to Master the RFP System Once and for All to Win Big Business,” and the co-author of “Whale Hunting: How to Land Big Sales and Transform Your Company.”