Problem Salespeople

I know that there are those sales managers amongst us who feel that all salespeople are problems and it’s just that some are more of a problem that others!

 When your problem salesperson is a low or marginal performer, the solution is obvious if not easy — retrain or replace. When your problem salesperson is your top performer and bringing in more sales than any two or more of your other people, the solution isn’t so obvious or easy, but it still has to be solved. With any luck, the problem may solve itself. That’s what happened to me.

 Many years ago, I was managing a retail computer store with a staff of four salespeople. This was before it was fashionable for salespeople to leave the store and do direct sales, so we waited until prospects stumbled into our establishment.

My problem child was a salesperson named Fred (the name has been changed to protect the guilty). Although he was only one of four salespeople, his monthly sales were more than the other three combined. He was my superstar and he didn’t let me forget it. The thought of him leaving and losing half of my sales wasn’t a pleasant thought and is the kind of thing that drives sales managers to drink.

Now I have a simple philosophy regarding problem salespeople. Everybody has a utility level and an aggravation level. As long as their aggravation level doesn’t exceed their utility level, I’ll put up with most anything.

I’ve had superstars who were a delight to work with — cooperative, prepared to help others, and confident enough to share their ideas with those around them. Fred wasn’t that kind of superstar. He had a huge ego and believed he was king of the castle. He would scoop sales from others, make promises he wouldn’t or couldn’t keep, bend but not break rules, refuse to participate in sales meetings, and generally make himself a pain in the part of the body starting with the letter “A,” and I don’t mean armpit.

What I had was an excellent performer with a rotten attitude. I take a team approach to sales and Fred had absolutely no interest in being part of the team. His attitude was beginning to poison the rest of the team and was impacting morale. Now my one problem had expanded to four. What to do?

I had a number of chats with Fred but to no avail. He would become arrogant and defensive and throw his performance in my face. “The other guys were slackers so why should he associate with them. If they weren’t fast enough to get to a customer before he did, that was their problem. Why should he help out if they were having a problem with a customer? He wasn’t about to share any ideas or help a bunch of losers.” 

 Fred operated on the edge of good ethics and occasionally crossed over to get the sale — nothing bad, just questionable. Not bad enough to get him fired but bad enough to leave a rotten taste in my mouth. I wasn’t getting any customer complaints but if I had been, the decision to fire Fred would have been easy.

 Sales were good but morale was bad. It was a sales manager’s nightmare. Fred’s aggravation level was rapidly getting close to his utility level, and I was coming to the conclusion that I would have to sacrifice his sales for the sake of the long-term good of the operation. I started looking for a solution when the problem solved itself. Fred stepped over the ethics line into dishonesty and I had no choice but to fire him.

 What a change in attitude. The king of the castle initially became defensive, then apologetic, moved on to contrite, and then to arrogant. He left on his high horse after doing a dump on me, the rest of the staff, and the company. I watched his bridge burning late into the night.

 After months and months of aggravation, one problem was solved and another—monthly sales—loomed. To my surprise and delight I didn’t lose half the sales. Oh, there was a brief dip in sales as the rest of the team picked up the slack and surprised me with their ability to come through in a pinch. We did it as a team, everyone pulling in the same direction.

 There are several morals of this story:

      1. Indispensable salespeople aren’t. Nobody is irreplaceable. Oh, there are all kinds of problems replacing people—particularly a top sales performer—but it can be done.

      2. No one person is worth more than the team. You’re asking for trouble when you place all your eggs in one basket. It’s better to have a team you can develop than one individual who can hold you for ransom.

      3. Sometimes you must sacrifice short-term results for long-term success. This works just as long as you have a plan to make it work.

      4. Probably the greatest lesson of all — attitude counts… for a lot.

 I’m reminded of the old adage that I tell many of my clients: Hire for attitude and train for skill. That way you’ll keep your staff problems to a minimum and your sales at a maximum.