Almost 15 years ago, I walked into the sales office in Los Angeles of my new employer on a warm and sunny March day. I was enthusiastic, wide eyed, and eager to take on my new job as the new district sales manager for the struggling sales team.
I knew the team finished at 58% of quota the previous year and was ranked second to the bottom in the nation of over 160 teams. However, I was confident I could turn things around. After all, that was what I was hired to do. When I walked through the door, all of the enthusiasm and energy I had all morning almost immediately left my body. My first day nearly became my last.
When I walked onto the sales floor, I could almost see a dark cloud hanging over the office. You could see it on the faces of the staff and just feel it in the air. Have you ever worked into that type of environment? As I met with the sales staff over the course of the week, I realized the problem was deep.
I knew that some changes to the staff might be needed. However, I never come into a situation with an ax because I needed to conduct my own analysis before any critical decisions are made. The good news was that I did find several people that were struggling but had what it took to succeed. They had the talent, drive, and work ethic to succeed. They simply needed direction and support to help them reach their goals.
Unfortunately, I could not say the same for the rest of the staff. Some of them were guilty of perpetuating the negative atmosphere and no amount of coaching and support was going to change their core trait. They were happier complaining about the company, the prior management, operations, the economy… you get the picture, than learning and developing to be successful. The worst was they often complained about the top rep that had everything "handed" to her, so her job was easy. What they failed to recognize was the hard work the rep put in her first 3 to 5 years and that’s why 10 years into the position, she’s reaping the rewards from the relationships she built. There was no short cut. There were no freebies.
Then, there were the other reps that were simply mismatched and not right for the job.
One of them, we will call “Joe”, was probably the hardest working and nicest person you will ever meet. The problem was he simply was not a sales rep by trait. He had difficulty making 10 cold calls a week, let alone a day, which was the stated expectation. He would have nice conversations with prospects and potential partners that never went anywhere. Simply put, He was not built for the fast paced sales environment that was needed to succeed. After a month, he and I both arrived at the conclusion this position was not the right fit and it was a mutual parting.
The next group of people are often the most difficult to judge. Unfortunately, this is the group that often “fools” sales leaders into making incorrect decisions. It’s the group that always hovers near quota, but never quite make it.
Unfortunately, this is often the group that sets the bar for the rest of the salespeople. Many times, sales leaders incorrectly believe top salespeople set the bar for the organization. Unfortunately, most salespeople don’t look at the top person as the bar. They often view the top tier as either unachievable, or simply just can’t relate to them. Don’t get me wrong, there are some salespeople that aim for the top. Unfortunately, they are the exception and not the rule.
In a previous blog, “Culture Club: The Harsh Soft Costs of Bad Hires and How to Prevent Them,” I used the example of a person arriving late to a meeting and feeling terrible about it. That is until the next person that walks in after. Essentially, you often end up feeling better about your tardiness when someone walks in after you. “At least I’m not as late as him.” It’s the last person in that sets the bar for everyone.
In a sales organization, it’s not the top person. It’s also not the consistently worst performing person. Even though that person can make others feel better about their own subpar performance, everyone also essentially knows this person won’t be there for long.
So who sets the bar? The bar is set by this group of almost performing individuals, that tend to hold onto their jobs because they are better than the worst, but aren’t where they need to be. Don't confuse this group with "Steady Eddies." Steady Eddies are not stellar performers, but you can count on them for doing their job consistently. This group consistently underperforms. They are the ones that set the acceptable level of performance or mediocrity for the team.
Back to the story of my sales team in LA…, there was a salesperson, we will call “Bill,” that was always between 80 to 90% of quota. By no means was he the worst rep on the team in terms of performance. The months he was at 90%, he was near the top of the team. Especially since the entire team had been struggling for a couple of years.
Do I dare to mess with the numbers when I needed production badly as I rebuilt the team?
As tempting as it was to take the subpar production, I also knew Bill was sitting on a goldmine. He had one of the prime territories in the country. He had some of the top referring partners in the country but was unable to produce consistently. I wanted to give him one more shot before I took action. I created a training and development plan for him so I can remove every reason why he wasn’t performing. He was of course reluctant since he believed he was one of the best reps on the team.
After several weeks of training, one on ones, and field rides, I had confirmed my suspicions. I gave him everything possible to succeed, but he simply did not follow through. He lacked the work ethic, motivation, and drive. His ego and attitude prevented him from implementing what we worked on.
I knew by terminating Bill I would be hurting my team’s quota in the short run, but it would be better for the team in the long run. I had to let him go.
The team was surprised when they heard the news. After all, he was almost at quota every month. But this also sent a message to the team. I wanted a team of individuals that wanted to succeed. Mediocrity and subpar performance was not acceptable, especially when it comes with bad work ethic, poor attitude, and lack of desire. A few weeks later, one of his closer friends on the team came up to me and told me I made a good decision. Even though they were friends, he knew the team was better off without Bill.
A couple of months later, I hired a replacement for that position. She had the hunger and hustle that was needed on the team. She was that rare person that came in gunning for the top salespeople on the team and in the country. She ultimately became one of the top rookies that year. The same territory produced almost double than the previous year, even with the fact the top referring partner that kept the Bill afloat, moved out of the area at the beginning of the year. She continued to perform in the top 5% of the company every year after.
The other remaining sales reps on the team had the skillset, desire and work ethic required to succeed. I simply provided the training and coaching. The “old acceptable” standard was gone. Soon they all began to improve their individual performances. In my fourth month, the team achieved quota for the first time in 20 months and we never looked back. When I left that company several years later, my team was ranked #6 out of 165 teams in the country.
Even though it was fun to write about this experience, I didn’t write it to tout my own accomplishments. I used it to illustrate the importance of understanding who sets the bar in a sales organization. In your agency, who’s setting the bar for performance? In order to develop a winning culture and "up the bar" for continued sales success, ask yourself the following questions?
1. What are the acceptable performance standards for the agency?
2. Are they clearly stated?
3. Do you “inspect what you expect”?
4. Are there consequences for continued underperformance?
5. Do you celebrate and reward achievement?
6. What are some issues preventing the individual(s) from underperformance?
- Do they need more training, coaching or development?
- Do they additional tools or support?
- Do they understand the agency’s expectations?
- Do they have the right “intangibles for the position? (e.g. motivation, desire, work ethic, attitude…)
7. What are you letting slide even though it’s not what you want?
8. What is your plan if you need to take action?
By answering these questions, you may get a better picture of your agency’s sales culture. If the people setting the bar are not the ones you want, you will now have a better understanding of the causes and issues for this. Then you will be able to take the necessary actions to make the changes to take your agency’s sales culture to another level.
I’d love you hear about your stories. Do you have a “Joe” or “Bill” story to share? Please add them to the blog comments below.