A recent LinkedIn discussion reminded me of Ted, a sales manager I knew years ago, who mentioned a couple of times that he was dreading going into the office because he had to “go squeeze some boils.” After his second or third time to mention his need to squeeze boils, I asked—more than a bit hesitantly—what he meant by having to squeeze boils. He explained that he had some underperforming salespeople who he had to let go before they poisoned the rest of the sales team. He had to drain the pus before it infected the rest of the body.
In some respects Ted had the right idea; he just wasn’t nuanced enough (my God, I sound like a Democrat). Ted treated all underperformers the same. To him, an underperformer was an underperformer. A loser. A waste of human flesh. If you weren’t performing up to his standards, you were a boil that had to be squeezed and drained out of the sales body.
Ted understood that there are underperformers who can and will infect other sales team members. His mistake was believing that all underperformers are the same and consequently they should all be treated the same—summarily get rid of them.
The result of Ted’s one size fits all death penalty for being an underperformer was a sales team that feared him far more than they respected him. It resulted in a sales region that was always short of team members–and short meeting quota. And it resulted in an unhappy, unsatisfied, disgruntled manager.
The problem wasn’t that Ted sought to squeeze the boils and get rid of the poison before it could spread throughout the team. The real problem was that he didn’t recognize that not all underperformers are boils. Although all underperformers must be dealt with, not all are full of pus.
Over the years I’ve found that there are basically three kinds of underperformers:
Parasites: Parasites are those team members who are simply hangers on, sticking around because they’ve found something worth milking—salary, draw, benefits, whatever. They have no intention of ever performing. They may talk a good game. They may use every trick they can think of to appear to be a contributing member of the sales team. Bottom line is they’re going to take advantage of the ride as long as they possibly can—or until something better falls into their lap.
Destroyers: Destroyers are the true pus filled boils Ted was fearful of. Destroyers are usually, but not necessarily, underperformers. You’ll find Destroyers bitching and moaning about how crappy a deal the company is giving the salespeople, how lousy the company’s products are, how unrealistic the sales quotas are, how the only reason that big producer always hits her numbers is because the manager gives her all the call-ins. Destroyers intend to hurt the company. They delight in destroying morale. They find great pleasure in bringing another salesperson over to the Dark Side.
Slow Developers: Slow Developers are as far removed from Parasites and Destroyers as you can get. Slow Developers are sellers who have the potential and the desire to succeed but for whatever reason aren’t up to speed. Maybe they lack the necessary skills such as listening, asking questions, or finding and connecting with quality prospects; maybe they need intensive individual coaching on how to apply what they’ve learned; or maybe they haven’t learned a reliable, effective sales process. These are men and women who can become, and want to become, great producers but who need more time and attention to mature into the seller you want and need them to be.
Pus Filled Boils Will Kill Your Team
Ted was right to drain the pus from the sales team body. One of the responsibilities of every manager is to protect the integrity of the company and the sales team.
Parasites and Destroyers must be mercilessly eliminated immediately upon discovery. There is no room in any organization for Parasites and Destroyers. Mercy and compassion has no place in dealing with these men and women. The idea that letting these folks go is in their best interests should play no role in the decision making. Frankly, they’re not worth the concern, worry or loss of sleep. They are sucking the blood from the team. Why in the world would you lose sleep over letting someone go who is intentionally or even unintentionally destroying you?
In fact, if a manager allows any of these boils to stay that manager should be immediately fired; it is simply too serious, too damaging to the future of the company to allow the sales team to become poisoned, and if the manager won’t take care of his or her team, they are worse than the boils with which they refuse to deal.
Slow Developers Aren’t Boils
Treating Slow Developers in the same manner as Parasites and Destroyers is both morally wrong and a bad business decision. I’m not saying that you cannot let a Slow Developer go. You not only might have to let one go every once in awhile; I’m sure you will have to let some go. But letting a Slow Developer go should be a last resort, not a first.
Obviously the first step in getting a Slow Developer up to speed is to figure out what’s missing. Hopefully you’ve got a good idea already. Enlisting the aid of a quality assessment tool would be a wise decision.
After you’ve identified the area or areas that are keeping the Slow Developer from becoming a valued producer, sit down with him or her and work out a training/coaching/development action plan. The plan should:
Have a realistic timeframe based on your sales cycle and the specific areas to be developed. Too short a timeframe and you’re not giving the salesperson a realistic opportunity, too long a timeframe encourages a lax attitude and performance
The plan must be based on objective, measurable actions, not generalities or mushy goals. Instead of a goal to “increase daily cold call dials,” put a definite number on it such as “make a minimum of 75 cold call dials per day.” Instead of a goal of “increasing line items per order,” set a specific goal such as “average 8 line items per order.”
Progress must be monitored with frequent review sessions and specific, measurable progress landmarks. Reviews should be set frequently enough to make sure the salesperson is staying on track, as well as to identify problems and make necessary adjustments.
The action plan must specify the specific training and/or coaching, as well as who is responsible for the training and coaching and when it will take place. Leave nothing to chance or some iffy future scheduling. On the other hand, use common sense when some part of the action plan needs to be changed or rescheduled.
The action plan must have a specific outcome: either the salesperson has met the action plan goals or they will be separated from the company.
Slow Developers can become some of your sales team’s most reliable producers if given the chance and help in developing their potential. Although it takes a commitment of time and resources, it is cheaper to cultivate your Slow Developers than to hire a replacement and you have a moral responsibility to work with those salespeople you’ve hired who have the desire and potential to grow into quality producers.
Like Ted, you must drain the pus out of your team before it infects the entire body. Unlike Ted, you have to recognize that not every underperforming salesperson is a boil on your sales team’s butt. Unfortunately the most common problem companies have isn’t an overzealous Ted but rather a sales manager who takes the easy route and simply allows the boils to fester and the Slow Developers to fade away out the door—often out of sales completely.
Sales management is a proactive position that, along with its rewards, on occasion requires some hard decisions be made and some unpleasant actions to be taken. Squeezing boils isn’t pleasant. Working with your Slow Developers is hard work. If you’re not willing to take on both, you don’t deserve to retain your job. If you’re on top of both, you’re in an elite class of managers. If you haven’t recognized the need to deal with your underperformers, take them on. It won’t be fun or easy but you’ll shortly find your team’s morale and production increase and your team easier and more pleasant to manage.