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Promoted! Sales Team Management Tips for Turnaround Teams

In this series for new sales managers, we’re about to look at sales team management tips for turnaround teams … teams that aren’t performing well.

If, instead, you’ve inherited a high-performing sales team, there are different challenges you’re likely to face. We covered those in last week’s post.

Before we dive into poorly performing teams and offer tips for how to turn your team around, consider the warning signs …

Sales Team Management Tips: The 7 Warning Signs

There are 7 early warning signs that your team won’t make goal and needs to be turned around:

  1. The numbers aren’t there
  2. The activity isn’t consistent.
  3. The activity isn’t productive.  
  4. The “fire in the belly” is lacking.
  5. The funnel isn’t full.
  6. The excuses are in overdrive.
  7. The focus isn’t clear.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these early warning signs.

Graphic Showing Resisting Despite Being Push1. Numbers don’t lie.

Although they don’t tell the whole story, numbers reveal a lot.

Look at them objectively. Don’t assume or add to what you’re seeing. Let the numbers speak for themselves at first pass. You’ll get the supplemental information soon enough.

If you have a solid read on the numbers, you’ll be better equipped to gauge what does (and doesn’t) make sense. You’ll know what questions to ask.

At first pass, look for:


  • What’s behind them?
  • What’s changed?
  • How steep is the curve?
  • What’s correlated with the curve, and what’s causing it?

If you detect a downward trend, don’t readily accept that this is due to some uncontrollable factor like the economy or increased competition.

Peaks and Valleys

Why is there so much variability? What do the peaks have in common with each other? What do the valleys have in common? Looking period-to-period and year-over-year for spikes and dips will help you determine if this is a seasonal phenomena or something else to investigate.

Seller Routines

Seller by seller, look at when sales are booked.

Does the seller work ahead and book business early in the period? Or is there a flurry of bookings late in the period? A steady cadence? Is there a norm you’d prefer to see?

Find out what’s behind each seller’s routines – some of those waiting to book business may be sandbaggers, and some may be procrastinating. Either way, smoothing order booking is generally a better practice and helps with flash updates, too.

Gravy Trains

What percent of each seller’s business comes from a single account? What happens if a “gravy train” account dries up? Riding a single account is a dangerous game. Sellers who do this often find themselves fighting revenue in the next year that they’re not prepared to post gains on. Don’t let sellers get complacent instead of keeping the pipeline moving.

Customer Attrition

How many customers return year after year or period after period? What’s keeping others from becoming recurring customers?

If some sellers have significantly lower customer retention rates, you’ll want to do some digging and talk directly to lost customers to find out what would bring them back.

2. Activity precedes results.

Consistent activity drives results. Kicking back when the current quota has been reached is a surefire way to lose future business. Sellers who are lax in sales activities are sellers who don’t eventually won’t post results.

You don’t want to micromanage sales activities, but you will want to set standards that are proven to produce the desired results. Examples of sales activity standards, each in a predetermined time period, include:

  • Number of new business development calls made.
  • Number of discovery calls completed.
  • Number of demos or proposals delivered.
  • Number of appointments with established customers.
  • Number of hours spent in training or professional development.
  • Number of ride-along coaching calls.
  • Number of customer review meetings.

3. Activity isn’t enough.

Completing the activities is useless if people are unskilled or going through the motions. Quality, in fact, is more important than quantity.

Given the choice between a seller who made 100 cold calls a week using a script and sounding bored vs. a seller who made 25 calls a week that were personalized and truly engaging for buyers ... obviously, you’d choose the second seller every time. Before you start demanding 100 calls, be sure you need the higher quantity vs. the higher quality.

You also need to be certain that the activities you require are the right ones. The right activities are the ones that truly drive the results you need. What are the activities consistently chosen by the most successful sellers? Can you see cause-and-effect between an activity and a result?

Don’t focus sellers on the wrong activities! Do focus them on the ones that have an impact and advance sales.

4. Fire in the belly matters.

As a sales coach, I can tell within 15 minutes with a sales team which sellers have a “fire in the belly” and which don’t.

Fire in the belly fuels sellers. It’s what keeps them going despite the no’s they hear. It’s what makes them pick up the phone and call people back who have said “no” in the past. It’s what drives them to want that spot at the top of the leaderboard. Fire in the belly is what makes sellers care whether or not they win a deal, whether or not the competition bests them, and whether or not they help a buyer find a solution.

If you have sellers on your team who are apathetic, indifferent, ho-hum, or laid back about making sales, you have a problem. These are the sellers who are biding their time, wishing for a different career or situation. They are hoping to get by on whatever sales come easily, and they’ve got dozens of ways to justify their impassiveness. You’ll notice right away that they don’t take responsibility for their lackluster sales results. They don’t seem to notice their own lack of passion for selling and for helping buyers.

Attitude is everything in selling. Seller confidence and passion is contagious. Buyers spot the lack of either and hesitate to buy from sellers who don’t seem to fully believe in what they’re selling.

5. Funnel is for the long game.

Your funnel should be brimming over all the time. If you don’t have quality leads at the opening of your pipeline today, you can’t possibly have quality new customers tomorrow. It doesn’t matter how much business you have right now. If you don’t also have new leads who can become new customers, you cannot grow. You’re at risk of a sales slump when you have to backtrack and feed the funnel. And you’re at the mercy of your current buyers because, if one of them doesn’t re-sign with you, you’re going to come up empty.

In sales, there’s usually a focus on the current period, quarter, or year. Playing the long game seems to be less of a priority because everyone is working to make the next quota and earn the next commission check. It’s a lot of work to start from scratch period after period. In sales, if you’re going to be in the same job for more than a short stint, you’ve got to think about the long-term, too.

Look for gaps at the top of the funnel. Then look for gaps in each advance stage. Where do sales get lost? Why? What skills, activities, or processes are needed to nurture and engage prospects until they sign with you?

6. Excuses are useless.

Except as an indicator for you about who’s coachable and who’s not. If you have sellers who are entrenched in defensive postures, refusing to take responsibility for their own sales results, it will be difficult for you to get the turnaround you need. When sellers believe the excuses they offer, they won’t invest time and energy to overcome obstacles or learn new approaches. The perception that some other force is a barrier to making sales and reaching goal will keep them from trying harder.

Common excuses you’ll need to challenge ASAP include:

  • “Our prices are too high.”
  • “Our products lack value.”
  • “Our leads are no good. I don’t have any qualified prospects to pursue.”
  • “I can’t call again. I don’t want to seem like a pushy salesperson.”
  • “Quotas are unrealistic.”
  • “The economy isn’t good. No one has budget.”
  • “I’m too busy doing non-sales work to make more sales calls.”

There are infinite variations on these excuses. If you hear any of them, do not accept them as fact. Sales managers who empathize with sellers and want to side with them against the company always lose. There is nothing whatsoever to be gained by agreeing with these kinds of excuses. Why validate something that isn’t an absolute fact and will only keep a seller from succeeding?

Of course, you can also look into these issues. Maybe there are some ways you can free up more selling time. Perhaps the economy is not ideal or quotas are aggressive. You may be able to influence some of these variables. But don’t make promises and don’t reduce accountabilities while you gather information and work behind the scenes if corrections are needed.

7. Clarity counts, too.

In any management role, it’s vitally important to communicate clear expectations. Then, to check and make everyone fully understands those expectations for results/outcomes AND for how to achieve them. You want people to get the right results, the right way. They can’t do that if they don’t even know what the “right way” is. You have to define it for them.

A classic example of this in sales happens when sales managers are clear on the outcome (make goal) but fail to provide clarity on how to make goal. Left to their own devices, some sellers achieve goal through tactics that don’t represent the company well, don’t meet buyer needs, or don’t consider profitability as they discount prices or add in extras.

You can’t assume that sellers know what to do and how to do it. You also can’t expect them to have clarity when there are multiple, competing outcomes that you talk about.

Be careful in situations like these that interfere with clarity:

  • If you have a suite of products, incentivize sales for the one that you want to see getting sold more often. If you pay spiffs on other products, you’re sending a mixed message.  

  • If you have a new CRM or other new tech tools you want everyone to use, consider your launch plan carefully. It will be confusing to layer training and learning curve time on top of critical deadlines, renewal periods, or other sales-intensive periods.

  • If you want new business development to be a top priority, be sure you liberate sellers from time-consuming work related to account maintenance and service.

Sales teams that struggle aren’t always comprised of ineffective sellers. Sometimes, skilled and capable sellers are confused by mixed messages, pulled in too many different directions by a lack of clarity at the top, or misdirected with activity standards and incentives that pull them away from what should be their primary focus. It’s a sales manager’s job to provide clarity and help them focus on what matters most.

Your First Responsibility Is to Correctly Diagnose the Problem(s)

Now that you’ve reviewed those seven early warning signs that you’re not set up for success, you’ll have to diagnose which of them are problematic for your team.

You will be looking at something else, too. You’ll be evaluating the sellers, especially the ones who haven’t been reaching quota. A word of caution: don’t leap to this step first. It may seem obvious and easy to “clean house” and simply replace under-performers. However…

Bringing new people into the same situation is no guarantee of success. More often, new sales managers find themselves with a revolving door of sellers when all they address is performance. You can replace every seller on your team with others who have strong track records. But if the problems in your processes, communication, emphasis areas, culture, and so forth aren’t addressed, you will not retain the new talent either. They’ll leave on their own accord because they know there are greener pastures. Or you’ll repeat the work of managing them out (maybe over and over again).

Sales managers who are constantly interviewing, hiring, onboarding, putting people on performance plans, and firing sellers suffer in three ways.

  • First, this is no way to get ahead. You can’t focus your time on strategic and selling work if it’s consumed by all the work required to hire and fire.

  • Second, there is a financial impact when sales territories are vacant and when new hires are ramping up. Customers get neglected and then grow impatient when they have to bring another new seller up to speed.

  • Third, the sales manager who can’t select and retain talent raises eyebrows. People start to wonder what’s wrong with the sales manager.

So, before you replace people, be sure that’s the right solution. It may be part of the solution and, if so, work to fix the systems problems first. Why? Because you might be able to turn things around for employees you would otherwise fire. It’s worth considering.

Of course, sometimes the problem is purely the person. There are seven types of “problem employees” that managers find difficult to deal with. Again, a word of caution: As this webinar explains, managers are often too quick to tag employees with these problems (or with any problem). It’s easy, for example, to say “she’s not motivated” or “he’s not a team player.” But is that really the case?

In addition to everything listed above, here’s one more reason not to hastily blame under-performing sellers. It’s management.

If managers are ineffective, performance lags. It’s not fair to suddenly hold sellers to a higher standard than their previous manager did. You can get there incrementally, but a wholesale change is not feasible overnight. There will be new habits to develop, skills to learn or refresh, work flow adjustments to make, and beliefs to change about what’s “right” to do. You’ll have to earn their trust and get their buy in before they can make all the shifts you’d like to see.

You may be asking, “Why bother?” Why not start from scratch with new sellers? Think about what those sellers will leave with and new sellers will come in without: institutional and product knowledge, customer relationships, internal partnerships, and an ability to teach you things you don’t know (if you’re new to the company or this customer base).

What’s more, those sellers were once considered capable. They were hired because they showed promise. That means they once had what you want in a new hire. Is it still there? Why not find out? If what they’ve been lacking is solid management, you have an incredible opportunity to prove yourself.  

If you decide to give sellers a second chance, you’ll need to be very clear on your expectations and convey that you want to help them get things turned around. There is no need to make threats or to leave people feeling isolated and unsure what they can do to change. You must be firm. You must be fair. And you must show you care.

After setting expectations, emphasize development. Provide training. Invest time in coaching. Convey confidence in sellers’ abilities to do a better job. Allow enough time for change and don’t stop believing in people until they give you a reason to.

When There’s No Other Choice, and You Need to Replace Sellers

Now that you’ve carefully assessed the situation and accurately diagnosed the problem(s), you may be left with only one choice. One, some, or all of the sellers on your team may need to be replaced. That’s a challenge for any manager, let alone one who’s new to the job.

How will you know who needs to be replaced? Use these questions and be objective in answering them.

  1. Does this employee want to and try to do a good job?
  2. Is the employee willing to make behavioral changes in order to do a good job?
  3. Are YOU willing to give this employee what he or she needs to do a good job?

It all comes down to willingness. Without willingness, there’s no point in making the effort to help someone turn things around. Without a seller’s willingness, you will be ineffective as a coach. Without a seller’s willingness to change, you’ll just be prolonging the inevitable. Without your willingness to invest time and effort, this is also going to be a fruitless endeavor.

If you are both willing, set a time frame for skills development and behavior change. What do you need to see within 1 week? 1 month? 3 months? Allow for incremental and continual change that positively impacts results. You may wish to confer with your Human Resources department as you craft this arrangement so that you are aligned with best practices and your company’s policies or precedents.

If the seller is willing and you are not willing, tell your HR department. Explain why you can’t or won’t work with this individual to attempt a turnaround. Depending on what’s already transpired and what your HR department advises, there may be a process you need to implement rather than an immediate termination. When that’s the case, you should still give all you can to attempt a turnaround. This is otherwise known as giving someone a fair chance to succeed. It’s important for you to be fair in the opportunities you give one employee vs. another in an equivalent situation.

If the seller is not willing, take action as quickly as you can. Work with your HR department to ensure compliance with employment laws in your area and company policies or precedents. Document the reasons why you see termination as the only option. When you do, record the reasons that are behavioral, observable, and objective. Your personal opinions and conclusions are not useful here and could even make it appear as if you held a bias against or dislike for the individual.

For example, you’d record information like “Did not reach target number of outbound calls for 15 consecutive days. Expectations were communicated in writing and verbally on a daily basis.” You would not record “Refuses to make outbound calls; ignores me when I tell him to make calls; is insubordinate.” The first example is factual and draws no conclusions. The second example is not factual and does draw conclusions that could be disputed. Leave out your interpretations and stick to the facts.

In a situation like this, it’s important to involve HR and your boss. You don’t have to go it alone. There are numerous complexities that need to be considered, and this process might take longer than you think. While you’re waiting for action and following the process, keep working to support every member of your team in an effort to get a turnaround.

At the same time, start recruiting and identifying potential candidates for the sales role. Make sure the job description is accurate and up-to-date. Learn about your company’s interviewing and hiring processes so you can move quickly to fill open positions.

And, as stated above, continue to look at the possible mixed messages and barriers sellers may be encountering. Diagnose and fix problems. Do not assume that new sellers will simply find better workarounds and “deal with it” better. 

Additional Tips for Turning the Team Around

In the coming weeks of this CONNECT2Sell series, we will provide additional resources and ideas for improving sales performance. For now, here are some additional starter tips.

  1. Never make it personal. People want to succeed. Usually, they just don’t know how. Focus on development, not discipline, to help people get back on track.

  2. Be available to coach and train team members. If they were underperforming before you started, they clearly can’t do it alone. Diagnose the problem and help them solve it.

  3. Listen to what they’re trying to tell you. Cut through the excuses but pay attention to the true obstacles that are provable and recurring.

  4. Remember that people rise (or fall) to others’ expectations. If you believe in them, they’re more likely to believe in themselves. Provide both confidence and competence.

  5. Find out what motivates each individual on your team. Hint: it’s not just the money. If they say it’s money, ask what they want to do with the money. Show how reaching goals is linked to their primary motivators. Make this individual and specific for each team member.

  6. Don’t dwell in the past. What worked for you may not be what works for others. Share your ideas but remain open to other possibilities, too.

  7. Whatever you do, don’t prop up underperforming sellers. Don’t do their work for them to get them over goal. Don’t try to be a hero who saves people or revenue. Equip people to succeed on their own. If you’re not doing their job, you won’t be able to do your own.  

Stay in the Long Game

Turning a sales team around isn’t easy. It won’t happen overnight. It will happen faster if you do it right instead of taking steps that might make it worse.

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