Your best sales person is a diamond that can still be polished

For many companies the “only problems” today are: do we generate enough business, do we get enough assignments and orders, do we make enough money to be able to run our business in a sensible way? A healthy top line helps to solve most of the other challenges the company faces.  So we can conclude that the good sales person is the most important employee in the company.

You need to take good care of your most important employees. How does this work in practice? When a sales person is outstanding, the comment of the superior is often something like. “I let Karen act totally independently – she is so competent, that I don’t need to interfere with her actions at all”.

Well, what does Karen think? She has at least two things on her mind:

  1. I have a tough time with my sales, the tight economic situation affects me just as much as it affects all the others. Actually, my sales may drop proportionally more than the sales of my colleagues, because my starting point is so much higher. I am fighting for my bonuses, but I don’t seem to get much support from within the company.
  2. What is the added value I get from my superior? No support, no advice, no presence. He looks remotely at my sales results on his pc-display and tells me what I sold last month (which I am very aware of myself). I may still be the best sales person in the company, but it doesn’t comfort me when my earnings drop, and my superior doesn’t seem to care.

I have a feeling that leading the best sales people often does not get the attention it should. Either one doesn’t know how, or one doesn’t dare, to provide the special attention the top performers need and deserve. The best ones usually have the most potential to develop even more, but what do companies do? A disproportionate amount of time is spent with under-performers, and simultaneously tight bonus ceilings are set, “to prevent the top players from earning too much”. People say that one has to be equal and fair, that one has to treat people evenly, that the best is a fixed salary for all sales people, “for sure they all do their best”. But does this kind of thinking yield the best result for the company? Is this the way to reach a maximum result?

In Finland, my native country, ice hockey is the national sport. In our top ice hockey league, all players get lots of ice time, lots of responsibility, and differences in pay are not very big. Compare this to the toughest ice hockey leagues in the world, where the superstars play and earn way more than the “foot soldiers”. The differences are quite large.

I have, in numerous leadership and management workshops, asked the participants to write down two challenging leadership situations they face in real life. And guess what: approximately 100% of the writings describe leading under performers. No-one thinks about the top players, because “you don’t really need to lead them, you know” (this comment always pops up in the discussions afterwards).

Jack Welch, GE’s legendary CEO, launched an interesting aspect of leadership – an idea that carries a lot of wisdom, especially in a tough economic situation. Welch asked all GE’s all managers before the beginning of the next budget period, to evaluate the potential of all their direct reports (present performance level, future outlook, growth possibilities etc.), and to nominate the best 20%, in which the superior believed the most, regarding the upcoming year. The superior’s task was to concentrate on this 20% – if any one of these top performers left the company during the next year (for whatever reason), the bonus of the superior was immediately affected. The most important task of the superior was to keep the top performers in the company.

Why then does such a top performer choose to stay? When interviewing top performers who have left a company, they normally mention one of two reasons; the immediate superior’s way of working and/or the lack of working morale in the company. A professional working environment keeps the top performer in the company. He/she doesn’t leave for worse conditions even if the new company would offer a somewhat higher income.

A professional work environment today means, that sloppiness is not accepted. Top performers are given all possibilities to succeed. In sales, the large, interesting opportunities are offered to the top performers first, who evaluate their own use of time and possibilities to participate. Then the right team is chosen to turn the opportunity into an offer. In an amateur environment those same opportunities are given to the weak or new ones, because “the top performers are already doing well enough, but Pete doesn’t have enough work for the moment”. Are your company’s most demanding and important customers in the right hands?

The world keeps changing. Buying changes and both sales people and the ways of selling (processes, tools etc.) need to be constantly developed. Who should be trained? The not so good sales people or the best ones? Keep in mind, that the best sales people often are long-timers, experienced people. It is not unusual that the best sales people are 50 years plus. You cannot put them into school so development doesn’t concern them. This, by the way, is what happens in practice. But again sport is different! Does Barcelona say “Messi needn’t take part in our practice sessions.  He is already good enough. Let him practice alone at home, if he believes he needs something new.”?

Hey, come on! A great way of losing great sales people is to leave them outside of development. And this happens, if the development measures are directed only at the wrong end of the potentials list. Again, I am calling for managers to add real value to their best performing sales people – what actions do you take to make your best sales people even better? Here is your biggest sales management challenge for 2016!

Please be in contact if you want to discuss more!

Uffe Tollet / Mercuri Finland

Your best sales person is a diamond that can still be polished