Sales Dead Last? Turn It Up!

A few years ago, a new sales manager inherited an eight-person sales team that was ranked dead last out of six dealer branches. His one decent producer was an eighteen-year veteran with the company. Other than that, no one on the sales team had more than one year of sales experience or any formal sales training; they had only received product training from the manufacturers’ sales schools. To make things worse, the sales staff had a pitiful attitude. In the first two weeks, the manager consistently received excuses for poor performance: ”I have a lousy territory!” “Our prices are too high!” “Contractors are loyal to XYZ Brand!”

Here are ten steps he took that brought about success:


Step #1: Slow down in order to speed up. Analyze the situation.

The manager knew that to obtain extraordinary results in business, you have to have a plan. He knew he had been brought on board because the team’s former sales manager had not been effective. He also knew he would have to provide sales training and coaching, but he first had to analyze the situation before he could turn things around.

Over the next two weeks, he interviewed each individual on his sales team and listened carefully. It did not take him long to realize that lack of training was not the only reason for the team’s failure. One of the biggest reasons was that the salespeople did not believe in themselves. Other than the one producer, none had experienced the taste of success and the thrill of victory.

Who can fill the role?

The salespeople lacked a role model, and the sales manager knew that he alone could not fulfill that role. Most salespeople emulate the actions of a peer they admire. They play “follow the leader” with someone they look up to—and not necessarily their sales manager. Clearly, a leader had to be discovered fast.

In the world of sports, the strongest players on the team assume a leadership role. This is often referred to as “stepping up.” This bewildered sales manager had no one who could step up, be a success example, or share his or her knowledge and skills with these less experienced salespeople. The one salesperson who was producing had no desire to help others. No one else on the team was capable of displaying that type of leadership.

Step #2: Make decisions. Create a strategy and a written action plan.

The sales manager did what every smart salesperson does. He created a strategy and a written Action Plan for Sales Success. Now, execution would be key.

Step #3: Find a success role model.

The manager recruited a new salesperson to be a success model. He knew if he hired the right person, that individual could play an important role in reversing the downward performance trend. The sales manager found his new leader when he hired John, a salesman who worked for a competitor.

The manager told John to stick with him and do exactly as he taught him. Over the next eight weeks, the sales manager taught John everything he knew. Although John had received product sales training in his previous job, the manager coached him on territory management, time management, and critical sales communication skills – listening, asking intelligent questions, overcoming objections, asking for the business, negotiating, and closing the sale.

John knew the sales manager was counting on him, and he did not let him down. In his fifth month, John produced 110 percent of quota, even though he was the new kid on the block. The manager called a sales meeting. He started the meeting by announcing bits of information. Then he proceeded to give John accolades.

Overnight, the attitude in the office changed from one of making excuses for poor performance to “What’s that new guy doing?” John’s performance forced the others to take a good hard look in the mirror. That is when the sales team finally accepted responsibility for their complacency, negative attitudes, and average performance.

Step #4: Train, coach, and educate.

The sales manager knew that coaching methods based on the solid learning principles of spaced repetition, positive reinforcement, and practice were necessary. He scheduled weekly sales meetings on Friday afternoons. During the week he gave homework assignments on different selling skills. Time and territory management were also discussed. For a while the sales manager coached the role-playing. Then he turned the coaching over to individual salespeople.

Sometimes he would bring a package of hot dogs, a container of yogurt, or an ugly vase to the meetings. He would direct them to take turns communicating the features and benefits of whatever he brought and to close the sale.

Meetings were always upbeat, interesting, and fun! He even held meetings at a nearby park and in the parking lot of the company’s building. (I recall a visit where I saw an example of this. As I pulled into the parking lot in front of the building, I saw a group of twelve people sitting on the grass. They were having a sales meeting! I sat in my car for a while to observe. There they were, talking in the sunshine and open air where their minds could find fresh thoughts. I saw him ask them to stand so that energy levels would be high. I found out later he often called these meetings spontaneously and did not allow cell phones, beepers, or any distractions.) Smart manager.

At each meeting, a $50 gift card was given to the best presenter, and a drawing was held for a $25 gift card. (These were small investments the company was willing to make that could pay off big-time.) No wonder people looked forward to these sales meetings!

Discussions on the state of the construction, material handling, and ag equipment industry took place. The team was instructed to research information and study their industry for at least one hour every week and to bring what they learned to the meetings.

Step #5: Coach mediocre salespeople to greatness or remove them from the team.

Far too often, poorly performing salespeople are allowed to continue in their lackluster ways. A manager may not want to face the hassle of recruiting a replacement or may want to avoid confrontation. This is a big mistake.

In today’s world, a sales manager cannot accept mediocre sales performance. The best managers take a hands-on role and provide the coaching the poor performer needs to improve. If there is no improvement, the manager must have the courage to remove that individual from the team. This may sound cold-hearted, but it must be done.

Step #6: Set high sales performance standards.

The sales manager set high performance standards for his sales staff. He communicated his expectations. He explained that his purpose was to “raise the BAR” with standards that consisted of Behavior, Activity, and Results. (A simple Behavior standard, he explained, would be to arrive in the office every morning before 8 a.m. and plan the day. An Activity standard would be to make a minimum of 25 telephone sales calls every day. A Result standard would be that a sales representative with seven to nine months of sales experience would be able to sell a specific minimum per month.)

For results, the sales manager set two standards. The first was a lower “keep your job” standard. Salespeople who fell below the minimum standard for a three-month period would be placed on probation. If sales did not pick up for that person the next quarter, they would have to be “dehired.” Another standard performance result would be, of course, an even higher sales quota.

To maintain high morale, the manager made sure to set sales goals that were achievable. To inspire his team, he gave each individual a sheet of paper that had one thing on it: a number, which was the commission they would make if they met their sales goal. Smart manager.

Step #7: Remove those with below-minimum standards.

Tough as it is, a sales manager must remove team members with below-minimum standards. If he or she does not, the other salespeople will wonder whether the company is serious about these standards. The first person removed will send a message that is loud and clear: performance standards will be enforced. If not enforced, standards are meaningless.

Step #8: Coach, coach, and coach some more.

The sales manager spent a great deal of time going on calls and coaching individual salespeople. He knew it was the only way to build a dynamic team. He also made himself available to help them close a deal.

Step #9: Cultivate a fun atmosphere and a higher quality of life.

Fun in the workplace, what a novel idea! The sales manager held a series of contests that helped the sales team focus on team goals. For example, if the team hit a monthly goal, they earned a gift. Sometimes they received movie passes for themselves and their families. Other times they were given golf outings.

Sometimes the sales manager would ask the team to create skits. One day the negative attitudes and behaviors they had displayed when the sales manager was first hired were reenacted. At that point, he knew he had transformed the culture of his sales organization.

Step #10: Know what each salesperson wants.

Every individual has something that motivates them. The sales manager always believed that, unless a company gave employees a stake in their organization, they could care less about shareholder value. They care about their families and their hopes and dreams. The sales manager found out what every salesperson wanted and, using this information, helped the salesperson reach his or her goals. “You want to put that addition on your house, right?” “You want to give those kids the best education, don’t you?” “I can see you driving that dream car into the parking lot already.” “You’ve been working so hard. Let’s make sure you and your family can take a nice vacation this year.”

The result? Eighteen months after taking over, the sales manager’s team had moved from last place to number five in sales, having posted the biggest increase in sales of any team in the company.

Perhaps a few of the strategies this sales manager applied will help you improve the performance of your sales team.

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