Dave is your top sales person. Since coming on board, he’s consistently beat his numbers and increased revenue. In fact, he’s now responsible for a huge chunk of your total sales volume. In short, he’s a superstar.
The problem is that Dave is despised by others in the company. They say he’s rude, disrespectful, abusive, and his name comes up repeatedly in exit interviews. You’re worried he’s poisoning the environment, but that revenue is important to the organization. What do you do?
This kind of scenario happens a lot, and not just with sales people. It can happen with any top performer. When it does, the first thing to acknowledge is that you can’t ignore it and hope it goes away. It won’t. Very likely, for every one incident you’re aware of, there are four or five that haven’t reached you.
You have to act and it leaves you, really, with only two options: fix the problem or get rid of Dave. The trick is to figure out which route to go and how to approach it.
Fixing the situation
Before making the decision to fire Dave, take a good hard look at the issues. You might find Dave is not the problem at all, or you may find that the problem can be fixed. Ask yourself, honestly, if there are poor process or organizational disconnects that are leaving him frustrated and affecting his performance. Or maybe the rest of the company works at a different pace than Dave. For a driving person like Dave, either of those situations can lead to legitimate challenges that he may just be handling poorly.
Talk to Dave and, if he complains of process breakdowns, poor support and service levels, you may want to look into those. If you find he has legitimate concerns, try turning his negative impact into a positive one for the company.
Give him accountability of a key stakeholder in a project to improve the processes that he’s so critical of; explain to him that you need his keen insights to help make the company better. His love of recognition will relish that. By his nature, though, a sales person like Dave will struggle with the routine of driving a large project like that, so don’t put him in charge of managing the actual project.
You may find that the conflict stems from a combative relationship between a top sales person who is assertive, driving, dominant and results-oriented and support roles filled with people who work at a more steady pace, are more analytical, rule-oriented and methodical. Two people like that may have great difficulty communicating effectively, if they don’t know how to adapt.
For example, someone like Dave works well under pressure and hates structure. Whereas, someone who excels in a support role likely doesn’t work well under pressure and needs that structure to cope. These two types can work together, but they have to know how and that starts with awareness of themselves and each other.
For deeper insights on the behavioral traits common in successful sales people, read this.
In this situation, the solution may reside in helping Dave understand his colleagues and vice-versa. We work with many clients to build behavior profiles into their coaching programs, helping teams to work more effectively and managers to manage more effectively by understanding each other’s behavioral traits and how to adapt their interactions accordingly.
It’s critical that Dave’s manager has these insights in order to effectively coach him.
You have to also consider, that you may be espousing a corporate culture of one type, but hiring people who, by their nature, are going to butt up against it. That’s why it’s so important to consider these same traits in the hiring process as well.
Getting rid of Dave
But what if it’s not the processes or clashing personalities? What if Dave just has to go? He’s causing you to lose other good people and you have to act. First, take a breath. This may not be as bad as you think.
The fear here is that you’ll lose sales; that without Dave, your revenue will plunge and you won’t be able to replace him. What many who have faced this situation say, though, is that this nightmare scenario rarely materializes. Instead, what happens is that morale and productivity actually goes up when you get rid of the problem, erasing any initial hit to sales.
You have to be prepared, though. There are steps you should take to lessen the blow of losing Dave – in fact, these steps are good practices to have in place even without someone like Dave on board.
- Connect with your clients. Make sure that Dave’s clients have a relationship with the company, not just with Dave. That way, his sudden disappearance doesn’t leave them vulnerable.
- Fill your pipeline. Be on the lookout for candidates who can take Dave’s place. Maybe even bring some in before letting Dave go. But be smart about selection. Develop a model for success in the role and use that to measure candidates against. In short, hire smart. We explored the key traits of successful sales people in a two-part blog series here if you want advice on what you should be looking for to avoid another Dave.
- Train your other sales people. Figure out what Dave is doing right and develop a program to train your other sales people to adopt those techniques and behaviors, while avoiding the ones causing the problems.
Have you ever faced the Dave problem? What’s your advice for dealing with a bullying top performer?
Enkata did a survey of sales people a few months ago. We asked a free text question: "As a sales manager, how would you deal with a top sales person who is also your greatest personnel challenge?" The example isn't quite as egregious as the Dave example. Never the less, the answers surprised me. The most common response was some variant of "I'd put up with the person," or "top performers can do what they want as long as they bring home the business." Some people said they would have that person train the other reps. Only 20% said they would fire the person if they couldn't learn to work well with others. I think many sales managers are very worried about killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, or sending a message that revenue production isn't the most important thing in sales. Therefore, they'll be very limited in their response options for Dave.
Thanks for sharing the feedback you got from your survey Dan. Very enlightening! Unfortunately when companies send a message that this kind of behaviour is acceptable it can have a real impact on the culture which can lead to higher turnover, lost productivity and a negative corporate brand. Cheers, Kristen
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