I should start this article with an apology – it breaks the ‘keep it short’ rule and uses some terms which may seem derogatory unless I explain that I’ve used them to make things as concise as I can. I trust when you’ve read it, you’ll appreciate why I’ve done both and that I will have conveyed the message and its moral as well as I intended to. It’s an article about why most newly-employed salespeople don’t last more than 2 years – a commonly accepted and quoted statistic – but why is that? Permit me to explain why I believe it to be the case …
During his time as leader of GE, legendary CEO Jack Welch introduced a staff appraisal system where employees were graded A, B or C – the system was called ‘differentiation’. Welch said that staff could be broken down into 3 types:
- A’s are the ‘stars’ of an organisation – the self-starters and self-motivated individuals who need minimal management and just need to be given clear objectives and strategy. He said these would typically account for 10% of a workforce
- C’s are the ‘baggage’ who need excessive time and effort from management and need constant ‘cajoling’ and ‘prodding’ to do what they are required to do. Again, he said that this group accounted for another 10% of the workforce and the B’s accounted for everyone else in-between (80%). In Welch’s system The B’s are the biggest group with a wide range of abilities and need management, support, procedures and guidelines to do their jobs as the company requires them to. The C’s invariably wouldn’t/couldn’t perform as required even with that management input and are deemed an unnecessary distraction to the company’s management.
The approach to dealing with people in the system was simple; champion, support and reward the A’s and look in the B’s to find those who had the potential to become A’s, then support and develop them to join that elite group. The C’s either had to change or get out (including being managed out – a contentious point about the differentiation system). Again, they looked at who was hiding in the B’s but was really a ‘C’ to ensure they were constantly removing bad apples and demonstrating that poor performance would not be accepted, thereby encouraging everyone to ‘raise their game’.
To many this sounds brutal, but it’s a part of what made Welch the outstanding CEO of the 20th century and earned him a fortune in salary and share options as GE fought to keep him at the helm for as long as they could.
The Challenge With Salespeople
In sales it can be difficult to understand who are the B’s with potential to become A’s relatively quickly, as well as those who had longer term potential to be good B’s (and could even be A’s in future with the right continued encouragement and support). This is the challenge for today’s sales managers. A’s are easy to spot. Outright C’s can be quickly identified as well … but there are C’s who can tell a good story, make all the right noises and masquerade as B’s before being found out. In a sales role that can often take around 2 years to come to light and be resolved. Likewise, potential A’s can be overlooked as they struggle with getting to grips with new product ranges, a new company and its procedures as well as new competition to ‘get their heads around’. It’s especially difficult when it comes to new sales employees who invariably have a steep learning curve to endure as they grapple with all if these things, challenging not only their ability but also testing and weakening their drive, resolve and enthusiasm. (This applies to both those new-to-selling as well as experienced salespeople who are changing industry and/or type of selling (i.e. Fast Moving Consumables Goods (FMCG) to capital equipment / project selling and from selling tangibles (i.e. products) to intangibles (services).)
In terms of knowledge in a new industry newly employed salespeople go through 4 stages in their development:
- Novice – where everything is new
- Learning – where things start to make sense and they are fully aware that they are amassing information, procedures and the salesperson is coming to terms with paperwork, systems, culture and procedures
- Knowledgeable – where they have grasped the basics and have answers to frequently asked questions ready to use, but will still struggle with more
- Expert – where they ‘know more than the average bear’, can speak with authority, command respect and where their opinion is valued by colleagues and prospects
It’s a brief explanation – I trust the descriptions are sufficient though to establish the differences between the stages. The journey from novice to expert is minimum 2 years and depending on the complexity of the product/service they’re selling it can be even longer; for the salesperson it can be arduous. At the beginning they and others (colleagues and prospects/customers alike) know they are new and ‘naïve’ (for want of a better phrase) – they are ‘allowed’ to make mistakes and people are tolerant that they don’t know certain things (it’s ‘kind-of-okay’ to be this way – to a point and only for a short while!)
By the time a still-relatively-new salesperson reaches the learning stage the expectation of the salesperson themselves, their colleagues and prospects/customers is changing and there is less tolerance, less forgiving of things not being correct. A trait of many salespeople is pride in their own ability (resilience and resourcefulness), so they don’t like to call themselves ‘new’ anymore and frustration can start to build in not being able to do more or being allowed to do and this can be tough to get through. Mistakes are still likely to be made regularly, forgiveness will not necessarily be forthcoming from others (and themselves too) and confidence can suffer. During this time a new salesperson can wrongly look and feel like a ‘C in B’s clothing’ and management, colleagues and customers can withdraw support from what they may have started to feel is a ‘lost cause’. Similarly, it can be a stage in their journey where salespeople can start to question management, the company, the products and their place in the company longer term.
For those who tough it out and reach the knowledgeable stage, the more resilient and resourceful ones will already be starting to look like A’s and in some cases will have already decided they can move on to bigger and better things (just check their LinkedIn profiles to see if they look like a CV!) Looking like the salesperson knows what they’re doing, management are likely to pay them less attention and the salesperson may start to feel unappreciated, even taken for granted (albeit that’s not management’s intention). For those who have not decided to move on, errors will still occur and criticism is likely to continue from their more experienced and learned colleagues who may believe the salesperson ‘should know everything by now’. That can reduce enthusiasm and drive and they may withdraw from progressing to the final stage. Sad thing is they are only just starting to cover their costs in terms of sales and profitability (which they’ll be made aware of by management and colleagues) and for the proud that can be hard to deal with.
For those determined enough to have seen it through who are keen to keep adding to their knowledge after 2 years minimum they finally arrive at the expert stage, when knowledge is good, valuable and they are an asset to company, customers and prospects alike. But it’s been one heck of a journey and there will be many who set out on the journey who won’t make it this far, hence why many salespeople change jobs every 2 years.
So What Can Be Done To Help Them?
For the company it’s a case of giving them all the product knowledge they can. To understand how the salesperson is grasping it, to support them with training and procedure/systems knowledge and be regularly evaluating how they are progressing, celebrating development as it happens. Whilst mistakes will be made tolerance should apply coupled with good explanations of what needs to be better and coaching/support given to help the salesperson work as required.
Sales skills knowledge and improvement helps both newly employed and longer-term salespeople. As most companies in the UK still don’t train selling skills, salespeople can struggle (product knowledge is expected to be enough). With skills training they can improve and refine their existing abilities and add ‘new tools to the bag’ giving them chance to make the most of every opportunity. For newly employed salespeople those tools can help them convert opportunities at a higher rate, essential to compensate for the self-doubt and challenges of the learning and knowledgeable stages. It also gives them the chance to achieve bigger and better results which in selling often converts to a higher reward (increased salary / commission / bonus / promotion (recognition)) keeping them wanting to progress with an employer who believes they are valuable enough to invest in. Many reward that employer with increased loyalty and sense of duty to ensure they repeatedly deliver and exceed targets.
Continued personal development and growth help salespeople develop to realise their potential and fulfil their ambitions and goals. In return improved job satisfaction and enhanced gratitude for their employer is achieved with many salespeople developing an increased loyalty whereby the company benefits from numbers of years of them being in the expert stage when return on investment for the employer is maximised.
Who Should Do All Of This?
Product knowledge must be the responsibility of the employer and the management team the salesperson works for – nobody does it better than you (at least they shouldn’t!) Sales skills and personal development are best left to specialists in that field; people who can explain not only what should be done and how, but why it should be done (in the manner they have shared). The companies and individuals chosen must be able to overcome any questions, concerns, doubts or worries the salesperson may have and should practice what they preach, not just ‘spout theory’.
Sure, it takes time to do this and there’s an investment to make. Do this though and you’ll be rewarded both in terms of the time and money you’ll save in not going through a plethora of salespeople who come and go without reaching expert stage as well as with increased sales and profits. Those will be delivered by salespeople that your prospects and customers will value as experts; whose word will be entrusted especially where projects are larger and have a higher value. Who knows, even the rest of your employees may just come to appreciate your salespeople as well (stranger things have happened!)
For more posts like this visit From Average to Out-Performing – How to Improve Your Skills
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