I’ve written a lot over the years about hiring salespeople, specifically about making better hiring decisions than much of the printing industry has. This month, I want to deal with a sort-of-related topic: the question of when to fire a salesperson.
The short answer to that question is that you should fire a salesperson as soon as he/she demonstrates the inability to make money for you. The hard part, of course is knowing exactly when that is, and I think it’s a fair observation that most printers fire salespeople at the wrong time, either before they’ve had a reasonable chance to produce, or well past the point where the printer started throwing good money after bad.
Let’s start with the first half of this equation, and the understanding that it simply takes time to build relationships; to bring people to the point where they’re even remotely interested in buying from any salesperson – or any printing company. I recently spoke with a printer who fired a salesperson after only three weeks. The reason, he told me, was that the salesperson hadn’t brought in even one quote in all that time. I was horrified, first of all because finding things to quote on and building relationships are two completely different selling strategies, and the real winners in printing sales focus much more on building relationships than on finding things to quote on and then “chasing” those projects. Beyond that, three weeks at a sales job just isn’t enough time to provide any real indication of the likelihood of success – with one important caveat, which I’ll get to in a moment.
I tell all of my clients that you have to be willing to invest in a new salesperson for six months, because even in a best-case scenario, it’s going to take that long before you start seeing any real payback. Remember, you are asking your new salesperson to go out and try to change people’s habits. Every prospect he/she calls on already has at least some sort of relationship with at least one other printing company.
Think about how long it took some of the salespeople you buy from now to win you over, back when they were in the same situation. You have to give your salesperson enough time to succeed!
You do have a right, though, to expect a certain amount of effort and cooperation from your salesperson. That’s the caveat I mentioned earlier. The reality of the situation is that it takes time to build relationships when your salesperson is doing all the right things, but those relationships will never develop if your salesperson isn’t doing the right things, and/or doing enough of them.
I believe the best way to manage a printing salesperson is to set up “action standards” – how many prospecting calls each week, how many introductory e-mails sent, how many telephone follow-ups, how many appointments – and manage compliance with those defined activity levels. When a salesperson lives up to his/her “action standards”, I’m willing to be patient, because I know I can be confident that relationships will grow and the sales volume I’m looking for will materialize. When he/she does not live up to those “action standards”, it’s an entirely different story.
The first time a salesperson missed his/her action standards, I’d sit him/her down for a short conversation. “You may have misunderstood the situation,” I’d say. “These action standards are not goals that I hope you’ll hit, they are absolute requirements for keeping your job. You have to maintain this level of activity if you want to be successful.” If it happened a second time, the conversation would be even shorter: “Your job is officially in jeopardy!”
If it happened a third time, the conversation would be even shorter still, two words: “You’re fired.”
The bottom line here is that you have to be patient with salespeople as they develop, but only as long as they’re putting in the necessary effort. If you have a salesperson who isn’t willing to work hard enough – or smart enough – to succeed, you should fire that person as soon as it becomes apparent that keeping them is a losing battle.