How do you change the behavior of an experienced salesperson?

By Dave Kahle 

Every client I deal with, in one way or another, eventually asks that question. The words may be different, but the question is the same. In this turn-of-the-century economic environment, it’s a universal question. If you haven’t confronted the issue yet, it’s only a matter of time before you will.

Here’s the context in which this question surfaces. The company needs to make some change that impacts the sales force: A new compensation program, a new automation tool, a new sales process, a new way of working with inside salespeople — a new something. Most sales forces are made up of a variety of people, ranging from the inexperienced rookies, to the veterans who have been around for anywhere from five to twenty-five years. The rookies are eager to learn and quick to adapt to the new thing, while most of the veterans are set in their ways and resistant to the new initiative.

The question of how to get the veterans to embrace and implement the new thing always comes up within the framework of a specific change that the company wants to make. From my perspective, however, it is a larger issue.

The veterans may be resistant to the specific change being implemented today. But there will be another change next year, and again the year after that, and the year after that, and so on for the rest of our careers. Today’s issue, whatever it is, is just a symptom of a larger problem. Like an iceberg, the veterans’ resistance to the new initiative is what you see above the surface, but beneath the facade is a much larger force to be reckoned with. It’s not resistance to this particular change; it’s resistance to any change that’s the issue. Ignore it today, and you’re likely to ram up against it again in the near future. So, sooner or later, every principal or sales executive is going to face the challenge of implementing change with experienced salespeople.

It is important to recognize that there are exceptions to the rule. Some experienced, veteran salespeople openly embrace the next thing and actually lead the way. But that kind of attitude is rare. If you have a veteran with a “change is great, let’s do it” attitude, be thankful. The rest of the world must confront this issue.

The knee-jerk reaction is, of course, to say, “Do it this way, or find another job.” It really would be great if it were that simple. However, many of these veteran sales people have been consistent performers in the past, and many executives feel loyalty to the people who have helped them build their business. Additionally, the veterans are typically storehouses of product knowledge, well-entrenched in their good accounts, and adequate, if not superior, performers. So, while it’s easy to say, “Tell them to change or leave,” the reality is much more complex than that.

Here are seven essentials to changing the behavior of an experienced salesperson.

Seven steps to implementing change

    1. Mandate the change. Too many executives try to bring about serious change without being publicly committed to it themselves. This half-hearted commitment is obvious to the employees, and provides them a mental escape. After all, if senior management isn’t really committed, why should they be? Don’t let that happen. If you want the change to stick, then put your personal power behind it. You announce it to everyone, you explain the rationale, you commit the assets of the company to it, you let everyone know that this change is going to be how your company does business. You’ll see to it.
    1. Communicate clear expectations. OK, you’ve mandated the change. Now you must make sure that those veteran salespeople know specifically what is expected of them personally. For example, you may be implementing a new sales force automation tool. You have mandated it publicly. Now, sit down with each salesperson and say, “Mary, by May 1st, we expect you to be using the customer master screen and call report function. By July 1st, we expect you to utilize the quote system for every quote you do. By September 1st we expect you to be fully functional on all five modules.” Follow it up with a written memo saying exactly the same thing. Now, everybody knows exactly what is expected.
    1. Tie the behavior to some reward. It would be nice if you could make 10% of their paycheck dependent on them meeting the expectations you set out. In most circumstances, the logistics of this is too difficult to pull off. The principle still remains, however. Maybe you can have a big banquet for every salesperson who has achieved the expectations. Include the spouses. Maybe you can all go to a sports event. Let everyone know, including the spouses, that this special occasion is only for those who make the change. Of course, if you could tie part of their paycheck to the change…
    1. Train them. Only the really eager to change will pick up the new behavior on their own. Everyone else, the 95% of the force that is left, will require specific and repetitive training in the thing that you want them to do. Don’t underestimate this. It’s a rule of thumb in sales force automaton projects, for example, that the cost of the training will about as much as the cost of the software and hardware. So, if it cost you $2500 per person for the new system, it will cost you $2500 per person to adequately train them in the new system. If you are not ready to bear this cost, don’t mandate the change to begin with.

      I am continually amazed at the number of companies, who, while in other ways are progressive and well-managed, have never thought to budget for training. It’s as if their need to provide instruction to their people is something they never considered. Don’t fall into the class of companies who don’t realize that training is an on-going investment. Plan to pay to train them.

    2. Support the changed behavior. Just because you’ve trained them doesn’t mean that everyone “got it.” They’ll still need reminders, someone to talk to about specific questions, manuals to look things up in, websites to go to review the change, etc. Set up your infrastructure for supporting the changed behavior before you begin the training.
    1. Manage and monitor the changeIn our Growth Coach - Sales Management System, we institute a formal, highly structured monthly meeting between the sales manager and the sales person. Whether you use our system or not, it is a good idea to meet regularly with each salesperson to monitor their growth and progress in meeting the expectations. Ask questions like, “What progress are you making?” “Are you where you need to be?” “Why or why not?” “What are you going to do now?” “How can I help?”
  1. Be prepared to take action. After you have done all this, you really have invested the company’s assets in a significant effort to help this person make the change. What if he/she still doesn’t?

At this point, you need to make a determination. Is this a “can’t do” issue, or is it a “won’t do” issue? In other words, is the problem that the salesperson just does not have the ability to do what you want him/her to do? If that is the case, then maybe they should be in another job in your company. Their current job may have grown beyond their capabilities. It happens.

On the other hand, the problem may not have anything to do with abilities, but lies in attitude. Is the issue that they won’t do it? If that’s the case, then it may now be time to part company with this individual.

The future of the sales force will be characterized by constant and rapid change. And every salesperson must be expected to be supportive of that change. It’s part of the job description. Resistance to today’s initiative will lead to resistance to tomorrow’s.

The company who can consistently manage that change and systematically bring about behavior will have a serious competitive advantage over those whose sales people are locked in behaviors that used to work.

 

This entry was posted in Sales Leadership, Sales News and tagged , , by KathleenSteffey. Bookmark the permalink.

About KathleenSteffey

Kathleen is the CEO of Naviga Business Services, and a primary blogger on salesjournal.com. She builds close relationships with her customers and assures success by enforcing a strong philosophy behind the recruitment process. Kathleen runs her company on the premise of understanding her customers’ business and the details surrounding their sales and marketing operation. "We learn about our customers, we stay focused on what’s important and we execute."

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