Firing Line

Sound Familiar?

Marvin Johnson has been with XYZ Company for 10 years. During the first five years, Johnson was enthusiastic and highly productive; he was always among the top performers in his company. But over the past five years, Johnson has learned to get by with the bare minimum. He's been surviving mostly off the loyalty of past customers and their referrals--a result of his hard work early in his career--and he feels he's earned the right to sit back and coast off these earlier successes.

Unfortunately, sales from those past customers are starting to dwindle, and Johnson has gotten out of the habit of looking for new business. Times have also changed in his industry and at his company. The company's product line has expanded dramatically, and all its communication systems have been upgraded with cutting-edge technology.

Johnson hates all the new changes. These days, he rarely makes it to sales meetings, seminars or new training programs, claiming he's too busy taking care of his customers. His expense account is unjustified, and the recently hired sales manager has a hard time locating him throughout the week.

In the past few months, the sales manager has recruited some disciplined salespeople who are highly computer literate and eager to seek out new business. Johnson doesn't take the new sales manager seriously--he's only half his age and couldn't possibly have the know-how Johnson does.

The sales manager and company owners have concluded that keeping Johnson on the team is causing conflict. By allowing him to remain unaccountable, management communicates an unspoken message to the rest of the sales force: We bend the rules and lower our standards under certain circumstances. If they don't want to lose their credibility--and potential sales in the process--they're going to have to let Johnson go.

Does this sound more like fact than fiction? It's a common scenario, and it doesn't just happen with longtime employees. If you own a business and recruit a sales force, sooner or later, you'll have to ask an employee to leave.

Though it's never any fun, following certain guidelines can make firing less painful. Remember, if you don't let a salesperson go at the appropriate time, you're doing a big disservice both to that employee and your company.

Try using these tips the next time you have to say adios:

  • Create and enforce a performance agreement. A performance agreement is a document introduced during the hiring process that clearly states your expectations. It should include routing--how many times a week the salesperson must call on prospects in his or her territory. Using a performance agreement from the beginning gives the salesperson a clear road map for achieving territorial quotas. There's never a question about what's required.

Thus, a performance agreement takes the mystery and shock out of firing someone. You can confront a nonperformer with the question, "Do you believe you're living up to our agreement?" Usually, the nonperformer will either quit or ask you for a second chance. If he or she doesn't respond as indicated, ask, "What action do you think is appropriate: termination or a second chance to build your business?" An honest salesperson will tell you the truth.

  • Be accountable to each salesperson and his or her individual performance agreement. Some business owners believe the responsibility for fulfilling a performance agreement rests on the shoulders of the salesperson. But you can't just ask someone to sign a performance agreement and then call that person into your office a year later and say, "Well, it looks like you aren't cutting it. You're fired."

You have to keep a close watch on their activities and their attitudes. Offer support to struggling salespeople along the way. There's nothing so unfair as firing someone who has felt lost or overwhelmed from the beginning. Peace of mind comes from knowing you lived up to your end of the agreement. You gave that person your all, but it simply didn't work out.

  • Stay aware and avoid denial. How do you know the difference between an individual who has lost his or her motivation temporarily and someone who needs to be let go? When you stay in close contact with your employees from the beginning, it's easy to distinguish a temporary lack of motivation from a need for a career change. Missed quotas, lies, tardiness and the inability to learn from mistakes--when these signs show up, your choice is obvious.
  • Say goodbye with respect. Don't turn the dismissal into a personal attack, and don't prolong the misery by trying to explain where the individual went wrong.

Choose your words carefully. You might offer some encouragement with a statement like: "Take time to do an inventory of your strengths and interests, and seek employment that aligns with what you discover about yourself. Remember, one door closing usually means another will open for all parties involved." You can even use a personal story if it's appropriate.

Speaking of saying goodbye, this is my last article as Entrepreneur'sregular "Sales Success" columnist. I have enjoyed researching and writing for you during the last three years. Thank you all for the wonderful letters you have sent me. I hope that in some small way I have made a contribution to the success of your business.

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This article was originally published in the December 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Firing Line.

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