Down, Not Out

Your reps not selling like they used to? Don't worry-they can be rehabilitated.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the December 2001 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

While quick to stomp them when down, we Americans are exceedingly forgiving when fallen sports, political and entertainment heroes show signs of recovering their former glory. With a soft spot for philanderers, drug addicts and the generally misdirected, we cheer when the fallen rebound-think Marv Albert (a fine sportscaster who looks good in hose), Bill Clinton (hate him or love him, the man just keeps coming back) and Julia Roberts (remember Mary Reilly and Everyone Says I Love You?). You may find solace in these comeback tales, especially when the salesperson you hired to make rain is in the midst of a serious drought.

Consider the career trajectory of "Steve" (not his real name), a salesperson who, after 20 years of stellar performance in the printing business, hit rough waters at Great Lakes Cos. in Cleveland. With a national clientele, the $45 million printing company was diversifying by adding three new companies and several specialties, including database management, pre-press and digital management services. While the new product lines were a must, the supporting technologies proved onerous for Steve. Unable to answer customers' questions, the printing veteran was producing frightful sales stats.

Fortuitously for Steve's career, Great Lakes is headed by president and CEO Jim Schultz. Schultz knew Steve was struggling to keep up with fast-moving technology and that print reps were becoming obsolete. But Schultz also knew Steve and his co-workers were essential to connecting with customers, so he started an in-house program to train the reps on the electronic side of publishing. He gave the entire sales staff laptops and sent them all to a 10-week course. Schultz says the investment paid off big time, especially for Steve, who is now back in the top 10 percent of the sales force. "He was a very strong rep who got caught behind the times," says Schultz. "With training, we've helped create a future in the business for him."

Why does a once-great performer end up sucking wind? There could be lots of reasons: Health concerns, troubles at home, a cooling economy, loss of interest in the job, dissatisfaction with pay and lack of understanding of new products can all lead to declining sales. It's important to diagnose a problem quickly and start working with the troubled rep right away. The longer you wait, the deeper the hole. "If the top half of your sales funnel is empty, you're in a world of hurt," says Andrew J. Birol, business development consultant and author of Focus. Accomplish. Grow. The Business Owner's Guide to Growth (Pacer Associates Inc.). Inactivity kills, he adds, so the best antidote is action, such as encouraging reps to re-establish contact with buyers nurtured over the years.

To help end a sales slump, Dave Stein, president of The Stein Advantage Inc., a sales consulting firm in Mahopoc, New York, says the sales manager must diagnose the cause of the slump in an open and nonthreatening discussion with the rep. "After the salesperson has accepted responsibility for not achieving past performance levels, he must contribute to devising a plan to overcome obstacles," advises Stein. Plans should include quantified objectives, time frames and both revenue-based and non-revenue-based performance measurements. When it comes time to re-evaluate performance, Stein cautions that you may need to accept the reality that some reps just aren't able to adapt to changes in their markets, companies or careers. Alas, for every Julia Roberts, there's a Gary Coleman.

Kimberly L. McCall is president of McCall Media & Marketing, a business communications company in Freeport, Maine.

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