When should you fire a salesperson?

This article was first published in the September 2020 issue of AP, written by Dave Fellman.

In four separate recent phone calls, I dealt with an all-too-common question in our industry – When should you fire a salesperson?

The short answer is that you should do it as soon as they demonstrate the inability to make money for you. The hard part, of course is knowing exactly when that is, and I think it is a fair observation that most printers fire salespeople at the wrong time, either before they have had a reasonable chance to produce, or well past the point of throwing good money after bad.

Starting with the first half of this equation, it simply takes time to build relationships; to bring people to the point where they are even remotely interested in buying from any salesperson – or any printing company.

I recently spoke to a printer who fired a salesperson (pre-COVID-19) after only three weeks. The reason, she told me, was that the salesperson had not brought in even one quote in all that time. Now, 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 ‘chasing quotes’.

Beyond that, three weeks at a sales job is just not enough time to provide any real indication of the likelihood of success – with one important caveat, which I will 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 is 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 has at least some sort of relationship with at least one other printing company. The challenge is to get those people to say “no” to the other printer, and start saying ‘yes’ to you.

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!

Effort and cooperation

You do have a right, though, to expect a certain amount of effort – and cooperation – from your salesperson. That is the caveat I mentioned earlier. The reality is that it takes time to build relationships when your salesperson is doing all of the right things, but those relationships will never develop if your salesperson is not doing the right things, or enough of them.

The best way to manage a printing salesperson is to set up ‘action standards’ – how many prospecting calls each week, how many follow-ups, how many appointments – and manage compliance with those defined activity levels. When a salesperson lives up to those ‘action standards’, I am willing to be patient. If not, it is an entirely different story.

The first time a salesperson missed his/her action standards, we would sit down for a short conversation. “You may have misunderstood the situation,” I would say. “These action standards are not goals that I hope you will attain, 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, three words: “You are fired”.  

The bottom line here is that you have to be patient with salespeople as they develop, but only as long as they are putting in the necessary effort. If you have a salesperson who is not willing to work hard enough – or smart enough – to succeed, you should fire that person as soon as it becomes apparent that it is a losing battle.

Dave Fellman is the president of David Fellman & Associates, Raleigh, NC, US, a sales and marketing consulting firm serving numerous segments of the graphic arts industry. Contact Dave at dmf@davefellman.com. Visit his website at www.davefellman.com.

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