How to Change the Behavior of an Experienced Salesperson

Edition: April 2003 - Vol 11 Number 04
Article#: 1506
Author: Dave Kahle

Every client I deal with, in one way or another, eventually asks the question, “How can I change the behavior of an experienced salesperson?” 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 often surfaces: The company needs to make some change that affects 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 25 years. The rookies are eager to learn and quick to adapt to the new initiative, while most of the veterans are set in their ways and resistant to it.

The question of how to get the veterans to embrace and implement the new initiative always comes up within the framework of a specific change that the company wants to make. From my perspective, however, it’s 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 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 face it again in the future. So, sooner or later, every principal or sales executive is going to face the challenge of implementing change with experienced salespeople.

It’s 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. As for the rest of us, we must confront the issue of resistance.

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 salespeople have been consistent performers in the past, and many executives feel loyalty to the people who’ve helped them build their business. In addition, 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.

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 results in noncompliance. 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. Announce the new initiative to everyone, explain the rationale, commit the assets of the company to it and let everyone know that this change is going to be how your company does business from now on.

2. 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 1, we expect you to be using the customer master screen and call report function. By July 1, we expect you to utilize the quote system for every quote you do. By Sep. 1, we expect you to be fully functional on all five modules.” Follow up with a written memo saying the same thing. Now, everybody knows exactly what’s expected.

3. Tie the behavior to a reward. It would be nice if you could make 10 percent of their paycheck dependent on them meeting the expectations you set. 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 sporting event. Let everyone know, including the spouses, that this special occasion is only for those who make the change.

4. Train them. Only those who are eager to change will pick up the new behavior on their own. Everyone else, the 95 percent of the force that is left, will require specific and repetitive training. Don’t underestimate this training process. It’s a rule of thumb in sales force automation projects, for example, that the cost of the training will be about as much as the cost of the software and hardware. If it costs you $2,500 per person for the new system, it will cost you $2,500 per person to adequately train them. If you’re not ready to bear this cost, don’t mandate the change in the first place.

I’m continually amazed at the number ofcompanies that, 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 that don’t realize that training is an on going investment. Plan to pay for proper training.

5. Support the changed behavior. Just because you’ve trained your sales team doesn’t mean that everyone “got it.” They’ll still need reminders, someone to talk to about specific questions, manuals to refer to, Web sites to go to, etc. Set up your infrastructure for supporting the changed behavior before you begin the training.

6. Manage and monitor the change. In our Growth Coach Sales Management System, we institute a formal, highly structured monthly meeting between the sales manager and the salesperson. Whether you use our system or not, it’s a good idea to meet regularly with each salesperson to monitor growth and progress. Ask questions like, “What progress are you aking?” “Are you where you need to be?” “Why or why not?” “What are you going to do now?” “How can I help?”

7. Be prepared to take action. After you’ve taken these steps, you really have invested the company’s assets in a significant effort to help each salesperson make the change. What if he or she doesn’t comply?

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 doesn’t have the ability to do what you want him to do? If that’s the case, then maybe he should be in another job in your company. His current job may have grown beyond his capabilities. It happens.

On the other hand, the problem may not have anything to do with a particular salesperson’s abilities. Is the issue that the salesperson refuses to make the change? If that’s the case, then now may be the time to part company with this individual.

The future of the sales force will be characterized by constant and rapid change. 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 initiative.

The company who can consistently manage that change and systematically achieve new and improved behavior will have a serious competitive advantage over other companies.

Dave Kahle is a consultant and trainer who helps his clients increase their sales and improve their sales productivity. He’s the author of over 400 articles, a monthly e-zine and four books. For more information,

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