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Don't Fire All the Salespeople Just Yet!

Copyright 2003, by Dave Kahle.

Should you fire all the salespeople? The temptation is there, and probably growing in strength weekly. That's easy to understand. Pressures are pressing on you from a number of directions.

First, you may be in the middle of a flat or declining market. Many industries are experiencing the second or third year of flat or decreasing sales. That alone makes you wonder. If your sales aren't growing, what are the salespeople doing, after all? Could you maintain your business with out salespeople?

Then there is the constantly drip, like a Chinese water torture, of price pressures from the competition. It's likely that their sales are down as well. Many of them, in a desperate bid to maintain their businesses, will continue to resort to more aggressive discounting. When margins fall, can you afford to pay salespeople?

Of course you keep reading the reports about the quantity of business being done over the web via e-commerce. You can't help but wonder if a cleverly constructed web site might substitute for a field salesperson. How long before everyone buys over the web?

Finally, to rub salt into the wound, you have consultants who maintain that your customers really don't want salespeople calling on them, and you should abandon that outmoded vestige of days gone by.

Add all that up, and it makes a pretty compelling case. Should you fire all the salespeople, and pour the money you save into a dynamite e-commerce solution? Should you beef up inside sales to field more phone calls?

Probably not.

The answer lies, not in the general trends and national reports, but rather in the specifics of your customers, your salespeople, and your suppliers. The trends and pressures may be global, but the answers are local.

The real questions have to do with your customers and your salespeople. This time of tremendous pressure is calling for, not desperate changes, but rather rational assessment.

It is time to look carefully at aspects of your sales system and to examine them from some new perspectives.

It is time to study your customers and answer some questions:

  • While more business is being done via e-commerce, is that true for your customers?
  • While the competitors are desperately trying to buy your customers with discounted pricing, how successful has that strategy really been?
  • What do your customers really want from your salespeople, if anything?
It's also time to make a cold-blooded appraisal of your sales force.
  • Are your salespeople focusing on the highest-potential customers?
  • Are they digging deeper in t heir knowledge of the customer, finding opportunities for programs and services as solutions to the customer's deeper needs?
  • Are they consistently bringing value to their customers so that the customer looks forward to the salesperson's visit?
It's also time also for a cold-blooded analysis of that incredibly important part of your business that is easily overlooked in the passion of "fire the salespeople" solution: Your suppliers.
  • What do your suppliers expect of you, relative to promoting their lines?
  • How long would it take them to move their support behind one of your competitors if you fired all your salespeople?
  • How would they view your elimination of your proactive efforts to find opportunities for the sales of their product?

When you do this kind of analysis, you may discover some truths about your business that will cause you to see the "fire the salespeople" thought from a different perspective.

What a sobering analysis of your customers may reveal is this:

While a small portion of your customers may want to implement all their buying decisions over the web, the overwhelming majority want to use the web as a means of facilitating the transactions, not as a substitute for a relationship with a live person and a real company.

While a small portion of your customers will be enticed by lower prices from a desperate competitor, the majority typically see the gambit for what it is: a risk to the security of their supply lines.

While a portion of your customers may not want to spend time with a distributor salesperson, the majority will if they feel that the time investment is worth it. This is more an indictment of the quality and performance of your sales force than a reflection of a trend among your customers.

What a sobering analysis of your sales force may reveal is this:

The majority have been lulled into comfort zones and are unable or unwilling to break out of them. Same customers, same methods, same products and year of ingrained habit are hard to break.

Only a few are really adhering to the disciplines that will help them grow the business: focusing on the high-potential customers, promoting the strategic lines, planning, and consultative selling processes.

What a sobering analysis of your vendors may reveal is this:

Most would view your action as withdrawing from the market, and would immediately begin seeking a more active local partner.

Many would be happy to see just the opposite approach - a more aggressive, organized pro-active effort to capture more of the market spearheaded by effective salespeople

As a result of doing your own local analysis, you may draw these conclusions:

If you fire the salespeople, you dramatically reduce the likelihood of more intense relationships with those movers and shakers in your market area who want closer relationships with fewer vendors.

If you fire the sales people, you eliminate your greatest proactive asset, and become almost totally dependent on the efforts of your customers to find and contact you.

If you fire the salespeople, you cannot meet your vendors' expectations for promoting and supporting their product lines.

So, what may have looked like a compelling almost black and white issue is probably more like a few shades of grey.

Rather than leaping to the extreme and firing the salespeople, a wiser course of action is to study your situation, and then to refocus your sales efforts. For years I have been calling for "fewer and better" distributor salespeople. Now is the time to initiate or intensify your movement in that direction. Here are four initiatives that will move you in the direction of a refocused, more productive and effective sales effort.

  1. Study your customers.
    Hold some focus groups, and dialogue about what they want from you and your salespeople. Visit my website for a free download on "How to hold a customer focus group" in the "free resources" section at www.davekahle.com/free.html.

    In addition, create a survey form that asks for this kind of information, and send your executives out on personal visits to their equivalents among your highest potential customers. Gain an understanding of how these trends play out among your customers.

  2. Study your salespeople.
    Focus on what they really do, and who they really do it with. If they are spending time chatting with comfortable customers about comfortable things, and are not planning, targeting, digging deep and becoming valuable and important to their high-potential customers, that must change.

  3. Talk to your key vendors.
    What do they want from you and your sales force? Suggest you jointly mount a more aggressive sales effort. Offer the idea of expanding your involvement with their product line via specialized sales people. See what their reaction is.

  4. Think in terms of "sales systems."
    Sales is too important to abdicate total responsibility to the field sales staff. Institute important measurements, refine your sales management practices, target accounts, focus on key product lines, create more effective compensation plans, etc. These kinds of "systems structural components" often evolve in fits and spurts over the years and actually detract from the performance of a field sales force.

  5. Quickly develop the skills of your field sales force.
    We're not talking about product knowledge here. Most distributor sales people have never been trained in the basics of deepening relationships, organizing for success, understanding the customer, closing the sale, etc. Additionally, most have not been encouraged to continually sharpen and refresh their skills will continuous improvement. Again, visit www.davekahle.com for a wide variety of resources to help you with these two tasks.
These are major initiatives that will occupy a great deal of your executive time, talent and emotional power over the next year. However, when you get to the other side, you'll have a more effective, more powerful sales force. You'll have a sales force that your vendors respect, that brings value to your customers and is a powerful strategic asset for you. It'll be worth it.

Or, you could just fire them all.

Dave Kahle offers a variety of resources that can help your business stay competitive in changing times. To learn you can reach Dave by phone at 800-331-1287 or send him an email request.

Copyright © 2007 Dave Kahle & The DaCo Corporation, All Rights Reserved
3736 West River Drive Comstock Park, MI 49321, toll-free 1.800.331.1287, fax 616.451.9412
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