I am currently working in a family business. For about ten years, sales have been decreasing.  I was just appointed as the head of sales.  I have several sales people who have been with the company for 30-40 years.  They simply refuse any system or training that shakes their comfort even slightly.  They have made it very difficult to make any progress.   Even the president has told me “they are untouchable.”  How can I manage them?


I know you feel like you have a unique problem, but trust me, seventy five percent of the companies with whom I work have a similar situation.  One or more older, established sales people have developed comfort zones for themselves, and then refuse any attempt to change.  Usually, they have some kind of cocoon of security they have built around themselves, and that is often due to the contribution they have made to the company in the past.

There are some principles at work here.  First, I am absolutely convinced that learning to change yourself is the single most important success skill for the rest of your working lifetime.  I know that the single most important ingredient in changing yourself is the depth of your discontent.  In other words, if you are perfectly content with your situation, who you are, what you are achieving, and the impact you are having, then there is no discontent, and therefore, no power to change.  Changing yourself is hard to do, and it takes energy to do it.  Without deep discontent, there is no energy.

The heart of the matter is that there is no discontent within these people.  They have comfortable jobs, they have created their own comfort zones, and there is no reason to stretch out of their comfort zones.  As long as this is the case, you will be unable to bring about any change.  Your first piece of business, therefore, is to create a situation whereby they become discontent.

Some things that will create some discontent are changes in the structure of the organization, and specifically the structure that impacts these people.  For example, you may want to change their territories, and the accounts for which they are responsible.  You may want to change the markets on which they are to focus, the products which they sell, or their compensation plan.  These are all changes to the structure which will stretch them out of their comfort zones and instill some discontent.

Unfortunately, you have a big obstacle in the way.  That is the position of your boss.  As long as he is going to protect the status quo for these people, you will be unable to implement any change.  So, your primary focus is not the sales people in question, it’s your boss.

Take some time and build your credibility with him.  Don’t take this huge issue to him at first.  Making a big change with the sales people with whom he has felt comfortable for years is too big a risk to expect him to take.  Give yourself some time to become, in his eyes, a trusted and thoughtful sales manager.

Pick and choose your battles carefully.  Take him some small changes on which you want him to sign off, and which you are sure will have some positive and measurable impact on sales.  Prove yourself on the small things first.

At some point, maybe a year from now, after you have achieved a position in his eyes of being credible and effective, take him a well-thought-out plan for changing the structure of the sales organization along the lines discussed above.  Thoroughly prepare to make a persuasive presentation, understanding that you have to persuade him to change his long-held position.  If you are successful in getting his agreement, then make sure you have a discussion with him about the likelihood that these sales people will object, and that they may go to him to change his mind.  Get the issue on the table.  Make sure that your boss will support you, even in the face of a house rebellion.

If you don’t feel that level of support, then abandon the plan.  If you try and fail because he backs down to the sales people, it will significantly hinder your ability to manage at all.  At that point, you, and everyone else, will understand that you are impotent in your ability to manage these people.  You might as well resign.

If, however, you feel that the president will support you, then you must go ahead with the plans to redesign the sales structure.  Since you are changing the structure of the organization, that change impacts everyone, not just these sales people, and is not, therefore, personal.

Once you establish a change in the structure, you will have instilled some discontent, and gained a bit of leverage in your ability to manage this group of sales people.  Build on that success with well-chosen initiatives.  Be supportive and helpful of the changes that you are asking the sales people to make.  Eventually, over time, you may find that you have achieved your goals.

One other issue.  What happens if the president doesn’t support you, and you abandon your plans?  You have two choices.  You can move on to another company, or focus your energies where they will bring the most positive results.  In other words, leave the protected sales people alone and start building a new organization with new people, a new structure, and a new culture.  Establish two parallel sales forces:  the old guard and your new group.

Whenever any one of the new group wants to know why the old guard is treated preferentially, refer the question to the president.

By the way, I’d recommend you get my book, Transforming Your Sales Force for the 21st Century, to describe this issue of structure in detail.  Click on the link above to buy it on our website.

Good luck with a difficult situation.(QA-SM-23)