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Many years ago when I was a sales manager for the first time, I led a small team of four reps selling Internet solutions. I can recall one period when two of the reps were not meeting quota. I was very clear about their performance and what needed to happen in order for them to succeed and I worked with them to try and coach them to better performance (always the right first move), but after they showed no signs of turning things around, I had to be more direct and let them know that their employment was contingent on achieving the goals.

Their performance was not for lack of effort, nor were the goals set too high (this was the middle of the boom and contracts were being handed out like cotton candy at a fairground) so after several quarters of virtually no sales and doing everything I thought was possible to help them succeed, I made the decision to let them go.

Why did I wait so long?
Ask any sales manager and they will tell you they often keep people longer than they should, but letting a poorly performing sales rep stay on three or four quarters before making a change is a long time and I often asked myself why I waited so long.

For one thing, if you have ever had to terminate an employee you know that it is probably the most awful thing you will ever have to do in business. No one likes to fire an employee. Often you are taking away their income source and upending their lives and at that stage in my career, I was prepared to do almost anything to avoid terminating those reps.

Company-wide we were about 30 employees, so I was also concerned that letting two reps go would be unsettling for the rest of the team.

I was also worried that if I dropped two reps, under-performing as they were, I would somehow miss opportunities or sales that they would otherwise close.

What I didn’t know at the time, was that neither of these sales reps were suited to sell on our team. Neither of them had the traits required to be successful in our selling environment. I had not yet learned the importance of fit and how to evaluate traits so from my perspective I was giving up on my employees.

Silver Lining
In the end, when I bit the bullet and let them go, neither was surprised and while one was very emotional about being terminated, they were both sort of relieved. They both went on to prosper in completely different sales environments proving that they weren’t poor sales people, just not a fit for our company. My original mistake was hiring them in the first place, but I compounded the mistake by keeping them. I would have done them a huge favor if I had recognized the mistake and terminated them sooner so they could move on to places where they were valued and successful.

To my surprise, the rest of the team was not upset about the departures. In fact, the others were frustrated that we were carrying people who obviously weren’t pulling their weight.

When we replaced the reps our customers let us know how much they really liked the new reps. We got the message.

By keeping the old reps we weren’t doing ourselves any favors. They were costing us time, morale, money and business.

No one likes change and most sales managers wait too long to terminate poorly performing reps, but if you look at the big picture, you will usually see that letting them go is better for everyone involved.

If you think you might need to make a change, don’t dag your feet.

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Eliot Burdett

CEO at Peak Sales Recruiting
Before Peak, Eliot spent more than 20 years building and leading companies, where he took the lead in recruiting and managing high performance sales teams. He co-founded Ventrada Systems (mobile applications) and GlobalX (e-commerce software). He was also Vice President of Sales for PointShot Wireless.

Eliot received his B. Comm. from Carleton University and has been honored as a Top 40 Under 40 Award winner.

He co-authored Sales Recruiting 2.0, How to Find Top Performing Sales People, Fast and provides regular insights on sales team management and hiring on the Peak Sales Recruiting Blog.
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