Question: Our business has been struggling for the last year or so. Several of my salespeople are just not producing. I’m not sure I can continue to work with them. When do I decide its time for firing sales people?

Answer: Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to ask this question? In an ideal world, everyone would succeed, and our biggest problem would be how to acknowledge the real heroes among a group of deserving colleagues.
But it is not an ideal world, and every sales manager is, at some point, faced with this decision. At what point do you decide to fire sales people?

This is a very personal decision embedded with emotional ramifications. There are all sorts of individual mitigating factors, which influence the answer to this question. I just came from one of my clients, for example, where one of the underperforming sales people has been with the company for more than 10 years, and was hired by the company’s president. Clearly that presents a different set of factors than the new hire who just isn’t getting it.

While I cannot sort out all of those individual issues for you, I can offer some overall guidelines.

First, I’m going to assume that the sales person is costing the company money; that this person is not profitable (this is an important assumption, because I think different rules apply if the person is profitable). To determine profitability, visit my website and use the Kahle’s Kalculation tool. Depending on the type of business and the dynamics of the selling situation, if a sales person's KK number is more than 25 or 30 percent, that person is probably not profitable to the company. This is a far more sophisticated measurement than just looking at the gross profit or sales produced in that territory.

Second, I’m making a disclaimer that there are certain legal issues that need to be attended to, and I am not in any way advocating shortcutting any processes or procedures that are required by your company or any government agency or institution. My only goal is to provide you some guidelines to consider. Suggestions on when to make the decision about terminating someone are one thing, whereas the actual act of terminating is something else.

Here are a couple of thoughts:

1. Seriously consider firing sales people when you conclude that they do not have the capabilities or the motivation to succeed in a reasonable amount of time.

I call this the “can do” and “will do” characteristics. They may not have the capability — not enough of the “can do.” I see this so often in my practice. A new owner or sales manager comes on the scene and inherits a sales force from his/her predecessor. The new manager looks at some of the individuals and asks, “Why were these people ever hired?” They just don’t have the capabilities to do what the new administration expects.

Or, it may be an issue of a lack of the drive, determination and motivation. In other words, the “will do” characteristics. No matter what you do, this sales person doesn’t accept your direction, doesn’t do what you want him/her to do. It’s not that the salesperson doesn’t have the ability, it’s that he just won’t make the decision to do it.

I most commonly see this among experienced sales people who have been with the company for a number of years. They often become so set in their ways and so sure of their position that they will not make the changes that management wants them to make. If they would just decide to do it, you know they could. But, their energies are consumed with the debilitating task of proving that their established habits are the right ways to do something.
They lack the “will do” characteristics.

So, when you determine that they either can not or will not do what it takes to be successful in a reasonable period of time, then it is time to seriously consider severing the relationship.

2. Seriously consider firing sales people when they are not making fast enough progress toward profitability.

You could have sales people who are making very slow progress. When it looks like it may be years before they will be profitable, it’s probably time to allow them to find themselves another job.

I’m a believer in giving someone the benefit of the doubt. If someone isn’t performing, have a heart-to-heart with that person, and clearly and precisely lay out what needs to happen, by when, in order for that salesperson to turn the corner. Put together a 30-to-90-day plan, with benchmarks and regular reporting. Give them one last opportunity to succeed, knowing that their job is at risk.

If, under those circumstances, the person doesn’t make sufficient progress, it’s time to decide to part ways.

3. Seriously consider firing sales people when the amount of time and effort you must devote to them continues to hurt other employees or causes your company to suffer.

Marginal performers have a way of sucking the positive energy out of you. You often find yourself spending so much time thinking and worrying about the marginal salesperson that it impacts your family, you neglect other employees, and you neglect higher-value things you could be doing for the company. Some of that is appropriate and part of your job. But when it becomes a chronic issue or out of proportion, for the good of the other employees in your organization, you need to sever that which is dissipating your energy and time.

I recognize that firing sales people is often a thorny, emotionally-charged issue. I hope these thoughts will help you sort it out in a way that is appropriate for your company, your job and your people.  

Dave Kahle is one of the world’s leading sales educators. He’s written nine books, presented in 47 states and eight countries, and has personally worked with 287 companies, helping enrich tens of thousands of sales people and transforming sales organizations. Sign up for his free weekly Ezine. More than 3,000 salespeople and 750 companies have benefitted from his Top Gun Sales System Seminars. More than 1,000 sales managers have been trained in his Kahle Way Sales Management System.