Few can match Jack Welch’s two-decade record at General Electric. While others may come close, he was consistently on top of his game.

Even so, it’s impossible to be up all the time, performing at maximum efficiency and effectiveness. In order to survive, we all fall into certain patterns that take the tension out of the day’s work. At times, these become ruts, keeping us from achieving our potential. But ruts or not, we try to make it from day to day and year to year by keeping life as simple as possible. We seem to find a personal “comfort zone.”

Most of all, we are masters at tuning out what we don’t want to hear, what disturbs our equilibrium or what creates discomfort. This is how we maintain the image we have of ourselves, both as human beings and as salespeople. And we are quick to give equally rational explanations as to why we closed a particular sale –– and why we lost the big one.

The ability to maintain mental equilibrium is necessary, of course. Without it, we would probably find ourselves paralyzed, distressed, and even frightened. On the other hand, tuning out what we don’t want to hear can also be dangerous, since it’s difficult to grow without turning everyday experience into a classroom for self-improvement.

So why is it that some salespeople seem to stay on top of their game throughout their careers? And why do others reach a particular level of performance and then just stay there? Why do others, particularly those who see themselves as “hot shots,” up and leave a job just at the moment of their greatest success?

Why do some salespeople remain positive and enthusiastic over the years, while others turn cynical and negative? Why do some keep pushing themselves to new levels of performance, while others always need to be pushed just to meet minimal requirements? What happens to even excellent salespeople so that when they reach a certain level of compensation, they become content never go beyond it?

These are the questions every sales manager asks repeatedly. Unfortunately, the answers are illusive, often remaining conjectures at best. Even so, it may be possible to draw a career picture of a salesperson, in effect to diagram what seems to happen over the career cycle to many — but not all –– salespeople.

The Sales Career Cycle often takes on the form of a traditional bell curve. While not the same for any two persons, the essential characteristics are there for most salespeople.
It is divided into three basic stages that are rather elastic in length, depending on the individual. In effect, the cycle actually describes what happens when salespeople fail to continue growing, when they seem to “have it made” or when someone might see them “at the top of their game.”

The Sales Career Cycle is more of a mirror of what can happen rather than a description of what inevitably occurs. Clearly, there are those maintain the upward thrust throughout their sales careers, who are never content with yesterday’s performance, who take full responsibility for their actions, and who pick themselves up when there’s a problem and keep going.

But just seeing how the stars perform doesn’t work for the majority of us. Just watching David Letterman nightly for 10 years doesn’t make us into top TV performers. Yet, viewing a video of ourselves making a presentation inevitably seems to help us do better the next time. It’s almost as if we fast-forward over the good parts and we focus almost imperceptibly on what needs improving.

Seeing ourselves in the Sales Career Cycle is looking at our own “live performance” as salespeople. The objective is to let us see where we are and help us shape our future behavior so we are more productive and avoid “peaking out” at the moment when we might do our best work.

Stage One: Growth. This is the time when the salesperson gets into the business, successfully overcomes the common hurdles, develops sales skills and enjoys initial success. The length of Stage One is elastic, of course. For one person, it may last three years and for another considerably longer — perhaps eight years or so.

The sales characteristics displayed in Stage One are as follows:

  • Enthusiastic and aggressive
  • Sees possibilities in selling career
  • Appreciates opportunity
  • Responsive to suggestions and new ideas
  • Follows up leads quickly
  • Eager to learn
  • Spends extra time helping customers
  • Generates leads
  • Goes after accounts of all sizes
  • Works long hours
  • Is always ready to do more and meet the next challenge
  • Sees criticism as a way to learn
  • An overall upward trend in sales figures

This is the time when there’s constant learning and plenty of drive. There is also a developing sense of personal satisfaction at having chosen the right career.

Stage Two: Peaking. Then, at some point over a period of years, many salespeople begin to peak. It’s as if they falter just when they are at “the top of their game.” Their managers can’t figure out what’s happening, and comments are made about how “they took on the world” and won.

Just as in Stage One, there are characteristics that seem to appear because they represent a change in performance:

  • Some upward movement, but slower
  • Less aggressive
  • May reach a lifestyle ceiling: balance between money and time
  • Some accounts leave but no one’s fault
  • Becomes somewhat complacent
  • Focuses on “favorite” customers
  • “Paid my dues” feeling may set in –– feeling unappreciated
  • Less regular-customer contact
  • Calls on large clients primarily
  • Less interest in new accounts other than “big ones”
  • May not want to spend time on the road
  • Fewer hours spent on the job
  • Becomes somewhat cynical

In some cases, a salesperson begins to “coast,” or do only what’s necessary to keep the numbers at an acceptable level, but the fire in the belly is gone.

What Stage Two represents is a change in the way a salesperson looks at the world. Stage One is looking outward. It’s all about the customer. Stage Two, however, is looking inward. It’s about me.

While the salesperson may seem to be doing well, a change is taking place that, looking back, depicts a performance that’s quite different from what was seen in Stage One.

Stage Three: Decline. Unless corrections are made in Stage Two, the result is a gradual but persistent period of decline that continues until the salesperson leaves or retires. The characteristics are easy to identify:

  • Makes fewer calls
  • Spends more time in the office
  • Some accounts shrinking
  • Accounts leaving due to change of personnel
  • Few new customers, if any
  • Feels a right to “big” customers only
  • Interest in serving customers lags
  • Feels “selling isn’t what it used to be”
  • May seem somewhat out of the company loop
  • Scoffs at and ignores opportunities to learn
  • Can appear quite cynical or disgruntled
  • Talks more about past achievements
  • Believes seniority warrants special privileges
  • Feels unappreciated by management

The key question, then, is how to avoid peaking. Every salesperson can benefit from coaching and training. At the same time, helping those in sales recognize the growth, peaking, and decline process may also assist in them in identifying and then avoiding less-than-productive behaviors.

Here are a few guidelines for helping use the Sales Career Cycle to “stay on top of the game.”

As “hunters,” all salespeople eventually get tired and slow down. Because they are reinvigorated by good, quality leads, companies should take providing a constant flow of quality leads as a top priority.

Provide personalized incentives. What’s a carrot to one is a turnoff to another. Find out what salespeople want. Perhaps, it is a life insurance policy that protects a mortgage. For another, it may be an anniversary vacation. What’s important at one point in life is ephemeral at another.

Give the experienced salesperson the opportunity to mentor newer salespeople. Don’t necessarily make the person a “sales manager,” however. That might not be the right place for the individual.

Provide the opportunity for personalized coaching to deal with issues the salesperson identifies as important for continued growth.

Let effective salespeople serve in an advisory role to sales management. In other words, seek their advice.

Give what can be called Challenging Accounts. They are not just problem accounts but those that may require extensive knowledge, in-depth analysis, sensitive handling, or a competitive assault.

Provide recognition. It seems so obvious but it is often forgotten.

The point is simply that while peaking is common, it isn’t inevitable. While some salespeople see it coming and take steps to avoid it, others are not so fortunate. They need assistance to stay on the top of their game. While the upward curve may not always be so steep, it keeps going in the right direction.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, Quincy, Mass., a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He is the author of The New Magnet Marketing and Break the Rules Selling.

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