This Week’s Big Deal: Managing Churn on the Sales Team

March 18, 2019

The final season of HBO’s smash hit Game of Thrones is now less than a month from its debut. For fans of the show, this evokes a combination of excitement and apprehension. We’re eager to see our favorite characters back on the screen, and dreading the possibility that any of them could be goners in an instant.

One of the few places you’ll find more turnover than the Game of Thrones cast is on modern sales teams. And this reality is giving business leaders far more anxiety than any fantasy story arc. Per Harvard Business Review, “estimates of annual turnover among U.S. salespeople run as high as 27%—twice the rate in the overall labor force. In many industries, the average tenure is less than two years.” This attrition costs firms millions of dollars annually.

To an extent, salesforce churn is normal – even healthy. But I doubt there is a manager or executive reading this who hasn’t had a high-quality employee slip away, and felt the pain. It’s natural to wonder what you can do about it. In many cases, it can be hard to spot the signs of an at-risk sales rep before it’s too late.

So, how to manage a sales team that sticks together? Instead of thinking about those many elements that are out of our control, let’s turn our attention to what we can control.

How to Manage a Sales Team with Reduced Churn in Mind

Compensation usually ranks as the No. 1 factor in employee attrition, but in many cases, sales managers have limited ability to alter pay structures, with budgets being set from above. So rather than focusing on financial incentives, here are some day-to-day operational tips for improving sales staff retention.

Keep the Pipeline Healthy

Salespeople want to sell. They want to stay busy, and challenged. Research by Radford studied the rise in voluntary turnover rate for sales pros, and one finding was that when a company’s pipeline “dries up, becomes stale, or faces increased competition, sales professionals can grow frustrated in their jobs.”

Just last week in our “Big Deal” column, we looked at methods for nurturing sales pipeline growth. It’s also advisable to provide ample guidance and resources for digital selling, so that sales reps are empowered to generate their own leads and opportunities, rather than relying on other sources.  

Promote the Right People

Few things send employees running like a bad boss. Few things keep them around like a great one.

Sales managers make or break their team, and they are often the deciding factor when it comes to employees staying at or leaving their jobs,” writes Kathi Graham-Leviss at Forbes. She points to data from Gallup showing that, in general, managers account for 70% of variance in engagement, and that out of thousands employees surveyed, “one in two had left their job to get away from their manager to improve their overall life at some point in their career.”

The Peter Principle comes into play frequently in the world of sales: reps get promoted to managerial roles because of their outstanding sales performance, even when they don’t necessarily have the requisite makeup for leading, managing, and inspiring others.

When identifying prospective risers on your sales team, place a strong emphasis on people skills, and work to develop these skills with existing managers.

“Even ideal candidates can’t excel as managers unless they are developed,” notes a new piece in HBR, which goes on to lay out numerous recommendations for training sales managers. These include mentoring from supervisors, peer learning, and independent-learning.

Listen and Learn

One of the most essential strengths of almost any great manager is also one of the most basic: listening. Last week, Melanie Curtin of Inc. Magazine highlighted CollegeWise, a company that enjoys a near-100 percent retention rate year-over-year. Key to this stability is the manner in which leaders at CollegeWise conduct one-on-one meetings.

"We make it part of every manager's responsibility to sit down and have one-to-ones with employees where the manager comes only with questions, and it's the manager's job to empathize and to learn," says CEO Kevin McMullin.

Many of us like to think of ourselves as approachable, and open to hearing whatever is on the minds of our team members. But are we going far enough to facilitate these conversations?

“It's not enough to just tell managers they need to listen more, or better, or more often,” writes Curtin. “Having formalized processes like this one codifies it. It embeds listening into the culture.”

Be Attentive to High Performers, Not Just Laggards

As a results-oriented sales manager, it’s natural to spend most of our time coaching and assisting your lower performers. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, after all. However, this mindset can lead to strong sellers feeling isolated, unappreciated, or underutilized.

As renowned business leader Richard Branson has said: “You shouldn’t be looking for people slipping up, you should be looking for all the good things people do and praising those.”

Give Savvy Reps More Influence

Of course, it’s not enough to just praise sellers that are showing real promise. Give them opportunities to broaden their impact by training other reps in their areas of strength, and by expanding their roles in the sales process. For example, you could have your most proficient Sales Navigator user host monthly sessions where they share their top tips and learnings. Or you could have one of your reps with a knack for understanding resonant sales content work with marketing to develop those assets.

Not only does it enable your best employees to provide more benefit for your company, but this approach also benefits them because they can grow their career skills and avoid the stagnation of “same old, same old.”

One opportunity we covered on this blog last week was enabling sales to make an impact on CAC:LTV ratio.

Unlock Your Team’s Potential

As we prepare ourselves for the final season of Thrones, it’s worth thinking about this leadership lesson from its protagonist Jon Snow, as shared by Lenovo’s Nick Reynolds: “Snow understands that winning takes strength from everyone on the team and he sees his job as finding others’ strengths and encouraging them.”

Sales leaders can do just that by continually recognizing, activating, and challenging their reps. Do these things, and no one will be able to accuse you of knowing nothing.  

Oh, and, to reiterate a point we’ve made in the past: Don’t be like Cersei.

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