Episode #13: "When to Fire Your Top Salesperson," with Keith Rosen

Hosts: Tim Clarke & Sara Varni

The best high-performing sales pros make their numbers without bringing the team down. Join Keith Rosen, Founder and CEO of Profit Builders and author of Coaching Salespeople into Sales Champions, and Own Your Day, as we explore the costs of toxic behavior from top performers, and look at ways to hire and retain the right talent.

Read the article that inspired the conversation: “When to Fire Your Top Salesperson,” with Keith Rosen


Episode Transcript

Tim Clarke: Thank you for joining the Quotable Podcast. Today we’ll be discussing when to fire your top salesperson with Keith Rosen. Keith is Founder and CEO of Profit Builders and author of several great books including Coaching Salespeople into Sales Champions. Welcome, Keith.


Keith Rosen: Thank you, Tim. It’s a pleasure to be here today.


Clarke: Cool. So Keith, perhaps there’s people who aren’t familiar with some of the great work and the books that you’ve come out with. Can you give us a bit of an overview as to all the great things that you’ve been doing?


Rosen: Be my pleasure. I’ve started my practice over about 30 years ago now, and I’ve had the pleasure of delivering my sales training and leadership coach training programs to hundreds of thousands of managers and salespeople on five continents and in over 50 countries.

Looking back when I started my career, I spent the majority of my time working with business owners and salespeople. And very quickly the more I work with salespeople, I would see that I would deliver a sales training program. And as a consummate salesperson myself, after delivering the program I would follow up with my client and I would ask them, “So, how are your salespeople doing? What impact has the training had? What return have you been noticing?”

And inevitably I would hear the same response. I would hear from a client, “Keith, your training was great, but you know how it is. Some people will adopt what you’ve shared and they’d run with it. Some people will incorporate some of what they learned during the training, but the majority of people would simply slip back into their old ways.” And that truly bothered me because just like many salespeople and business owners, I truly want to make sure I deliver value, measureable value, to my clients.

And the more that I worked with organizations, the more that I worked with salespeople, and more important the more that I worked with sales leaders, managers and executives, I realized what the missing link was. It was the manager. I have a saying that sales training doesn’t develop sales champions, leaders do.

And without the managers truly transforming and learning how to coach in a consistent and an effective way, any sales training will be short-lived. So it’s really up to the leader to help embed, sustain, and reinforce the best practices that salespeople are learning through any type of training, and that has to be done in an ongoing basis.


Clarke: I know clearly where you’ve got a lot of sales managers who are going to be very interested in our discussion today. But before we jump into that, for people who aren’t familiar, I’m Tim Clarke, Product Marketing Director at Salesforce, and I’m also joined today by our guest host Sara Varni, SVP of Product Marketing at Salesforce. Welcome Sara.


Sara Varni: Thanks Tim for having me. I’m really excited to be here.


Clarke: Right, well let’s dive straight in. Keith, you wrote a great piece which was called “When to Fire Your Top Salesperson.” Clearly very catchy headline. Loved reading the article. Many managers that are listening to this, clearly they’re going to have the same goal. Everyone wants to have a top performing team, they want to build this great team, but this article actually highlights some red flags to watch out for. Right?


Rosen: Absolutely. What I’ve noticed having gone through this personally myself, which was really my motivation to write the article in the first place — it’s really about changing your paradigm.

And for any leader and manager to expand their peripheral vision around how managers in organizations identify and access who is truly a top performer as well as an underperformer beyond just looking at the activity, beyond just looking at the results, but a wider set of characteristics and competencies that these people truly need to possess.

And the only way you can assess this is by being proactive and being intentional through observation, whether it’s during a meeting, whether it’s doing deskside observation, or doing a joint sales call, or even going through any type of conference call that a salesperson would facilitate with a prospect or a customer.


Varni: The article is focused around the story of Peter, your top performing sales rep. Would you share that story with the audience for those who haven’t read it yet?


Rosen:  Sure, I’ll go through the painful story again. I remember this was years ago before starting my own coaching and training practice, and I was responsible for probably about 45 salespeople. I remember this gentleman coming through, large burly gentleman but more like a teddy bear coming in to do an interview.

We hit it off immediately, and very soon he quickly rose up the ranks of becoming literally our top performer. So much so, we went out and we bought him a brand new Lexus so he could go out and run sales calls with this car that we bought him. During this process we became very good friends. I was at his wedding, I was there when his first child was born, and we spent a lot of time together both inside and outside of the office.

As our relationship grew I quickly noticed that after probably about a year or so, his attitude, his disposition was changing. He became more arrogant. He felt a greater sense of entitlement. And it was not only affecting our relationship, but I saw how it was affecting the relationship and the culture amongst the sales team.

Now all of a sudden now he’s getting complaints from my other salespeople saying, “Peter is taking the best appointments. He’s taking over my sales and closing them and taking credit for that. He’s telling us how wonderful he is and how terrible we are, and why he’s selling and why we’re not. And it’s really having a negative impact on the morale of the team.” As a result of that, I also noticed I was losing some average performers that were still good corporate citizens and were contributing to our bottom line.

I was really having a hard time figuring out where this change came from. Peter and I would have conversations and he would say thing like, “Oh no, Keith, everything is fine. It’s all good. I’m still performing for you. I’m still making you money. Just let me do my thing.”

A short time after that, I remember as if it were yesterday, being in the car that we bought him. I was sitting in the passenger seat. And we were about to leave the office and drive to an appointment to meet with a customer. And jokingly around, I was opening his glove compartment; I was giving him a hard time about keeping his car clean. I opened the side compartment between the passenger seat and the driver’s seat. I pulled up the armrest and I saw a stack of business cards there, and my first assumption was they were the business cards for my company.

I picked one up and I read it, and the title was Peter’s name, CEO and owner of another company that wasn’t mine. It didn’t take a detective to figure out that what he was doing was taking the appointments, the leads, and the opportunities that we were generating for him, going out and he was selling them under his own new company. Essentially he was stealing from us.

At that point I clearly took it very personally. Here I am thinking he’s a friend of mine as well as a colleague, and now I come to find out that he’s stealing from us and taking business away and selling it under his own business. I was devastated. I felt like I lost a friend before even losing a good salesperson.

Immediately we terminated him. We’ve gone through the whole process of trying to rectify the situation, but I think the collateral damage was already done. It was done not only with the relationship we had with him, which was immediately terminated, but also having all the other salespeople see how this happened.

It took some time for me to come to grips with this learning opportunity and reflecting back on how much I learned from this, as well as how I then managed the rest of my team. It was one of those things where here you are, you’re seeing someone perform, and it’s so easy to put your blinders on. It’s so easy to look at this person myopic.

What winds up happening, and I’ve seen this with so many managers, they tolerate. They put up with negative behavior. They put up with the other things that bring negativity into the company, into the team, into the manager’s life.

And the manager justifies it by saying, “But he’s a top performer. He’s helping me hit my quota. He’s helping me hit my sales targets every quarter and every year. You know what, I’m just going to turn a blind eye and look the other way.”

And the next thing you know, you turn around and you realize that the collateral damage that ensued in the wake of this person’s performance beyond that, looking at attitude, looking at the morale of the team, was actually more detrimental, more costly than [losing] the business that this person would bring in.


Clarke: Clearly you just listen to that, an amazing story. I know personally I really enjoyed reading it. So I really want to use the time that we’ve got here to break down some of the lessons learned from this. Really I want to start off on the definition of what is a top performer and underperformer. It sounds like your expectations or your definitions are really realigned as a result of this experience that you went through.


Rosen: Most definitely, Tim. As I’ve mentioned, most organizations have a very myopic view of how they look at and access who is an A player, a B player, and a C player.

And by doing so, they turn a blind eye and don’t realize the additional collateral damage that happens, which truly incurs a greater cost to an organization as well as the results they seek to achieve both in revenue, the culture they want to create within the company as well as on their team, and finally building a high performance team.

After all, I remember with Peter not only did we incur the cost that I shared, but I was losing good salespeople. They refused to work with him anymore. They left my company.

I’m losing people that were also top performers or mid performers that had a much better attitude, a much better disposition, a much more positive work ethic than Peter did. And yet here I was still tolerating Peter’s performance and all of these other costs that I really didn’t want to look at because of the amount of business he was bringing in.

So expanding the definition of top performer doesn’t mean just looking at, are they hitting the numbers, are they achieving results, are they engaging in the property activity, but how is it impacting the company’s culture? How is it impacting the rest of the sales team? How is it impacting not only the sales team but cross-functional teams? How is it impacting our customers as well?

That’s why I find myself spending time working with managers to help them broaden their definition of an underperformer. And what I find is they all agree with it. They just never were proactively looking at as another way to truly measure it as a KPI, or a key performance indicator, to truly assess, “OK, is this person really a top performer? Granted, they may be hitting their number, but looking at the other characteristics and competencies they’re really an underperformer.”


Varni: OK, that’s great. Let’s talk about building that high-performance team. You mentioned with Peter that you’d gone through a comprehensive interview process, you felt like you knew him coming into it. How can we really screen for these people who are going to have a negative pull on your team and how can we prep sales managers out there to really screen for the wrong type of candidate?


Rosen: Most definitely. I found that initially most managers when they’re going through the hiring process would look at a resume, but that’s just a small picture of what managers need to look at holistically to truly assess if that person is a fit for the culture, for the organization, and for the position.

Quick story to share: Working with this other organization, they were in the process of hiring a salesperson. And the salesperson came in and he came in with some really great experience and his resume looked stellar. During the interview process where he was interviewing with the VP and the owner of the company, he put his best foot forward. He sounded great, good communicator, positive attitude.

It was interesting. When this same candidate was then being interviewed by his would-be peers, his entire disposition changed. He became arrogant. He became curt. He immediately gave off the allure that he was already better than them. And that feedback went right to the hiring manager. Because it was such an inconsistency in his behavior and his attitude they disqualified him.

That really, to me, leads to several other areas that managers really need to incorporate in their interviewing process. It’s interesting, I’ve been spending a lot of time even working with global organizations. And you would think they would have their interview process together. You would think it would be highly refined. But if that [was this], then they would have much less turnover and mis-hires.

And I always say, if you hire the wrong person for the position, you will spend the rest of your career trying to make the wrong person the right fit. There’s that old proverbial saying, if you put lipstick on a pig it’s still a pig.

If you make a mis-hire and you try to make them the right hire, you’ll be spending the rest of your career trying to do so, which with time being of the essence and our most valuable limited commodity, then the manager winds up spending all their time on the wrong person when they really need to be spending time on the people on their team who want to grow, who are good corporate citizens, who truly are coachable, who are making the company and the manager look good.

There were several additional strategies I feel very strongly that every company needs to adopt to help mitigate these mis-hires. Number one, the number of interviewing interactions. Many times I speak to managers and I think this is really the inner game of interviewing and hiring, is, they come from a place of need rather than choice.

You speak to a lot of managers and all of a sudden they have seats that need to be filled. And they come to me and say, “Keith, I need to fill this seat. I really need another salesperson.” What winds up happening is they’ll go through the interviewing process. They’ll have their list of skill sets as well as competencies. To me I define that as what they need to do and who they need to be, who they are as an individual. And they’ll go through these lists of competencies, some of which they would look at as non-negotiable.

But now all of a sudden the manager is thinking, “I need to hire someone. I have my numbers to hit. I have my scorecard to keep green. I need people in a seat.” So what they do is they want them compromising their integrity and compromising what they know is best and right for the company. Inevitably what happens is they make the wrong hire. So it’s so critical for every manager to, in my opinion, always be in that place of recruiting so they can always be at a place of choice when that time comes where they need to bring in other people or grow their team. So that’s number one.

The second thing is I find that during the interview process, managers are asking many times the wrong questions. They’ll ask questions like, “If you were in this situation or if you were to be hired, what would your strategy be from your first day on the job?”

This candidate would sound wonderful and they would say things, “If you were to hire me, the first thing I’d want to do is, of course, spend some time with you, Boss, and really have a greater understanding of what your expectations of me, the things that I need to learn both in skill set as well as in understanding and product knowledge or the service that we’re offering.

“Then what I’d love to do is I’d love to spend time with the top salespeople as well as even the mid to lower salespeople to really get a better sense of what makes the top salespeople so great. And then once I have a sense of that, I’m going to start putting together my strategy, my business plan, and my go-to-market strategy of how I’m going to attract more prospects whether it means cold calling, or whether it’s inbound marketing, so that I could build my pipeline and build my funnel, and then continually execute on that process to achieve the results that I need to hit the goals that you expect of me.”

The manager is sitting there and saying, “Wow, that sounds so amazing. That’s awesome.” But anybody can fake strategy. What people can’t fake is communication. So this is where the behavioral interview questions are so critical to help disqualify people or qualify them as a good fit.

An example of some good behavioral interviewing questions could be something like, “If a customer calls you and they shared with you that they were ready to purchase from you, but all of a sudden a competitor comes into the picture and they’re telling you, ‘Hey, we’re doing a little more due diligence now. I know we initially said we were going to move forward with you, but we now have to screen a few other incumbents and a few other companies to see which one is really going to be the best fit for us.’ How would you respond to that customer?

“Or if a customer calls you irate, how would you respond? Or if you’re going through the process, your sales process, and you run into an initial objection, how would you respond to that? What would it sound like?”

That’s where people can’t fake communication, and it gives the manager a greater and deeper insight into the true acumen and skills of this person because after all, just like leadership is a language, which is coaching, sales is a language. And the greatest salespeople are often the greatest communicators. So those behavioral interviewing questions are absolutely critical.

Now I want to go back to something I said. Many times managers will only do one or two interviews before offering the position. And there are organizations I work with that have literally anywhere from 10 to 13 interviews throughout the process before offering a candidate a position.

Why do they do that? Number one, because if you know as a candidate you have to go through 13 interviews, by default you might self-select out. You might say, “I don’t want to go through that.” Having that degree and depth of the number of interviews and how many times that candidate has to interact with the manager who’s hiring and doing the hiring, that might already disqualify the person because they’ll say, “You know what, I want the job but I don’t want it that badly.” So it already disqualifies them.

The second thing is there are multiple steps in the interview process that I feel are often lacking in a lot of interview strategies by companies whether they’re small or large. The first thing I always believe in is a phone interview, which many people do. And the second thing is of course the on-site interview, which many people do. From there, it starts becoming diluted in consistency of what I see within companies.

What I mean by that is, at that point is the candidate being interviewed by their peers? Is the candidate being interviewed by multiple managers, whether it’s a cross-functional manager or a dotted-line manager or that manager [who] would be influencing without authority, whether it’s the manager who they’d be working with, whether it’s the manager’s manager, whether it’s a VP, all the way up to potentially the CEO depending on the importance and the level of the position? Even so, being interviewed by customers and past customers.

So taking all of those steps helps build out a much more robust and comprehensive interviewing process. Let’s go even deeper now. One thing which I see is a big miss, which is another article I wrote on, is — given how often during the sales process salespeople are spending often the majority of time communicating to prospects and customers via email or written communication — have you seen some of these emails that salespeople write?

I have three children, and when my kids were 4 years old they could draft a better email than some VPs and salespeople that I see what they’re sending out to customers. At that point, that is a clear reflection of you and your company. Assessing people’s written communication is key.

One quick strategy that I always implore my clients to do is bring that person into the office, or if it’s a virtual interview you can also do it this way: You send that person or you put them in a room and you put a laptop in front of them, and you send this person three emails. Maybe one could be from an internal issue, maybe a cross-departmental issue where the person has to figure out a way to collaborate better with a cross-functional team where it’s a team sales atmosphere. Maybe one email can be from a customer who’s pushing back on purchasing. Or maybe a third email can be from a customer who’s irate and you really need to defuse a hostile situation.

You send these three emails to the candidate and maybe put them in a conference room and you let them know, “Listen, here are three emails. You have 20 minutes or so to respond to each one.” Now you are collecting immediate feedback on how effective this person’s written communication is.

The reason why you put them in the conference room and you give them 20 minutes, or if it’s a virtual interview you send them the three emails and you only give them 20 or 30 minutes is because it avoids that temptation of that candidate to go out and find their buddy or hire a professional writer to do the writing for them and send it back. They don’t have time for that. They have to respond immediately and in the moment to get those emails back to the hiring manager.

My clients repeatedly have told me that has been often a deciding factor in either choosing between one or two candidates, or actually turning down and not offering the position to that candidate because of their written communication.

And finally shadowing, having the candidates shadow existing salespeople or whatever position they’ll be vying for, so they really get a better sense of this is what your day-to-day would be looking like. Because after all, the manager can paint this very rosy picture of what the position is and share all the benefits. But I’m a huge believer of not only selling the individual on the position, but also selling them out of the position as well and being really realistic.

Because the fact is once they start, they’re going to realize the true role of what they just took on. And if the manager wasn’t truly open and honest in giving them the full picture, they’re going to leave anyway. So by having that candidate shadow other existing salespeople or people that they’ll be having the same role. It gives them a much clearer view and greater sense of reality of what they’d be doing every day.


Varni: Great. Those are amazing tips for really narrowing down to the right candidate. We’re nearly up on time here and final question from me. In the scenario the manager and Peter became really good friends. What are your thoughts on the friendship between a manager and an employee in this situation? Some managers like to keep their personal life very separate from their work life; some combine them. What are your thoughts here?


Rosen: It’s interesting because I even write about this in my new book Own Your Day. There used to be this distinct line between “Here’s my personal life and here’s my professional life.” With technology it’s unfortunately made life balance obsolete.

To me, I’m a very literal person. Life balance really insulates equilibrium. You have a perfect balance in your personal life as well as your professional life. Today it’s just life. I believe the way I show up at work is the same way I show up at home. There’s no two different personalities that you adjust to whether you’re at the job or at home.

I find that a lot of times employees would look at that manager and if they ever see them at maybe a social event or a barbecue or corporate event that’s outside of the office and then they see them in the office and they’re acting two different ways, they’re going to think that manager is schizophrenic. That doesn’t really help facilitate or embed a deeper sense of trust in that manager. So it’s less about having this dual personality and it’s more about setting clear boundaries.

If I was to go back in time and, again, having changed that since my experience with Peter, if I was to go back in time and have a redo, a reset of the relationship I had with Peter, what really needs to happen is rather than have these dual personalities, you set very clear boundaries. And that’s about having a conversation about setting intentions, setting expectations of how you’re going to be a manager but you’re also a human being.

And sharing the type of relationships that you would like to have with your peers and with your direct reports while also making sure they know that their job is also to help that individual develop, help them achieve their goals, hold them accountable and be their accountability partner, and help them build their personal brand and grow in their career.

It’s really taking the duality of those two and combining it initially during either that interviewing process or that onboarding process so that people understand where you’re coming from and expectations are clearly mapped out.


Clarke: Perfect. Thank you very much, Keith. You really shared some great insights there. I’m sure many people will want to learn more about this and can reach out to you and learn more about when to fire your top salesperson. Keith, thank you very much for your time.


Rosen: It’s been truly my pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity to contribute.

Clarke: Thank you, and thanks for everyone listening in. If you like what you hear, please take a minute to give us a 5-star rating and feedback on the Quotable Podcast. Thanks.

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