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Get Rid of Your Sales Parasites

By Landy Chase

The career development of a sales professional can be categorized as passing through three basic stages. Each of these is a transitional period in which the sales professional assumes a different persona than in the previous stage. Because some parallels can be drawn between these transitional phases and those that correspond to the insect world, for humor purposes these stages will be called: Larval, Termite and Parasite.

Sales Larvae are the neophytes of the profession, and every one of us who has followed a sales career started off as one. Like the name implies, a Sales Larvae is a soft, sightless and legless individual who, due to lack of business knowledge and experience, fumbles around blindly about within the cocoon of their sales territory. This is not an issue of ability; they simply haven't yet mutated into full-fledged salespeople. Remember your first day in sales? If so, you certainly went through a Sales Larvae stage. If you're a manager today, your job is to turn your Larvae into full-fledged Termites as quickly as possible.

 Termites are those salespeople at the top of their game. Fully developed, they are equipped with the tools and skills necessary to methodically work their way through the toughest sales barriers. Termites are the workhorses of the organization, and drive the growth of the business. Like Larvae, Termites are a relatively easy stage for the competent sales executive to manage. It is the third stage of salesperson’s development that gives most supervisors headaches - the dreaded "Parasite."

What is a Sales Parasite? These individuals are long-term sales employees who have, after years of tenure within the company, no longer call on new accounts, and live quite comfortably, off of the business generated by existing customers. They have forgotten along the way their first priority is to grow their market or territory through new business development efforts. Thus, over time they lose their ability to forage for their own food, and instead attach themselves to the bloodstream of the host employer, drawing nourishment in the form of a paycheck.

The "Parasite" salesperson represents a difficult personnel problem. Because of their time with the company, most executives feel obligated to cut these people some slack and look the other way, allowing the Parasite to feed off of the host company undisturbed. After all, you have a tenured, long-term employee – one who has been a dependable producer in years past. Further, they are often well-liked and respected, and bring a lot of experience and industry knowledge to the business.

However, as the owner or manager, you have a business to manage. Check that - you have a business to grow, and the job of a salesperson is to grow the business, not just baby-sit it. Where will your company end up if your sales force isn't meeting its growth objectives, especially given the current economy?

There are significant negative consequences to your Larvae and Termites for tolerating this situation. Having a different set of rules for your senior salespeople who aren’t out calling on prospects sends a poor message to the rest of the team about you and your management style. In effect, the policy that you are publicly condoning is as follows:

  • We have two (or more) sets of standards - one for our Parasites, and one for everyone else;

  • We don't treat everyone equally;

  • We don't hold people accountable for results;

  • Becoming a Parasite, i.e. not having to produce new business, is a long-term reward for sales seniority within our company;

  • If you stay around long enough, you, too, may become a Parasite

Sound harsh? Don’t forget that you are running a business. These issues have nothing to do with popularity contests or interpersonal relationships, and everything to do with the long-term success of your company. Yes, you need to have good relationships with your direct reports. However, you must hold your salespeople accountable for new business results if you and your company are going to succeed. Therefore, your Parasites must, at least partially, "morph" back into Termites. These talented and capable freeloaders must learn to forage for their own food once again. Here are some suggestions to reverse the developmental process:

1. Consider introducing a two-tiered commission plan that (a) pays a higher premium on new business and (b) a reduced commission on work from existing customers. This will serve to compensate your salespeople for their efforts in a manner more corresponding to the effort required to close business, and will put their focus where it needs to be – on finding new sources of business. Announce this change well in advance of its implementation, to give your people an opportunity to prime the pump with new opportunities. Rest assured, you will get a collective howl of protest from your parasites on this idea; some might even elect to leave the company. Stick to your guns. Don't forget that you are depending on your salespeople to grow your business.

2. Tie more of your rewards and recognition programs to achieving new account development. Lavish praise and financial reward on those who respond to your focus on new business. Additionally, tie in part of the compensation plan to profitability of the business that your reps are selling. This will serve to remind them that not all new business is good business, and encourages them to be good stewards of your company.

3. With a Parasite, you have, for all intents and purposes, a dormant sales territory. Give your Parasite a reasonable timeframe to change their work focus, and monitor their efforts in new-account development. If they show no interest in developing new accounts, or if they don't make a reasonable amount of progress, give the prospects in the Parasite's territory to a more aggressive salesperson.

4. Introduce specific, reasonable accountability goals for new account growth. Tie in significant financial incentives for goal attainment, such as a quarterly bonus for meeting new-business objectives. At the same time, introduce some negative consequences for failure to meet minimum objectives. Parasites will generally not release their grip on their host unless pain is applied to the source of the food supply.

5. Finally, don't allow your Parasites to hold you hostage. One of the most common reactions that Parasites have to these management directives is to threaten to leave the company and take their customer relationships with them. They will often want you to believe that the future of your company hangs in the balance of their continuing to represent you. Don't believe it! Very rarely does a company suffer a significant business decrease by the departure of a Parasite. You don't want to lose them, yet they need to get with the program. Or else.

Many of the parasites reading this piece will squirm in their chairs as they read through the above list. They will argue that it takes a significant amount of skill and effort to maintain existing account relationships. This is true. Don’t belittle the importance of client relationship management. However, if all your Parasites are doing is maintaining their customer base, it is inevitable that, sooner or later, your business will begin to deteriorate. This is because customers leave vendors on a regular basis due to circumstances that are completely beyond your sales team’s control. For example: a downturn in the economy, a new decision-maker on the scene, price pressures, or mergers and acquisitions. There will be a lot of Parasites who will dislike the message of this article, but remember the quote from the movie The Godfather: “It's not personal. It's business.”  So go ahead and make your Parasites an offer they can't refuse.

Read other articles and learn more about Landy Chase.

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