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Build a Better Sales Force:
Focus on Your “First String”

By Nathan Jamail

Every year companies look for ways to increase sales. This year is no different, only with today’s economy, the answers seem to be harder to find. One sure way to increase your sales: focus on your first string. This concept of focusing on your first string is very simple in theory, but it is not easy to execute. Much like great coaching of great sports teams, it takes a long commitment to make the team better by challenging the best players and working with them to improve constantly.    

When the New England Patriots football team or the Orlando Magic basketball team practices, does the coach spend the week before the game working with the third string players, or does he focus on working with the first string players? Answer: the first string players, of course, because they are the ones who are ultimately going to win the game. They score the most points and usually play the most amount of time. The coach spends a lot of time with them because they are good enough to merit his attention. The coach’s focus on the first string players sets a positive goal for all the players to strive for. If the third string players want his attention, they have to work for it!  If the first string players want to keep their coach’s attention, they have to work hard to stay the best!  In sum, this program requires every player to desire and pursue excellence.

In business the norm is the exact opposite. Many companies have a culture in which managers leave the top performers alone and focus on the bottom performers. It is very common to hear a sales manager or leader say, “ Oh, Bob is one of my top guys, so I leave him alone and let him do his job.”  Wow, what a mistake!  Another organization that understands a different philosophy will eventually approach Bob and inform him that he is being robbed. Bob will be told he is investing all his time and energy in the company, but the company is not investing in him by coaching him and helping him to develop. Bob will thus be wooed over to a new company. Companies with leaders who ignore to their top performers will soon lose them. Even worse, the company’s culture is one that says if the manager is working with an employee on a regular basis, then that person must be a low performer. The leader’s involvement with an employee is viewed as a negative.   The leader is a manager and not a coach. It is difficult to coach a person if the person feels that the leader thinks he or she is there to manage poor performance. It’s like rewarding your kids with attention only when they are bad.

How do you fix this disordered culture?

Step 1:  Make the commitment. All leaders want to create a culture where winning and being the best is the goal, and to do that all players have to want to be on the first string. A leader needs to create a culture that dedicates all of their coaching efforts to the top performers and those who are willing to do what it takes to become a top performer. Fight the tendency to leave the top performers alone because you normally focus on the weak. A leader must commit to coaching the top performers or committed performers and manage the bottom performers up or out.  

Step 2:  Spend your time with the top performers, conducting ride days and practicing role-plays with them. Your goal is to help make them better every month. The leader must let the team know that she or he plays favorites; if team members are successful and doing the right things, the leader will spend time with them, and the others will have limited coaching. Once this is done, leaders will find their top performers will improve dramatically, and will find their jobs more satisfying. The bottom performers will ask the leader what it takes to become a top performer, and they will do what it takes, or they will find another team. Neither one of those options is a bad thing for the organization or the person. This might sound cold at first, but it’s not. Think about a person who is struggling at his job: he knows it and he usually has very low job satisfaction. A leader’s job is not to ignore the bottom performers, but instead to move them up or out. A leader who tolerates poor performance is a leader who will always have a struggling team and disappointed top performers.

Many companies find internal competition to be bad because some of the lower producing sales people get their feelings hurt, so they stop recognizing the top performers or stop conducting contests in general. This is another instance of sacrificing the top performers to satisfy the bottom performers. In sales, just like in life, it takes skill, talent and discipline to be successful. When a salesperson does a great job and delivers great results, he or she should be recognized. Kids love to be recognized and feel appreciated, and professional adults are no different. Remember: when a leader tries to recognize everybody equally in order to be fair, his blanket recognition devalues the recognition for the ones who deserves it most. Winning is important, so do it.

The proof is in the numbers. Let’s look at this example: a sales leader has five sales reps.   The top two reps generate $100 each while the bottom two sales reps generate $50 each. If the leader works with the top reps and they improve by 20 percent, then the revenue is increased by $40. If the sales leader works with the bottom reps and they improve 20 percent, then the revenue is increased by $20.   It is obvious where a leader should spend time. Successful sales leadership comes from focusing on the program or process that gives the greatest return on investment, much like successful retirement plans, marketing efforts and finances.

If you don’t spend time with your first string and invest in their success as much as they invest in the organization, someone else will.

Read other articles and learn more about Nathan Jamail.

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