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The Secret Entrepreneur: Death of a salesman

How do you spot a bad salesperson – and find a good one? Our mystery boss on his sales guy 'blacklist' and why some leave him spitting blood

Sales people are a double-edged sword. For most businesses they’re absolutely necessary if you want to grow beyond a certain size. Get a good team of them and they can make your fortune. They’re unlike any other type of employee though.

“Money talks. Bullshit walks.” I didn’t really grasp the truth of the statement when I was first told it, but for sales it really does apply.

Success in a sales role is very simple to judge – it’s the one job where at the end of the day you can put a number on their output and a simple pass/fail on whether they make the grade. That’s the theory anyway. Your reality may vary.

Every good – and bad – salesperson I’ve ever met has been motivated almost exclusively by money. Everyone is to some degree, but with salespeople it’s the thing. On the face of it this makes them simple to motivate and reward (commission!), but in reality, it can be a nightmare. For a start, a commission scheme is never as simple as it first seems.

There are three types of salespeople that I’ve come across.

1. The good

They’re competent, they’re engaged and they go out and get the business. They’ve got a long-term (ish) view and realise that building long-term relationships makes them more money in the end.

They get into a virtuous cycle. They’re engaged, so they get results and make money, which makes them more engaged. Keep them loyal to you and you’re on to a winner. They’re worth their weight in gold. Sometimes literally.

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2. The mediocre

Many sales people are the mediocre type. They’re often charming and have a good way with people, but are impatient and lack the long term view. When they’re good, they’re really good. But they’re frustratingly inconsistent.

They’ll generate good sales but never quite enough to excel, so their motivation waxes and wanes. These are the people who change jobs every one to three years, because it’s always what they’re selling that’s the problem, not them.

You can do well with mediocre sales people if you have a great sales manager. Never make the mistake of confusing a good salesperson with a good sales manager though – they’re totally different beasts.

3. The bad

The real problem are the bad sales people. Sadly these can be bizarrely hard to spot, at least in the early days. They usually start out as mediocre – sometimes even good – but at some point their moral compass goes haywire and money becomes the only thing. More specifically, getting more money for themselves becomes the only thing.

These are the people that shaft customers, fiddle their commission and shirk their duties. They find ways to hide things in the system so that often it’s really difficult to work out what’s going on.

If they see a loophole that they can exploit, they’ll take it. They can make it seem like they’re essential, when really they’re anything but. Should you find a creature like this in your organisation, get rid of them immediately. Don’t be fooled – they’ll doom you if you let them.

Bad sales people are the reason that I have what’s best described, on a good day, as a seething hatred for recruitment consultancies. I’m not sure whether they breed bad sales people or just attract them by nature of the insane commissions on trivial (but numbing) work. I do know that I’ve never had a good experience with one.

A recent example. We made one hire through a consultant (what can I say – I was desperate). A good hire that went smoothly.

I was shocked. Could it be I’d found a good consultant that I could actually work with?  He said he had another candidate that would be good. I said I’d have a look – we may have a new role available if another project got the go ahead, I thought.

Over came the CV and then an hour later the inevitable “what did you think?” call. “Looks good, we’ll see him, but we don’t have a role unless this project goes ahead.”

To cut a long story short, that project didn’t happen and so we had to turn down the candidate. Seems the consultant needed to make his quota though, because having broken the news to him, while I was away on holiday the following week he tried to get HR to send him the contract for the new hire! They told him where to go, and when I got back I elaborated a little more colourfully.

In one dubious move he went from potentially earning tens of thousands a year in commission from us, to him and the (large) firm he worked for to being added to my blacklist. From asset to liability in a single phone call – the classic bad salesperson at work.


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