The Value of Uncomfortableness

One of the most constant and largest challenges I faced during my time building and managing sales teams was identifying—and rewarding—the impact of an individual salesperson.  If 90% of the customers for a product are repeat buyers and prices go up by 5-10% each year, achieving single digit YOY growth may not be the most challenging proposition in theory or practice.  Now, overlay geographic differences where sizeable long-term demographic trends further confound the equation (i.e., the pool of customers growing in the Sun Belt while shrinking in the Rust belt), and simple data analysis can only take you so far.  In that environment, it would be easy to avoid rocking the boat in individual sales territories or even regions where the number keeps getting hit every year while having a revolving door in more challenging areas, but the best sales management teams avoid falling into this trap by making qualitative and quantitative assessments of their teams.  In essence, they combine an array of assessment tools to determine how much success is attributable to nature (the market environment) vs. nurture (the sales rep’s impact).

Committing to such evaluations—and the parallel to a startup taking a critical view of its growth and what the nature of that growth may mean for its long-term survival prospects is a strong one—can be very uncomfortable both to those assessing and those being assessed.  In many ways, I liken it to making a swing change on the golf course: 

  • There is often great difficulty in seeing the need for it yourself.  Just as many of us can easily groove a swing over time that allows us to shoot a respectable score most times out, it is easy to become complacent about sales results and not look too closely at what is driving them.  Could that rep in the Southwest who has made goal for 5 years running actually be costing you money because she is riding the wave of the market and an average-level replacement would be posting much higher growth figures? 
  • Things are likely going to be uncomfortable for some period before they improve.  I managed to get my handicap index to single digits this summer and keep it there for much of the season by committing to some changes in the late spring that made me quite uncomfortable.  Now, as I have bounced around that 9-10 handicap range for a few months, I recognize—with the help of better playing partners—I have no chance of getting much lower unless I commit to further changes.  Already those changes are making me feel very awkward on the course, and my last few inconsistent rounds have pushed my index back over 10.  It would be easy to revert to old ways, but the shot results I get when I do the things I am trying to do with my revamped swing are encouraging and point to continued improvement if I can get through this transition period successfully.  Replacing a veteran rep (or manager) with a new person may mean some sales hiccups initially and will certainly require more intense training and development, but if your assessment was solid, the new team member will be outpacing what appeared to be good results on the surface in no time.

I am certainly not advocating for change for change’s sake.  Where you have star performers in place, do everything you can to support and keep them.  Just be sure that you are not avoiding changes that could have long-term benefits for your organization in order to avoid some short-term discomfort.