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Blog: Sales Team Succession Planning

By Bridget McCrea

There’s nothing quite like that sinking feeling that comes when a top, experienced sales rep starts to talk about retiring, moving onto another company, or trying his or her hand in a completely new field. As critical components of the successful distribution model, sales reps often operate autonomously, form strong relationships with customers, and spend their careers honing and maximizing those bonds.

That’s why the sinking feeling comes when one of those valued individuals decides to move on. What will happen to the routes that person developed? Who will fill his or her shoes? What will key customers think about working with a new rep? How will the situation impact company sales and its bottom line? These are all valid questions that can successfully be addressed with some advanced planning, effective recruiting and placement, and then ongoing training and mentoring.

“When a long-time salesperson leaves, the departure doesn’t have to be the end of the world,” says Barry Maher, president of Barry Maher & Associates, a Corona, Calif.-based sales consultancy. One of the best ways to avoid surprises in this area, says Maher, is by maintaining a line of possible contacts and recruits even when the upper echelon of reps appears to be intent on sticking around for a while. “Keep a list of candidates who will be easy to approach when the inevitable happens,” he suggests. “That way, you’ll be ready to plug specific individuals into those sales positions as they open up.”

It’s a Team Effort
Finding good recruits is one thing, but moving those newbies into positions that have been held by company veterans for years – or even decades – requires some special tactics. Eager, young, iPad-toting sales reps, for example, may not always be welcomed by long-time customers who are used to doing business a certain way. “Someone who has been on your sales force for 25+ years is probably pretty comfortable with what he or she does,” says Maher, “and your customers feel the same way. Introduce new blood into the picture and the situation can quickly become challenging.”

The good news is that a young, hungry sales associate will probably be willing to go the extra mile to find new accounts, secure previously untapped business, and even sell deeper with current customers. All of these efforts contribute to a distributor’s bottom line. Additionally, Maher says younger associates are eager to learn and typically enjoy the education that they receive from older, veteran reps. By pairing them up and sending them on sales calls together, for example, you’ll not only help customers gain a comfort level with your new recruit, but you’ll be fostering relationships between the old and the new guard.

To make the transition from one sales rep to the next even more smooth, Maher says the experienced individual should work to “build up” his or her replacement in front of the customer. By talking to key clients about the new sales team member’s background, education, skill sets, and go-getter attitude, for example, the veteran can effectively calm any jitters or nervousness that the customer may have about the switchover. “When your existing sales force lends credibility to the younger salespeople,” says Maher, “customers will gain a comfort level that would take the new rep a long time to establish independently.”

Fostering Success
If sales succession planning is a headache for your distributorship, Mark Faust, principal at growth advisory firm Echelon Management International in Cincinnati, says regular team meetings are a good starting point. Gathering all salespeople and managers in a room (either in person, via videoconference, and/or by phone) can help break down some of the walls that may exist between the different generations and experience levels. Discuss the team’s progress and challenges over the last month, the top “success story” of the month (like that new $1 million/year account that the “new kid” snagged), and talk about upcoming goals, events, and issues.

Faust says having every rep – new, veteran, and otherwise – contribute during the meeting is a good way to level the playing field. In fact, he says each participant should have the floor for five minutes to announce both trials and tribulations. After everyone has had a chance to talk, open the discussion up for feedback and suggestions. “Make sure everyone says something,” Faust advises, acknowledging the fact that in such situations there are typically 2-3 individuals who tend to dominate the conversations. “If you have a big group, just allocate five minutes to everyone and you should be able to wrap up the entire meeting within about 90 minutes.”

Faust also suggests forming mentor-mentoree relationships that comprise one experienced rep (preferably with 10+ years of experience) and one new salesperson (in the position for less than two years). Ask both participants to agree to a 90-day engagement, says Faust, during which time the reps meet regularly (in person, via phone, or by videoconferencing, if necessary), go on joint sales calls, and bounce impromptu ideas off one another.

Don’t Wait Until it’s Too Late
Howard Dover, a clinical professor and sales competition coach at the University of Texas at Dallas, says the most effective sales succession plans factor in the reality of generational lines. Technology, for example, may be less of a priority for a 30-year veteran of your sales force, and much more of an emphasis for a 20-something who got his or her hands on computers in grade school. By understanding that these differences exist – and that the same nuances are in place at the customer level – the distributor can avoid the frustration and failure of ineffective succession planning.

“Some people want to communicate exclusively via Skype or text, while others feel that in-person meetings and phone calls are the only way to do business,” says Dover, who has a colleague who deletes any text from senders who won’t dial the phone to talk to him. Sometimes it’s about compromise, and other times – particularly when key customers are involved – it’s about communicating and doing business on their terms. “Luckily, young salespeople are usually willing to adapt as needed.”

Ultimately, Dover says creating an effective sales succession plan requires strategic thinking that factors in potential openings, upcoming retirements, ideal candidate profiling, and solid recruiting and training. “If you’re going to develop the sales leaders of the future you have to start thinking about it and filling the pipeline now,” says Dover, “not later.”

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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