When to Fire Your Top Salesperson

Become a better sales coach and sales manager today.

You love your top performers, but are you being held hostage by them to the point where they are causing more damage than they’re worth?

(Excerpt from Keith’s upcoming book. Get notified when it’s published.)

The holy grail for leadership is to develop a team of self-motivated, highly accountable, top performers. But if you ask any manager if they’ve ever had to deal with an underperfrormer, the majority of the time you would hear, “Of course I have.”

The question is, how does a manager assess who an underperformer is, and who is not?

One of my clients was recently in a tough situation regarding whether or not to terminate someone. They turned to me for some advice and coaching around what they needed to do. Once I had a good grasp of where their thought process and strategy was around how they would handle this delicate situation, I shared with them a personal story.

It was back in 1985, when I owned another company before starting my coaching firm. I was responsible for a team of sales managers, along with about 50 salespeople. Like a consummate sales leader, I always honored the A.B.R’s of leadership – that is, to Always Be Recruiting.

Since I was always in interview mode, which allowed me to hire from choice rather than need, I eventually found someone who I perceived was a great candidate. After putting him through our comprehensive hiring process, I made him an offer which he accepted and just like that, hired someone who soon rose up the ranks and became our top salesperson. His name was Peter.

Over time, the two of us became good friends. I went to his wedding, we went out socially, and I would invite him out for lunch or dinner. I was even there when his first child was born. We spent a lot of time together professionally, as well as personally.

He was so good that, when he approached me and asked for a new company car because of all the driving he did as an outside salesperson, we bought him a Lexus. We promoted him to team leader, someone who was responsible for the training and development of new salespeople.

After about two years of what I considered to be a great working relationship, something shifted. I noticed a change in Peter’s attitude. It began to affect the morale and performance of the rest of my team. His positive, generous, and supportive disposition was gone practically overnight. He became arrogant, selfish and self-centered. Yet, Peter continued to outperform every salesperson on the team.

My partners and I justified his behavior by calling it merely a phase—something that happened when a salesperson had a taste of success and was viewed as someone who everyone wanted to be. He was at the top of his game. Besides, he was making my partners and I a substantial amount of money. We were inadvertently being seduced by his productivity and success, without recognizing the collateral damage that he was leaving in his wake. Even when he refused to sign the employee agreement and non-compete, we compromised what we knew was good business practice and let it slide. And still, we continued to ignore the clues.

Instead of investing my time supporting and praising Peter for his contributions to our sales goals and to the team, I found myself dealing with the negative impact he was having amongst his peers; even with customers. I couldn’t avoid the ongoing barrage of disconcerting comments, phone calls, and attrition of good people. I started hearing comments circulating throughout the office, such as:

  • “Peter gets preferential treatment.”
  • “Peter’s ego is so big, it’s amazing his head fits through the door.”
  • “Peter makes fun of the other salespeople who are not doing as well as he is. He keeps reminding the rest of the team how awesome he is, being the top salesperson. He thinks it’s funny but his comments are really demoralizing and quite frankly, hurtful.”
  • “Peter can basically do anything he wants. I can’t remember the last time he attended a sales meeting.”
  • “Why does Peter get to take time off to play golf, while the rest of us are working?”
  • “You guys (my partners and I) bought him a brand new Lexus. Do you know he’s using the car for his personal use as well?”
  • “It’s not fair that Peter keeps getting all of the good leads.”
  • “Peter makes me feel stupid when I can’t overcome certain objections that prevent me from closing deals. So, do you know what he does? He takes the account away from me without telling me and closes it himself, just so he can make more money and shove it in my face.”
  • “I know for a fact that he’s not turning in and filling out the contracts and paperwork according to protocol, and that you guys are doing it for him.”

I asked Peter multiple times what it would take for him to get back to where he was. The Peter who cared about the rest of his team. The Peter who was more positive, humble, and authentic, even in the face of his success. We talked about the negative impact that he was having on the team. I sensed he really didn’t care.

“What do we do?” I asked my partners. The problem is getting worse. It was like a cancer slowly starting to metastasize within our company. Yet, we continued to tolerate his behavior. Even when Peter decided to use my office to make sales calls without my permission, and then yelled at me in front of the team for interrupting him while he was on a call, we still didn’t terminate him.

I was getting frustrated. “This disrespect was unacceptable,” I said to my partners. To which they simply appeased me, continuing to justify his exceptional performance.

Soon after this occurred, Peter’s performance started to slip. He wasn’t showing up for work on a daily basis. Instead, we kept hearing excuses. “My wife works and I have to take care of the baby.” “I’m too sick to come into work today.” “I’m still running appointments but I don’t need to come into the office to do that.”

It wasn’t until I went out on an appointment with Peter that I experienced a defining and unforeseen moment. He drove the Lexus to the appointment that we bought for him. We still had a relationship, even though I knew it was deteriorating. While sitting in the passenger seat, jokingly, I teased him about the way he was taking care of his car. It was an absolute mess. I opened the glove compartment only to find more disarray.

Then it happened. I opened up the armrest between us. I saw some business cards, assuming they were the ones we gave him. Imagine the shock I felt when the business card had his title of “Owner/CEO” on it. Instead of seeing the name of my company on the card, it had the name of a different company. It didn’t take a detective to figure out what was happening. Peter was taking the leads we gave him, used the car that we bought for him to go on these appointments he scheduled, and then closed new business using contracts that were written up and signed by the customer under his new company name! He was stealing the leads and the business we were giving him for his own gain under a company he owned!

I coach people not to take things too personally at work. I coach people when they start defining themselves by their career; and that their career is not their life, identity or who they are. It’s just what they do. I remind my clients that, “It’s just a job.” But that’s today, not 30 years ago.

The truth was, I was devastated. I was hurt. I was shocked. I felt like an idiot. I felt violated. Here I was, thinking he was a friend, someone I trusted, someone who we took such good care of, someone who I let things go with because of our relationship and his stellar performance. In an instant, all that disappeared. He destroyed our relationship and became my adversary, instead of the ally I thought he was.

There was no more justification, no more forgiving, and there were no more chances. We took immediate action and terminated him on the spot. We tried to unravel the damage he caused. We called all of the customers he had contacted, in an attempt to recapture the business he stole from us.

The sales team wasn’t shocked when Peter was terminated. Instead, they practically celebrated with elation, relief and joy. “It’s about time you let him go!” was the resounding theme throughout the company.

Sometimes, we don’t want to see the truth. We don’t want to notice the proverbial writing on the wall. Instead, we often turn a blind eye because we don’t want to see it or deal with it. We wind up justifying and tolerating people’s toxic behavior until it reaches a destructive breaking point. So, why am I sharing this story with you? Because while Peter continued to sell like a champion, he was truly an underperformer.

Now, refer back to my initial question. What defines an underperformer? As you read my story, it goes beyond just hitting or exceeding sales goals and business objectives. As a manager who is responsible for the success, culture, and performance of your sales team, we need to look not only at how the person is performing but who they are and how their behavior impacts the people around them.

Peter made me realize this new definition of what it takes to be branded an underperformer. He expanded my peripheral vision. So, think about your team. Think about the performance of some of the people on your team. Now look beyond their results. Look at the person and who they are. How does their behavior impact those around them; including your customers, your team, and you?

While I may have waited too long to terminate Peter, I’ve learned a valuable lesson from this and can only hope that you can learn from my experience, so you don’t have to go through this painful ordeal yourself. This is an opportunity for you to expand your viewpoint in order to recognize the real underperformers on your team.

Look deeper. Is stellar performance enough to justify the damage a top-performer may be causing that negatively impacts the rest of your team? Consider carefully the negativity they’re spreading, the turnover they’re causing, and the fires you continually have to extinguish that cost you hours of your time.

Think about how tolerating their behavior impacts the rest of your team, their performance, and you. Inadvertently, you are sending the message that this unacceptable behavior is actually acceptable. That you will allow it, without any consequence. In essence, you have lowered your standards and expectations, and have granted permission for others to act the same way.

You have now incurred a deeper cost. You have compromised your integrity and the standards you try to uphold and model for the rest of your team. You have lost the trust and respect of the people who you manage and work with.

No one likes to lose a top performer, let alone fire them. But we can’t be held hostage by them either. I’ve been in your situation and I know how tough it is. However, there are more champions and top producers out there that will show up, but only if you uphold the values you want to emulate, without any compromise.

At some point, you need to ask the question that will help you make this difficult decision. Rather than ask what’s best for you or for a person like Peter, ask yourself, “What is best for my team and for the company?” The answer will then be glaringly obvious to you.

Photo Credit: sharpshutter (via shutterstock)