The sales rep exodus is coming… here’s how to stop it.

September 20, 2018

Every year around this time, I see a lot of messages that look like this:

Sales exodus January

This isn’t a rep who is failing and has to make a move… it’s a talented person who will be actively open to/looking for a new role because something is missing in his current one.

Folks, there is a strong chance you have reps in your own startup that are thinking this exact thing right now. And it’s not good, because it is VERY expensive to churn salespeople – especially the good ones.

It’s not all doom and gloom though – you can flip this script if you do the right work now to close out the year without hemorrhaging your prized sales performers.

Here’s what I recommend.

Why your salespeople are leaving at the end of the year.

It’s been said that “people don’t leave companies, they leave bosses.”

I couldn’t agree more. But the opposite is true too (and I’ve seen this with several of our clients) – people will hang on through thick and thin if you’re a great leader.

While not specific to sales, a recent survey of 10,000+ professionals by LinkedIn more or less confirms this:

Why do professionals leave their jobs

The top four reasons people leave are all controlled by leadership (Courtesy of LinkedIn)

My experience tells me that these points are especially accurate for all-star salespeople. That’s because, to paraphrase Simon Sinek, “they see compensation as a result, not an end.”

They know that the real game they need to play is to better serve their customers (they’ll get paid if they do). And they’re always growing/looking for new ways to do that!

But if leadership is getting in the way of them doing that for any of the areas above, they’re not going to stick around for the long haul. They’ll wait for their commission check and make a move.

Here’s exactly what you need to do as Q3 winds down to keep your people engaged and fired up about working towards your mission.

How to stop a Q1 bailout.

Leaders, I promise, I come in peace and not accusing you of being bad. I’m simply trying to call attention to something I see happening every year around this time, so you can double down and avoid some pain.

Each point below I’ve seen the best sales leaders incorporate year round, not just at this point in the year. Embracing these practices as a leader regularly will pay off and you won’t have to worry about a looming exodus again. 

Get out in the trenches with your team.

The only way you’re going to know what’s not working and why people are disengaged is to walk a mile or two in their shoes, right? That’s why the best sales leaders I’ve ever worked with are always out in the trenches with their people every day. It’s what keeps them in tune with what is going on at all times!

A great example of this done right… the CEO of a partner whose software we use sells alongside his team (closing $1M+ himself every year). And they love him for it because he speaks their language fluently and is out there in the mix each and every day.

This serves him well in a variety of ways – not only does it help him enable the sales team, but it helps him understand exactly what his buyers want, how they feel, and why.

Which helps him make more informed decisions as the leader of his company!

That said, roll up your sleeves and help them close deals (and give them credit if you do – the last thing you want to do is suck the life out of them because your ego got in the way).

Focus on building a community of people through mentorship and coaching. Be an asset to your team – the only way to do that is to be involved and aware.

The more you are the more they’ll trust you!

Ask great questions and act on their responses.

Listening (I’m talking about real, active listening) is an essential tool for engaging your people when you’re out in the trenches with them. Trust me, the best reps can spot your lack thereof a mile away, killing any credibility and trust you have.

Your people aren’t always going to be straight with you on what they need to stick around (or if they’re even considering leaving in the first place). You’ll need to pay attention to the space in between.

Find out what things are keeping them from doing their best work and then fix them. Create psychological safety through listening to truly understand the situation (don’t react on emotion). More on that below.

Block and tackle on internal barriers you find.

I can almost guarantee you that there are a few things that could be corrected internally to make your team’s life easier. Don’t assume you know what is broken – go find those them and turn them around.

While there’s no way to tell you what those things are for your team, there are a couple things I see regularly that push salespeople to make a jump.

Product vs. Market fit.

As much as it’s popular to try to find the person who can sell water to a whale, the reality is it’s not a great business model. It’s awfully hard (read: impossible) for your people to sell something to a market that doesn’t want it. Find out what’s keeping the market from being interested and fight the internal battle with Product or executive leadership to make changes.

Your sales process is getting in the way.

An unnecessarily long sales process can get in the way of your reps closing business. Find ways to shorten the process without cutting the wrong corners and experiment with new ways to shave time off the process. The best place to learn how to do this? Ask your people!

It’s too hard to get paid.

I see a lot of startups whose comp plans require a supercomputer to calculate commissions. This is the opposite of what you want. Make it easy for your people to get paid and more importantly understand how they get paid. It should also be easy for you to track and administer while we’re at it.

Comp plan adjustments for the following year.

I see (and have experienced myself on more than one occasion) way too many startups that think it’s a great idea to jack up sales numbers for the following year because their reps are killing it this year. This is the worst thing you can do unless you genuinely have a reason to adjust. Otherwise, watch your top performers give you the pink slip.

Own the ‘ick’.

The most respected leaders I know are exceptionally good at owning what’s broken, calling it out, and creating a solution that moves everyone forward without dwelling on the negative. You’ve got to be more than a cheerleader – roll up your sleeves and help your team thrive.

Take your eye off what’s broken and focus on the potential.

While you need to address problems proactively, keep in mind it’s even more important to challenge your team to consider what is possible if you want them inspired to kick butt every day. It’s exhausting when all you hear about is the things that are broken!

So ask your team what it would look like if they could wave a magic wand and have it be perfect. Get them to dream a bit, and then act on some of that feedback! Even better, show them firsthand what it looks like to be creative to uncover better ways of doing business well.

If your team sees you putting their suggestions into action they are going to love it, respect it, and want more of it. Trust me, nothing got me more fired up than to see my boss taking my advice and putting it into action – I know your people will feel the same.

Know your “why” and rally your team around it.

If you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, how are your people going to? Take some time to nail down your vision and how to articulate it to your team. Even better, incorporate this into your hiring process to ensure you’re aligned right out of the gates. I’ve seen this totally transform businesses… don’t skip over this point!

Final thoughts.

Really, this is all about my first point above: get in the trenches and diagnose. Then act on what you find!

The only way to make sure your people stick around year after year is to do regular discovery and make sure you’re ahead of any potential issues that are going to arise. And the better you do this, the more your team will respect and trust you.

Not to mention the less likely they are to start entertaining the thought of heading elsewhere!

Founder and CEO of Avenue Talent Partners

With more than $100MM in revenue sold, a LinkedIn Insider and Top Sales Voice, Founder, Strategic Advisor, and LP at Stage 2 Capital, Amy Volas is a sales fanatic turned entrepreneur. She was bitten by the startup bug many moons ago and couldn't imagine spending her time anywhere else. She created Avenue Talent Partners to help grow early-stage startups through some of their most valuable assets - executive revenue leaders.