Here’s a lesson I recalled from the last recession while researching my new book, Winning the Six-Figure Sale.I decided not to include this as a separate chapter but felt it would make a thought-provoking LinkedIn article.

Recession Lesson!

Before the recession, the sales reps on the bottom of the sales leaderboard were the same reps on the bottom long after the recession was over.

Difficult and stressful economic times don’t make poor sales performers better.

But it’s not your bottom performers you need to worry about the most.

It’s your top performers who are most at risk!

Think about it for a moment. Most of your sales team works on commission and has a portion of their income at risk.  And because business is down, in some cases dramatically, your top performers are not making the kind of money they’re used to making.

These are your top performers, the “A” types. They’re used to over-achieving their sales targets, and for some, their lifestyles depend on over-achievement. These are the reps that are a flight risk and will significantly impact your business if they were to leave. These are the guns you count on to win six and seven-figure sales.

Put Yourself in Your Best Reps’ Shoes

They’ve chatted with you about reducing their goal because they’re a global recession going on that’s not their fault. But changing plans during the year is very difficult for most organizations, so there is not much you can do other than say I hear you. We’re all in this together.

But for top-performing reps, there is something THEY can do!

They can pop their head up and answer the phone when your competitor comes calling. Your competitors know who your top reps are, and even if they aren’t hiring in general, they’ll find a spot for top performers.

If your rep was to take a new role with your competitor, they’d negotiate a new target income, probably higher than it is today. They’d negotiate a 3 to 6-month guarantee, and they’d negotiate a new quota.

Given how challenging 2020 had been, all these things start to add up from your rep’s perspective. The last thing you want to do is take their loyalty for granted.

And so it’s your tops reps you need to think about first.

You Can Make a Huge Difference

Here’s what we did at NetApp in the 2008 recession that made a huge difference.

We got all our 1st line sales leaders to identify their tops reps. The reps who we absolutely did not want to lose.

  • Each sales leader organized a “Stay Interview” with each of their tops reps.

The stay interview is all about checking in with the rep to see how they’re feeling. It’s not a forecast call or a business review. It’s merely a one-on-one meeting, in-person coffee if you can do it or a Zoom video call.

The meeting is all about showing your rep that you care about their wellbeing, family, and situation.

Tom Mendoza was the vice-chairman at NetApp for many years. He had a saying that he used for both customers and employees.

“People Don’t Care What You Know Until They Know That You Care”

Think about your situation and see how much that resonates with you.

The “Stay Interview” is your opportunity to show your reps that you care about how they’re doing from a personal perspective.

That’s not all Tom would do to show he cared.

He would ask sales leaders to send him a list of people who might benefit from a personal call.  

At the time, NetApp was a multi-billion-dollar organization with offices in over 100 countries, and here was Tom Mendoza, the vice-chairman taking time out of his day to call reps!

He didn’t reach everyone on the first call but always left a detailed voice mail.

Tom felt that in addition to congratulating people on their wins, his most impactful calls were often when a person needed a helping hand. Even great salespeople can stumble, and that’s the time they need it most.

Now you might not be able to get your vice-chairman to make phone calls for you (Tom was an extraordinary person in that regard), but here’s what else we did that you can most certainly do.

  • Have your boss or your boss’s boss do a skip level phone call.

In addition to getting Tom to make calls, I also had Eric Mann, America’s VP, reach out and make phone calls. Many of the reps knew Eric even better than Tom as Eric was in the patch more often.

It Doesn’t Have to be a Big Title

A simple phone call from a leader one or two levels up will also have a huge impact because it doesn’t happen very often in most organizations.

I promise you, completing a stay interview and having a senior leader reach out to your top performers will be something they appreciate and remember for a long time.

It will demonstrate how your organization feels about them. That is often enough to keep your top performers emotionally attached to you and your organization, even in difficult times.

Try It!

So what do you do about your bottom performers? The strategy is very different.

Just like you did with your top performers, organize a one-on-one meeting with the reps on the bottom of your leaderboard.

In the meeting, you’ll hear many excuses why they can’t get stuff done right now. Be explicit about your expectations.

I’d also complete a Stop, Start, Continue with them. What should they stop doing, what should they start doing, and what should they continue doing. Again, be explicit.

Then I would follow up the conversation and document, document, document. Very often, reps have talked themselves into their current state and will only hear what they want to hear in your meeting.

A written summary will get their attention. You can follow up the summary with a formal performance improvement plan to send a message if you need to.

Now, you might be thinking; there’s Jeff overengineering this again.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen sales leaders go to HR and say this rep has to go! I want to fire them right now.

HR’s response is always:

  • Have you had a verbal conversation with them about their performance?
  • Have you documented the conversation? Show me the file.
  • Have you put them on a plan?
  • How are you coaching them to improve?

If you haven’t done all this, you’re not going to be able to move quickly and make the changes you need to make.

So, these are two important lessons from the last recession you can implement right now with both your Top and Bottom performers.

Despite what’s going on in the market, your job is to drive high-performance sales expectations. And you’ve got to make sure you have the right team in place to be able to do that.

You Should Always be Looking for Top Talent

Another lesson I learned from previous recessions is that there will be some Top Talent on the street through no fault of their own. Some companies will be forced to downsize, others will eliminate territories, and some excellent athletes may be caught up in reductions that could benefit your team.

Always be interviewing was a great lesson from the last recession. Even if you don’t have open headcount, ongoing interviewing will help you in three specific ways.

  • You’ll get to meet some great salespeople, learn their stories and start to build a relationship for the future. Be open and tell the candidate you don’t have headcount right now, but things can change quickly, and you want to be ready. 
  • Reps will share information in an interview that they won’t share with their competitors at any other time. I guarantee you’ll learn something valuable you didn’t know before the interview. 
  • Interviewing helps give you a new perspective on your current team and helps confirm whether you’ve got the best talent on your team right now.

You never know when someone on your team will decide to make a change. Building a pipeline of qualified candidates helps you dramatically reduce the time it takes to find a backfill.

And don’t forget potential internal candidates. They can often ramp to productivity very quickly, and since they already know your company culture, they should be a good fit from day one.

Winning requires you have the very best team you can on the field, and difficult times need sales leaders to be proactive about people management, or you’re going to pay the price.

The last thing you want is your best reps to look elsewhere while your bottom performers stick around because they’re just happy to have a job!

Proactively measuring your team’s performance and building a bench of “A” players is a big part of your continued success. 

Article Summary:

Here’s a quick summary and action items to help make sure you caught everything we covered.

  • Previous recessions have taught us that the sales reps on the bottom of the sales leaderboard before the downturn were the same reps on the bottom long after the recession was over.
  •  It’s your top performers who are most at risk!
  • To help ensure you keep your best reps emotionally connected to you and your organization, show them some extra love.
  • Organize one-on-one “Stay Interviews” to see how they’re feeling.
  • Have your boss or your boss’s boss do a skip level phone call.

Your bottom performers need special attention as well.

  • Be very explicit about your expectations.
  • Execute a Start, Stop, Continue meeting with them.
  • Document, document, document.
  • Consider a performance improvement plan (PIP) if things don’t improve quickly.
  • Get your HR team involved early so they’ll support you when you need to make a change.
  •  Always be interviewing so you have a bench of “A” players ready to go.

 For more ideas about how you can help your team win big, read my new book Winning the Six-Figure Sale: A Sales Leaders Guide to WIN More Big Deals With my Proven 3-Steps System.