Managing the Aging Salesforce

By Gil Cargill on October 7

As my generation (the baby boomers) age, this topic seems to be coming up more frequently than ever before.

CEOs have asked me many times, “How do I motivate my senior salespeople?”  Or, another version of the same question is, “How do I keep them in the game?”

Managing the Aging SalesforceBefore I answer that question, let’s take a look at the conditions that precipitate a disengaged sales representative.  Now, disengagement for the senior salesperson comes about as a combination of one or more of the following issues.

  • Reduction in living cost: As we age, our cost of living actually goes down.  Stop and think about it.  How happy were you when you wrote the last tuition check to your youngest child’s grad school?  Personally speaking, I was ecstatic!  You see, our disposable income went up dramatically on that day; and that’s true, whether I worked harder or not.  The same applies to your senior salespeople. Another component of living cost reduction is the amortization of mortgages.  As we pay off our houses, we once again give ourselves an increase in disposable income.  So, when management says to a salesperson who has paid off his/her house, car loans, college expenses, et cetera, “You need to go out and work harder, so you can make more money,” the salesperson says subconsciously, “Why?”

At the same time that these people are disengaged, the CEO recognizes that he/she can’t fire them.  In many cases, these senior people contain reservoirs of knowledge regarding customer accounts that are irreplaceable.  Consequently, these individuals recognize the power they have over their employer.  And, yelling at these individuals does very little good for anybody and is not a recommended action.

First, recognize that the senior salesperson still has a lot of pride, but their priorities have changed.  They may be more involved in social activities, little league baseball and football, soccer, community activities, church activities, et cetera.  So, working more hours doesn’t “get it” for them.

Following, please find some strategies that have worked for my clients and me, over the years, to address this issue.

  • Build-around strategy: A smart move is to recognize that these senior people need a sense of purpose and pride and, in many cases, you can reactivate their enthusiasm by building younger salespeople around these individuals.  These new salespeople may be mentored, in a formal sense, by the senior salesperson.  This mentoring has resurrected the enthusiasm and excitement that senior salespeople once had for their job and their career.
  • Reassignment of underserved accounts: Another component of the build-around strategy is to build new account relationships around the existing relationships.  In almost all of the circumstances where I’ve encountered this phenomenon, the senior salesperson has a few very lucrative, very comfortable – indeed, very friendly – accounts.  Some of the other accounts assigned to that person are underutilized.  You may be able to reassign the underutilized accounts to the aforementioned junior salesperson and arrange a commission split.  In other words, the senior salesperson will derive partial financial benefit from the efforts of a junior salesperson.
  • Compensation modification: Now, this is a very touchy subject, so approach it very carefully.  But, many senior salespeople have become a R.O.A.D. (Retired On Active Duty) as a result of the comp plan that management has assigned to them.  If your senior salespeople get commission or bonuses from accounts that were closed in the past, you may have a comp plan that is inducing this R.O.A.D. warrior behavior.  When the salesperson feels that he/she has a “book of business” which will support them, then he/she is inadvertently induced to become a R.O.A.D. warrior.

You can modify the comp plan without cutting commissions by putting some compensated MBOs into the comp plan.  In other words, you could say to the senior sales rep that part of his/her compensation, moving forward, would be based on completing detailed account and/or territory plans for their assignments.  MBOs can be used to shore up compensation and redirect the focus of the salesperson towards goals that complement management’s strategies.

In summary, I believe that senior sales representatives, in many cases, are looking for recognition and acknowledgement of their prior contributions.  That’s great, they deserve it, and you should do that.  But, none of us can live in the past.

The senior sales rep must be held accountable for doing his/her job based on today’s realities.  I don’t think that it is smart to punish, confront or fire them, but I do think you should work out some tactics, short of termination, that will reactive their issue.

My last bit of advice is to sit down with the senior salesperson and have some genuine, heart-to-heart conversations to clearly understand what motivates them.

  • Why do they get out of bed in the morning?
  • What are their goals (short- and long-term)?
  • And, can you help them achieve their goals by coaching or training or what have you?

In other words, manage them with good, sound management practices.

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