iStock 000018642282XSmall 200A sales leader confronts the following statistics listing the top three reasons behind the high number of salesperson departures last year.

1. 32% of departing salespeople left primarily because of their relationship with their first line manager

2. 27% of departing salespeople left primarily because of inadequate pay

3. 21% of departing salespeople left primarily because of the lack of promotion opportunities

Is it time to upgrade the first line managers, enhance pay, and revisit promotion opportunities? There’s more to the story than meets the eye here. Let’s dig a bit deeper and try to understand who is leaving for what reason. Consider the following additional facts.

  • 60% of the people who left for reason #1 (relationship with manager) and 73% of the people who left for reason #2 (pay) were in the bottom half of performance rankings.

  • 70% of people who left for reason #3 (promotion opportunities) were in the top half of performance rankings.

Most of the salespeople who left because of pay and first line managers were bottom-half performers; perhaps the current pay plan and managers are having exactly the desired effect! Promotion opportunities, on the other hand, may need attention if the company hopes to hold on to more top-half performers.  

Turnover statistics only become useful when they are linked to salespeople’s current performance and future potential. Current performance is visible in most sales forces using metrics such as territory sales growth and quota attainment. Future potential is more opaque, but is usually assessed by managers through the performance management and review process. The salespeople who depart will fall into one of the following three performance segments. You’ll want to implement different solutions, depending on which segments account for high levels of turnover.

1. Low performers with low potential: These are bad hires, plain and simple. If many sales force departures come from this group, you’ll want to find ways to upgrade the applicant pool, and enhance your candidate selection and attraction process.

2. Low performers with significant future potential: The solution for reducing turnover among this segment lies in helping salespeople become successful through development and coaching and giving salespeople warm leads so that they can taste sales success, which is the ultimate motivator. We find that there is high turnover among new salespeople across many industries, primarily because they just can’t get off the ground. Training and support that enable early success can work wonders.

3. Turnover among high performers: Autonomy, appreciation, recognition, pay, long-term incentives, inclusion on a company task force, and sometimes, even employment contracts with a non-compete clause can play a role in controlling turnover for this group.

First line sales managers are key in diagnosing sales force turnover problems and identifying and implementing solutions for reducing turnover among all three performance segments.  Managers are the ones who have to figure out if a low performing salesperson has future potential or not. They are the ones who must coach and develop a salesperson to realize his/her potential. And they are the ones who can find the right motivators for holding on to high-performing salespeople.   


Copyright (c) 2013 by Harvard Business Publishing. Reprinted with permission.
This blog originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website:

Topics: sales force effectiveness (SFE), Andy Zoltners, Prabha Sinha, Sally Lorimer, sales force structure and organization, sales force turnover