Sales team management: How to protect your reps from burning out

Sales team management: How to protect your reps from burning out

A couple months ago, you hired an ace sales rep named Mike. When he started out, he was out in the field crushing it every day, making 150–160 cold calls a day, setting up demos, and closing new customers.

But just a few months later, Mike's shuffling his feet and has dark circles under his eyes. The once enthusiastic newbie is now avoiding phone calls and looks like he’s been hit by a bus. Before you know it, your whole team is walking around like a bunch of mindless zombies—they’re burned-out.

Sales managers often forget the massive psychological impact of hearing those rejections daily. They expect a superhuman tolerance for rejection from their sales reps, no matter how many times a day these reps are getting told to fuck off.

But burning out is a serious problem among sales teams—and one that you can’t afford to sweep under the rug. In a survey of 342 SaaS companies, a DePaul University Sales Effectiveness survey found that there was a 28% turnover in the sales team, while the average cost of replacing a sales rep is $114,957.

Burnout spreads in sales teams like wildfire. As a manager, it’s crucial that you identify it early and nip it in the bud. If you deal with it proactively, not only do you avoid the huge costs of a high turnover rate, but your dynamite sales team will then set you far above the competition.

1. Concentrate on the wins


One of the biggest reasons salespeople burn out is simple: people hate losing more than they like winning. Dr. Kahneman proved this with a coin toss example. He would ask his class: “I’m going to toss a coin, and if it’s tails, you lose $10. How much would you have to gain on winning in order for this gamble to be acceptable to you?” It took double the losing amount for people to even consider the bet.

Psychology shows us that we hate losing—so much that most people avoid even a 50:50 chance at winning. What you need to understand as a sales manager is that your reps have to deal with losing on a daily basis to even get a shot at winning. And once they get one win, they just put it into a spreadsheet, and move on.

In order to keep your salespeople from burning out, you must:

  1. Amplify the impact of those wins
  2. Reframe a loss to be viewed as a step towards a win

Reframe your sales reps’ perspectives by pointing out to them that the gain is huge compared to the loss—a gain is a new client, more money in the pocket of the sales rep, a step closer to the expansion of the company, and a higher growth potential for the individual. A “no”, on the other hand, is just progress towards the next “yes”.

Reinforce the importance of this progress towards a win by celebrating smaller victories, such as hitting a daily cold call number, or just getting through a week of tough calls. By celebrating the small stuff, you add importance to every win and add a positive spin to the “no’s”.

Small rewards=big gains

While it may seem like a waste of money to constantly take your team out or give them small prizes, the payoff will ultimately be huge— you’ll keep your team from burning out by inspiring them to overperform. Here are just a few ways to reward your team for small victories:

  1. Use gamified leaderboards. The problem with old-fashioned leaderboards that just have goals like units sold or conversion rate is that they ignore the middle 60%— they only inspire the top 15% to fight it out for first and the bottom 15% to try and and not be the worst. But new gamification software that turns leaderboards into games lets you customize tiered goals for individuals and teams and have multiple leaderboards with progress benchmarks. Plus, the virtual medals and top-score charts make it fun.
  2. Have after-hours celebrations. Proximedia, a B2B company that focuses on making websites, is known for the productivity of their sales force. And they say that they owe it all to the fact that they are quick to celebrate even the smallest success together with an after-hours get-together. By celebrating these small wins, the team builds an appreciation for progress towards a win and builds momentum to achieve the bigger wins.
  3. Take the team out to lunch. A University of Warwick study has shown that employees who were given some chocolate at random became happier and were about 12% more productive on average. By taking your employees out to lunch, you are showing them that you are a manager that appreciates their hard work and not the carrot and stick type of manager that bullies their employees into burning out.

In my interview with David Greenberger from Foursquare, he shared some of the ways he used to celebrate successes. Even simple things like letting reps who hit a certain goal choose the next song to be played on the sales floor and having scoreboards can contribute to an atmosphere of fun.

2. Mentor your sales team

Another reason sales reps burn out is because they often feel like they aren't getting anything substantial out of their jobs. Like any employees, they need to feel a deeper satisfaction out of their job than earning just an extra few bucks.

Although most managers assume that a boost in salary is enough of a motivator, studies have shown that salespeople tend to rank intrinsic motivators, such as “learning new skills” above monetary compensation.

If your sales team has stopped improving, they’re not feeling satisfied with their jobs and are on their way to burning out. Become a mentor to your sales reps, so that you can give your employees a craft to focus on and help them look beyond the daily grind.

Focus their attention on big-picture progress

The art of sales is one that takes years or even decades to master—so help your sales reps refocus on what they can achieve in the long-run. Schedule weekly 1:1 trainings so that you can inspire your sales reps to view their time spent acquiring leads as time dedicated to sharpening those invaluable sales skills.

Mark Roberge gives three main points of advice when it comes to training your sales force:

  1. Use a data-driven approach. Each employee is different, and so a one-size-fits-all training schedule is not going to be equally effective for every employee. Track everything—from emails sent to opportunities gained, to time spent on a phone call, so that you can see what their weak points are. From there, you’ll be able create personally-tailored coaching to help each employee work towards reaching their potential.
  2. Concentrate on improving one skill at a time. A survey taken by McKinsey & Co. found that only 25% of respondents said that training improved employee’s performance. The reason? Lack of focus. Most training doesn't deliver information in a strategic fashion. They just throw all the useful and somewhat-relevant information they can at the employees, and expect them to absorb it like a sponge. Narrow the focus to one skill at a time, so that your sales rep knows what to concentrate on.
  3. Work with your sales reps to come up with a coaching schedule. By working with an employee on what areas need to be addressed, you are not only forcing him to be self-critical, but you are giving him accountability over his own future. You can rank the importance of the problem-areas together, and address one at a time. This will shift the conversation from “what you are doing wrong” to “what can I help you with.”

By providing opportunities to learn and improve, you are making your employees happier and better-equipped to do an excellent job.

3. Enable sales reps to support each other

Basketball legend Michael Jordan has said, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” Many managers think that fostering a cut-throat, competitive environment will drive numbers up, but such a strong emphasis on individual performance puts a ton of additional pressure on your sales reps, inevitably leading to burnout on your team.

If your team isn’t so much a team, but a group of people working in the same room at the same time, then you have a ticking time bomb on your hands. One overly-aggressive individual can ruin the entire team culture—if not the whole company.

A supportive team is crucial in a high pressure sales environment. When Mike Weinberg, sales coach and consultant, described the best sales team he ever met, he named “love” as being one of the most impressive aspects. He said the team had an amazing fraternal bond, always had each other’s backs, and had a strict no-gossip policy.

Stress the importance of teamwork

While great team collaboration arises organically, it can only exist in an environment that fosters collaboration. Loose policies and bad processes poison the entire team dynamic.

  1. Don’t stand for unsportsmanlike conduct. Sales expert Jim Collins always uses the analogy of getting the right people on the bus. He says that while many people think that great bus drivers (i.e., managers) start the journey by announcing the destination, the best bus drivers start by getting the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off the bus. Don’t let a rude and aggressive sales rep off the hook just because he pulls in results—not allowing disrespect within your team prevents toxic people from sabotaging your work culture.
  2. Have team-oriented competition. The best competitions are between teams in your workforce. One real estate company did this by scoring different accomplishments by baseball terms: a new referral or potential customer was a single, a contract was a double, and a recruitment counted as a home run. If something fell through, it counted as an out. This forced everyone to work in a collaborative environment instead of a dog fight. Making sales reps work together to achieve a common aim will strengthen the team as a support group, and enable sales reps to learn from each others strengths.
  3. Allocate different responsibilities to your employees. Give each sales rep an expertise. It could be as simple as geography, or as complex as catering to specific buyer personas. This will keep employees from playing the blame game and from stepping on each others toes. As an added bonus, they will have a much more narrowly-focused sales pitch (which you can work out together during your 1:1 trainings).

Create a positive, collaborative environment and you will have positive, collaborative employees.

Give your superhuman sales reps their wings

Sales is tough. Foursquare’s National Director of Sales, David Greenberger, says that when he was first starting out, he’d come home feeling like he’d spent the day getting punched in the face. Despite this, salespeople are expected to be relentless in their pursuit of that “yes.”

But it’s not all on them. A Mayo Clinic study has shown a direct correlation between bad leadership and the likelihood of employees burning out. As a manager, your job is to help your team conquer the huge challenge of dealing with daily rejection and provide them with the support structure necessary for success.

At the end of the day, it's all about perspective. By building up your sales team’s resilience in the face of constant hardship, not only will you prevent burnout, but you'll empower your team to actually thrive in the high-stakes, demanding field of sales.

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