How to Manage Difficult Sales Employees

By: Kevin Davis, author of Slow Down, Sell Faster!: Understand Your Customer’s Buying Process and Maximize Your Sales

When it comes to sales team managementsales managers I know have a love/hate relationship with the prima donnas on their sales teams. They love the star player’s passion and hard work, while they loathe the self-centered behaviors that demoralize or discourage the rest of the team.

That leaves sales managers with a dilemma. If they come down hard on a prima donna, that salesperson may just take his/her talents elsewhere. Not good. But a sales manager can’t afford to ignore the situation, either, as prima donnas are often engaged in behaviors that are detrimental to the team. A simple truth in sales management is that what you don’t confront, you condone.

How can the sales manager handle the situation? In truth, part of the solution requires the sales manager to look in the mirror and ask, “What possible role did I have in allowing this situation to develop?” And, more importantly, “What changes do I need to make as a leader, going forward, to prevent others from developing into prima donnas?”

Your Sales Management Strategy
As it turns out, many sales managers admit that they have taken a hands-off approach with their prima donnas, leaving them alone for weeks or months at a time. “Hands off” is a nicer way of saying a “lack of management.” These are common management mistakes. Sales managers will also admit that often they don’t communicate expectations, or set standards, on anything else, other than production results. And remember — a “standard” only becomes a standard if you coach to it on an on-going basis. So, naturally, your top producers (and everyone else on the team) will come to think that sales production is the only thing you care about.

To change this prima donna-centric environment, start by making a list of specific interpersonal “success attributes” that you would like your entire team to adopt. It’s easy to do if you think about what your prima donnas are doing that you don’t like; simply write down the opposite behaviors! Here are a few that I came up with:

  • Criticize privately, compliment publicly.
  • Attempt to solve problems yourself before seeking help.
  • Supports others in their attempts to deal with change.

Share your list of “success attributes” with your team, starting with the prima donna. Explain to them that you’d like him or her to take a leadership role in adopting these behaviors as an example for the team, since everyone looks up to them. It’s obvious reverse psychology for sure. If you’re concerned that it’s too transparent, don’t worry — your prima donnas are likely blind to their own disruptive behavior.

Then, share your list of attributes with the rest of the team.

Managing the Difficult Employee
If you still have problems with the prima donna after implementing the steps above, you will likely need to escalate the issue.

When it comes to managing problem employees, you can always engage your HR department for assistance. Or you can have a heart-to-heart positive confrontation with your prima donna. Provide them with specific examples of their detrimental behavior and discuss its impact on the rest of the team. Then ask them, “If roles were reversed, how would they feel to be on the receiving end of that behavior?”

Communicate the importance of team work and the important role that they have in the team’s overall performance and in supporting your efforts to manage the team. Be very clear and specific about your expectations of their personal behavior going forward.

Passionate, hardworking, experienced and talented people deserve to be treated, in some ways, differently. They consider this special treatment a form of recognition. But in other ways — ways that are determined by you — they must be treated exactly the same as everyone else on the team. You must actively manage this situation, and manage everyone on your team to your expectations — even a peak-performing Prima Donna!

As a sales manager, the challenges you face are entirely different from the challenges you faced when you were a sales representative. But if you want to create an elite, high-performance sales team you must step-up and overcome this problem. In so doing, you communicate to your entire team that success is more than a number. Now, that’s Sales Management Leadership!

Author Bio:
Kevin Davis
, president of TopLine Leadership, is the author of Slow Down, Sell Faster!  Understand Your Customer’s Buying Process and Maximize Your Sales (Amacom Books). His company provides custom workshops based on the “Slow Down, Sell Faster!” consultative sales model, as well as a 2-day Sales Management Leadership workshop for sales managers. Contact Kevin through his website.