The mantle of leadership is heavy. The good news is, we don't need to start from scratch. 

Any entrepreneur or sales leader knows *exactly* what I mean when I say that retaining sales reps has only gotten harder since the pandemic. 

Let's face it. Sales are tough. The hours are long, there's a lot of rejection, and competition is fierce. Burnout is common. The Great Resignation doesn't surprise anyone in sales leadership. But man, it's painful to watch top performers leave. Replacing your experienced folks is hard no matter when it happens, but in today's labor market, it is harder still. 

Here's what I came across, in terms of numbers: 

Hiring replacements are expensive too. So is Sales training. It costs us time, and it puts enormous pressure on the rest of the team who pick up the slack while the newbies get up to speed. Overall, losing people hurts. I’ve been contemplating - Are there some failsafe retention strategies I can employ? 

Turns out there are! And the biggest lever might actually be in your control! Let me draw your attention to a number I quoted earlier. 

52% of employees who leave voluntarily admit that their manager or organization could have prevented them from leaving.

We don't want to admit it, but as sales leaders, we ourselves are the biggest factor in their decision to stay or leave. Daunting? Yes. Empowering? 

YES. 

I've been lucky to work under some great bosses and some not-so-great ones. There are lessons from these leaders that go bone deep - both what to do, and what not to do. I wanted to share some of these strategies with fellow founders, sales leaders and entrepreneurs. So here goes.

Use feedback as encouragement 

We all know the other kind. It usually begins with "Frankly" or "Can I be honest?" or another preamble that precedes an evisceration of one's confidence. Pro tip: Refrain. 

Yes, correction is needed. But - make it constructive! And no, it doesn't need 'patience' and it doesn't need 'more time on your hands. It just needs courtesy, and the intention to support, nurture and enable performance. When I look back, two of my former bosses had really perfected the art of constructive correction/criticism. A few of the things  Tarun and Peter at hCentive, did masterfully were: 

  • Provided feedback consistently. Not only at the end of the year, or only at appraisal time, but whenever they noticed a mistake. 

  • They weren't afraid of us making mistakes. Mistakes are great teachers, and when we come down hard on people who make them, we lock down open communication. Employees feel oppressed and can't try anything new. They shy away from making decisions, being creative, and thinking out of the box… all good things. I’m forever grateful to Peter and Tarun for letting me fail.

  • Protected their people. We never got 'unfiltered' feedback. They took the heat, and then passed on the lessons. I cannot tell you how much that endeared them to all who worked for them. This one is a big reason why employees were so loyal to them! This leads me to the next topic 👇🏼

Be a good leader

“People leave bosses, not companies" is a common refrain you'll hear in leadership discussions. Research shows that 57% per cent of employees have left a job because of their boss, and an additional 32% per cent have seriously considered leaving for the same reason.

The irony is that we know this! As their leader we have the biggest impact on employee experience: from setting the company culture to the daily grind, deciding which projects they work on, the people they work with and if/when they get promoted. We're also the person they turn to when they have a problem, and how we respond is everything. Sumeet at Edifecs modeled this for me, and for so many others who have had the good fortune to be mentored by him. I pretty much owe my career to Sumeet when he just absolutely had my back when no one else would!

Champion your people. Be a master listener. Good leaders go out of their way to show their people that they’re valued, by giving them their full attention and truly absorbing what they say. This is particularly important when there are conflicts: err on the side of your people. If you don't have their backs, who does? Kelly & Jeff at Welltok were my biggest critics while still being my biggest champions! No wonder I stayed as long as I did at Welltok!

Be like Yoda: or like my bosses Piyush and Sue! Take on the inexperienced, the raw, the young salesperson, and turn them into a sales Jedi. They will stay, they will grow, they will contribute, and they'll never, ever forget you. 

Delegate like you mean it: When you give someone responsibility, let them be responsible for it. Trust their ideas and convictions, and be open to a new way of doing things. People bring their own music to the job, and when we over-supervise, we shut that down. As leaders, our job is to create other leaders, not a legion of Mini Mes! It was scary at the time, but in hindsight, the independence that Tarun gave me and the weight of the tasks really helped me build the muscle memory I needed to be an entrepreneur and to deal with uncertainties so much better.

Keep your word. It is amazing how many leaders fail at this. It is the easiest (and toughest) thing to do, and it makes the difference between having a team that trusts you and will walk through fire with you, and one that has an eye on the door the whole time. Lucky for me, EACH of the leaders I’ve mentioned thus far have unquestioningly adhered to this edict.

Promote an open-door communication policy 

I didn’t realize where I learnt this until very recently. I realized that dad always had his office door open and people were always in and out, talking to him with no need for appointments. Truly an open-door policy! No wonder he has employees that have stuck with him for over 20 years!

It’s crucial that your sales reps' employees feel heard. A sales rep’s departure should never be a surprise, and if it is, then you have a communication problem. All of the people I've named here knew when I was going to quit, and my departure was a conversation that happened over a few months, culminating in a well-thought-out decision (from both sides!) to move on. 

If you're missing the signs, it's likely because your team is uncomfortable coming to you with concerns, problems, etc. Make it a priority to build strong lines of communication. For me, the best way to prioritize communication is to schedule time for it regularly and to do it one-on-one. Find what works best for your team, and then commit to it. 

Pro tip: In these sessions, they get to talk. Your main job is to listen. 

Create a growth path 

Nothing motivates a sales rep and sales engineer more than the prospect of growth. As they grow, they power growth for the business. But the moment you throttle that growth is the moment boredom sets in, and they start looking for something new. I've never been able to stick with a company that didn't tell me where I could be in 5 years. 

Invest in your people. By providing sales reps with professional development opportunities and long-term career possibilities, you show them you’re invested in their personal and professional growth. Create and communicate growth paths, and do it early. In return, they'll stay invested in your company. 

Having said that, be fair. If you can't offer a talented salesperson more growth at this time, let them go. Don't make them fight you for their future! Make it easy for them to go, and easy for them to return when you have what they need. Tarun and Peter let one Robin Singhvi go, to chart his own path. In another universe where SmartCue doesn't exist, he's definitely back on their team. 

Be flexible 

Flexibility at work is one of the most important factors in retaining top talent. The pandemic has woken people up in a way: people value their personal time and relationships more, and now seek a balance between the two. Moreover, two years of working online have taught people what their most productive hours are, and these don't necessarily fit in the 9 to 5 window. I know mine don't! 

This is where a little trust goes a long way. By giving your salespeople the flexibility to work their own hours, you're giving them the freedom to have a life, and still, bring their best to work. If I'm at my best between 10am and noon, I'll schedule my most important calls and demos at that time, naturally. I may prospect and qualify leads between 11pm and 1am when the house is at its quietest. The work I get done between those two hours, versus what I get done at 3pm, in the middle of a post-lunch slump… there is no comparison!

My mentors have kept an eye on the quality of work I'm doing, not the hours I spent doing it! For me too, this is simple: I manage by objectives (not hours), and my people continue to outperform. Unsurprising to me!

Flexibility can also be about lateral growth. There are times when your sales engineers will want to be sales reps and vice versa. Create a pipeline that allows this. 

Always praise in public! 

This may feel like I'm stating the obvious, but honestly, nothing beats the power of praise. Most of us miss doing this. Think about it. When was the last time you congratulated an employee on a job well done, in front of their peers? Or express your appreciation on a public Slack channel or group email? Sometimes simple acknowledgement of hard work goes a long way in boosting morale.

You know how wonderful it feels to be the recipient of such praise. I know I used to just light up when my bosses showed their love this way. It bound me to these bosses in the best way and pushed me to do more. Also, by documenting my achievements publicly, my bosses were creating a case for my growth, and I knew that. 

Why wouldn't I want to do the same for the people I lead, right? 

Conclusion

Companies want to hire the best people. If you don’t take care of your top performers, somebody else will. And that “somebody” will most likely be a competitor. The good news is that retaining your top performers isn't hard, and it isn't rocket science.