Q. My new sales manager is having a difficult time trying to implement change. Because many members of our experienced sales force still need to execute a number of the changes in the past year, do you have any suggestions?

A. Implementing change is always difficult.  Particularly with an experienced sales force.  I’m reminded of a quote I sometimes use in my seminars:

“In times of rapid change, experience can be your worst enemy.” J. Paul Getty

It seems that when it comes to change, the more experienced you are in a certain job or position, the more difficult it is for you to implement change.          

However, while it may be difficult, that in no way excuses the need to change. Lots of things in life are hard, and lots of things in your job are hard. So what? Your salespeople need to get with the program.         

Implement Change – Rule Out:

Any negotiating, any exceptions, any backing down from your position!          

Let’s not tolerate any whining, complaining, undermining, or excuses.  Let’s accept that you have mandated that some of your team implement change and a good percentage of the salespeople are not making them. Time to take some action.         

I’ve always found it helpful to think in specific terms as opposed to general statements.  So, “the sales force isn’t beginning to implement changes” is too vague a proposition to offer any clear solutions.  Let’s get specific.  Step one, let’s go from the “salesforce” to specific salespeople.  One by one, who is not implementing which changes, specifically.         

Implement Change – Let’s Get Methodical

Create a spreadsheet with each sales person’s name down the first column and each specific change you expected him/her to implement in each column to the right.         

Now, think specifically about each salesperson.  If that person has successfully implemented that change, put an X in the box under that column.  Proceed this way, thinking specifically about each person and each change.         

This little exercise may be enough to uncover the obvious solution.  For example, if you find that no salesperson is implementing a specific change, that leads you to a certain course of action.  If you find that most salespeople are implementing most changes, but that only one is not implementing any, that then leads you to a different course of action.         

Going from the general to the specific is a great way to uncover the details of a problem, and often points out a very obvious solution.  (By the way, this is one of the techniques I use in my consulting practice to uncover the root causes of sales problems.)         

But let’s say that the solution isn’t obvious, but this exercise has given you a clearer picture of the problem.  Now what?         

Two Solutions, Use a Combination to Implement Change

Implement Change – Solution One: The Change

One kind of solution is to work on the structure of the change.  This would be indicated when you find that most, or all of the salespeople, are not implementing some specific change.  The problem may be with the change, not the people.  So, look at what you are asking them to do.  Is it beyond their capabilities?  If so, reduce the complexity.  Has it been thoroughly communicated?  If not, hold a remedial training session.  Does it conflict with what you are paying them to do?  For example, you may be paying them 100% commission, and then asking them to bring in new accounts.  That’s a conflict.  If that’s the case, change the compensation plan.          

Each of these solutions has to do with you changing some aspect of the structure in order to stimulate the change that you want.

Implement Change – Solution Two: The People

Are some people resisting the change and others not?  If so, the problem isn’t with the structure, it’s with the people.         

Identify individuals who are guilty.  Then, one by one, articulate your best insight into why this person is not coming on board.  I like to make this real simple.  Is it a “can-do” issue?  In other words, they just don’t have the ability?  Or is it a “will do” issue?  They can, they just won’t.         

The answer’s obvious if they don’t have the ability.  You have the wrong person in that position.  Change that.         

If they won’t, then you have to make the pain of not changing more intense than the pain of changing.  Individually, one-on-one, make it clear to the salesperson what the consequences of not changing will be.

Implement Change, Then Stick To It!

Work one-on-one with each offending salesperson. It’s too easy for them to gather negative energy from one another when working in a group.          

One more thought.  If you are going to have heart-to-heart conversations with a group of salespeople, you may be better off picking your battles, and winning one before you start the other.  Start with the most likely person for you to win the battle with, and execute your strategy with him/her.  When that person is in line, move on to another one.         

I have a number of resources you may want to review to shed additional light on this.  My book, Transforming Your Sales Force for the 21st Century articulates this issue of “structure” and “people.”          

Or, I have a couple of articles on my blog that will also help.  Read “How to deal with the salesperson who has plateaued.”