Retaining Sales Reps – A How To Guide

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Retaining Sales Reps Starts At Hiring

Retaining sales reps is a challenge, but let’s start at the beginning. To keep a sales rep, you need to hire a good one in the first place! Hiring the right sales rep candidate is a challenge. Click here for some great questions to identify reps with the mindset you need. It’ll make it easier to find the right fit from a sea of candidates.

Sales managers draft talent, develop talent, and then put that talent to the test when the rep is ready. But sometimes it feels like we draft franchise players who play like water boys at game time. And conversely, as every sales leader knows, it’s a hard pill to swallow when a cultivated prospect turned star player leaves your team voluntarily.

All that time and all those resources devoted to onboarding, now gone. Also, confidence in the pipeline projection of future sales and revenue, poof, gone — out the door.

And then it gets worse.

It’s not just that top talent and potential closed deals have left the team. That  has been replaced with the need to start from scratch hiring and training a new rep — forget finding a great replacement, even a good one is difficult. And inevitably you’ll be losing deals to your competition in the meantime.

You need a way to stop, and in the future prevent, the bleeding.

How? Why are high-performing reps leaving? What is it that first triggers top performers to consider moving on? How can you identify your flight risks, and keep them on your team?

Here’s the trick for retaining sales reps: Keep them happy enough to want to stay put in the first place. It’s easier said than done, of course, but here are some things that will help.

The Role Of Sales

In most businesses sales accounts for over 90% of all revenue. Yet we continue to look at sales as almost a necessary evil! We hire people we assume “know how to sell,” and just train them on product.

Often we don’t set quota scientifically based on market conditions, fulfillment capacity and staffing. Instead we set quotas based on desired revenue, and blame the sales department when our wishes (nonscientific goal setting is wishing) don’t come true! Quotas should be motivating and realistic, and when they are your reps won’t be complaining about them – they’ll be hitting them. When quota is really just a revenue wish, reps quickly disengage.

Sales reps know the responsibility they carry to keep a business solvent. If they aren’t supported in their role, and given realistic targets, they’ll usually find another job. And fast!

Hire Your Next CEO

When a rep leaves, sometimes we tell ourselves, “they just weren’t right for the role.” It wasn’t anything with their role, the compensation you were offering, or the culture you created. They just didn’t fit. Oh well.

That’s wrong. The people you hire are just as much of a controllable factor as any other. And how you treat them and cultivate their experience is directly tied to how long the successful ones stay.

It can be a vicious cycle. Rep leaves, so you scramble to replace them, and hurriedly, you hire the wrong person — or maybe even the right person, but fail to adequately onboard them. They soon leave, too, and it Groundhog Day. How many times can we repeat this process without learning how to change it?

Simply, put as much work and effort into hiring the right sales reps in the first place as you do in keeping them around. Adapt the mindset that you aren’t just looking for someone to fill a vacancy, or a stop-gap — you’re looking for your next CEO. They may be 10 years away from that post, but that’s where your next hire is headed. Sit with that. It’s a whole new ballgame, right?

Hire Well, And Improve

First of all, don’t just hire for skills. Hire for mindset – attitude. You can teach skills, but it’s a heavy lift to teach attitudes like customer service, humility, empathy, and work ethic. The questions we recommend for interviewing new reps (here) can help you identify candidates with the skills and the attitude you’re looking for.

Secondly, onboard them like they’ll be your boss someday. Onboard them with respect, great training, and at a pace they can learn. Don’t feed them from a firehose and hope for the best. The average new sales rep needs at least 10 weeks of training to be successful in their role. Emphasis on “at least!”professional development training

No matter how talented your reps are, they need great onboarding to succeed in the first year. In fact, it’s the number one reason reps leave their jobs voluntarily, according to our research — inadequate professional development, including coaching and training. Not salary; not bonuses. Development!

One third of employees reported having left a job within six months of starting their new position, according to a survey led by BambooHR. And worse, between 16-17% of respondents did so between the first week and third month at their new companies. That gets very expensive very fast. There is no time to waste.

Your goal should be to get reps to quota-bearing status quickly, but thoughtfully, and then offer ongoing one-to-one coaching and development. But you can’t do that if all you do is train them on product, give them a list of quotas, and release them into the wild! You need to do some nurturing of skills and knowledge at the beginning, with crystal clear product messaging, a complete competitor landscape, and a bulletproof sales process.

Truth In Advertising

Don’t advertise a great corporate culture if you really host a micromanaging all-you- can-eat morale firing squad every day. Great cultures come from mutual respect, gratitude, open communication, and supportive managers and co-workers. If you don’t have a great culture, how long do you think it will take your new hire to find out? And then they’ll leave.

Advertise your sales rep position as if you’re a sales specialist: that is, manage expectations by telling the truth while describing the job in the most attractive terms you can that are still true. You’ll attract reps who are interested in what the job really entails.

Sales Reps Like Bonuses And Skill Development

Money, or lack of it, is the second top contributor to retaining sales reps. No surprise there, right? Companies that pay the 75th percentile or higher see 50% less turnover, according to Xactly Insights’ aggregated, anonymous pay and performance data. And if you hired right in the first place, that pay scale is making you more money than it costs you, by miles.

Balance needs to exist between the base and variable pay being offered, meaning if either your base or your variable piece is lacking, the overall pay mix might not be motivating enough. If your reps can only pay their bills when the market is high, you’re probably low on your base. If your reps don’t work for SPIFs and bonuses, your variables are out of whack.

But balance here also means it isn’t always about the money. Eight in ten firms identify professional development and organizational culture as areas of importance. But, of those same companies, only 42% recognize themselves as effective in the training and coaching that offer. Not good!  And

Stats aside, “people leave managers, not companies” as mentioned here on Forbes. Bad bosses cost good companies good employees. Employees simply can’t progress in their careers if management doesn’t make sufficient training and coaching top priorities.

Never Mess With Comppay check

A 3-8% error rate. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? When it comes to compensation, it’s far too much. Gartner estimates that comp plan administration carries a 3-8% error rate. Nothing will peeve your sales team (or any employee) like messing with their comp. If there is an error, it needs to be made right immediately – not in the next pay cycle.

Consider this scenario:

You’re a rep with an incentive plan, and you know commission is coming. In your mind, you calculate your check at $10K.

The target date passes, and no check. Then, the check finally comes, but only for $5K. What are you thinking? When is the next pay cycle? Who decides who made the error? When will they fix it?

If you present your reps with unknowns around when their checks are coming, how amounts are calculated, and if the amounts will be correct, you’re inviting them to think in negative “what ifs.” COmp should never be a guessing game. Transparency is key to compensation, from end to end when possible, to keep comp issues from becoming exit doors.

Competitions Need Winners

Sales reps are determined and competitive. If you tell them you’re running a contest, there has to be a winner, or group of winners. Don’t set benchmarks that no one can achieve! Set goals that are within reach with some focus and effort. It builds morale and performance. And the contest has to be outside the normal comp plan, or it isn’t a contest at all. It’s just the comp plan.

Running a contest with no winners hurts morale. It doesn’t improve belief in their abilities, it shows the reps that they are all failing. That’s not a message that builds strong teams!

Anyone of competitive spirit wants their victories known. They work hard for achievement, but they also want recognition. But before a rep can win a contest or outrank their peers, they need to be given the opportunity. Contests, SPIFs, and stack rankings in any fashion all provide the chance for reps to feed their competitive spirits, and then, be praised for their results.


Retaining your sales reps starts with choosing the right candidate. It moves on through great onboarding and culture, and it rests on transparent comp, respect, ongoing professional development, and contests that allow them to shine. It’s a lot to juggle, but with your topline revenue hanging in the balance, it’s well worth it to keep your reps happy and performing!