It’s a familiar scenario…A salesperson’s first year in a new job is filled with challenges; learning the products or services, navigating the internal company waters, establishing relationships, filling the funnel. Year two for the successful seller, is about seeing the fruits of those labors start to pay off. It’s exciting and unpredictable. Year three and the salesperson has really hit his or her stride. A solid book of business is established, the salesperson is seen as a leader on the sales team, ah… life is good. Or, is it? Research shows that for many top performing salespeople, this can be the point where they contract “Plateauing Syndrome” which can lead to that silent revenue killer…turnover. Like many diseases, the key to dealing with it is to spot it early and treat it before it becomes pervasive.
Luckily, there has actually been research done on this phenomenon that can help sales managers understand it, see the warning signals, and effectively deal with it before it derails a valued salesperson on your team.
What Causes Plateauing Syndrome? Two research studies* that addressed this issue, one done back in 1989 by the trade publication, Sales And Marketing Management and the other done more recently in 2007 in the Journal Of Selling And Major Account Management, remarkably found almost identical reasons for why top performing salespeople are susceptible to plateauing. They also found that when this plateau effect happens, it usually leads to the salesperson quitting for another job opportunity so it’s critical for managers to address. Here are the top reasons found for why a salesperson can plateau:
Boredom. The salesperson feels she’s done the job so well that there is no challenge left in it. It has become routine and she feels she has stopped learning and growing her skills.
Inadequate Management. This encompasses many areas that fall under a manager’s control. The salesperson may feel overlooked by a manager, feel a lack of support from the manager or that he is unappreciated, or that he is not being treated fairly by management. Remember, this may or may not be the case but if you are a sales manager, their perception is your reality.
Burnout. After several years of going full speed all the time, the salesperson is physically or emotionally (or both) exhausted. She may have neglected other parts of her life and now that work is going smoothly, everything else seems anti-climactic.
Economic Complacency. While salespeople are motivated by money, even top performing salespeople can have a point at which they become complacent and need external motivation beyond money to get them motivated to achieve more.
What Are The Warning Signs? The research studies found that there are some advance, cautionary signals that a sales manager can be aware of that indicate the salesperson may be in the initial stages of the Plateauing Syndrome.
Client relationships suffer. This can manifest itself as not establishing rapport with new clients the way the salesperson has in the past, not identifying client needs and responding appropriately, or not following through on commitments.
Detachment. The salesperson seems more distant and detached from co-workers or clients, or both.
Prospecting dwindles. Prospecting activity is no longer proactive and is ineffective.
Resistant to management. The salesperson seems indifferent to a manager’s input, or even insubordinate.
Resistant to new things. When the Plateauing Syndrome is taking hold, a salesperson begins to go into an “auto pilot” stage where she isn’t interested in doing things differently or selling new ideas. (And yet, this is precisely what can snap a person out of a plateau as we’ll see below.)
Works patterns change. If the salesperson suddenly begins working fewer hours, coming in late, is late for meetings, or is taking a lot of sick days this can be a warning signal. Sometimes reducing work hours is the right response to being burned out or feeling overly stressed. The important thing is for the manager to be aware of the reasons why this is the case and discuss it with the salesperson.
How To Prevent Plateauing Syndrome. Interestingly, the research study in the Journal Of Selling And Major Account Management went straight to the source and asked top performers who were in the midst of a plateau, what they felt would be the best way to remedy this situation. Here are their top responses:
Provide opportunities. Because a leading cause of Plateauing Syndrome is when a salesperson feels he is at a dead end in terms of career growth, identifying a career growth plan is critical. A career plan does not necessarily mean a promotion to management. It means a plan that shows how the salesperson can continue to grow his skills, knowledge/expertise, and income.
Avoid excessive job demands. If the plateauing is being caused by burn-out, reducing the amount of job pressure the salesperson feels can reinvigorate her. Many times top performing salespeople going through this think that their managers don’t really understand all of the effort they have put into growing their business and that, “Nothing I do is ever enough.” Make sure your expectations and job demands are fair and in-line with the salesperson’s talents and skills.
Re-design the job to fit the salesperson. If the salesperson is particularly strong in certain areas, try to match those strengths to the tasks you are asking the person to do. Working on things where you are using your natural talents is the most energizing and rewarding work someone will do.
Monetary incentives for superior performance. Obviously if the plateauing is caused by a person feeling complacent because he has met his economic goals, this remedy isn’t the right one. However, plateauing salespeople listed this as a top remedy because many don’t want a ceiling or cap on their income. Set monetary incentives that stretch the salesperson but are reasonable. Unattainable monetary incentives are as bad as not having any incentives, which means they are incredibly de-motivating!
Individualized perks. Look for creative ways to reward the salesperson. Find out what are their interests, personal motivators, what is important to them, and create unique prizes that are developed around those. Or, it might not be a prize at all. It might be putting them in charge of an important project or coaching new salespeople. Find out what their hot buttons are. Not only can it get them out of their funk but it shows you care about them individually and took the time to do so.
Discuss the issue and offer solutions. When you see a top performer heading into the Plateauing Syndrome, address it head on and get it out on the table. Find out the salesperson’s take on why it might be happening (probably one of the reasons listed in the first section above) and brainstorm ideas for solving it. Many times identifying the problem and giving a name to it lets the salesperson know it’s ok to admit it and talk about it.
More competent sales managers. If salespeople are plateauing because they feel their manager isn’t able to address their particular needs, that’s a big problem. Managers (and their upper management bosses) have to be able to assess if they are providing the motivation, coaching, and resources needed for the salesperson to perform.
Because Plateauing Syndrome has been found to correlate closely to salesperson turnover it’s important to watch for it and address it quickly. Or, as Benjamin Franklin wisely put it,
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
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*Sources: Sales And Marketing Management study by William Keenan Jr., 1989, the Journal Of Selling And Major Account Management study by Robin T. Peterson & Minjoon Jun, 2007
Salesperson Plateauing Syndrome Infographic: