Warning! Screaming at Your Employees is a Bad Idea. What to Do Instead.

Bill began the sales meeting by screaming at his salespeople. He was obviously angry … red face and spittle flying from his mouth. First, he told the group how lousy they were, how useless they were as a sales team.

Then he started picking on individuals. He got really personal about their failures and embarrassed them in front of their peers. He went as far as threatening to fire them if they didn’t turn sales around immediately.

This was my first exposure to that company’s corporate culture and I was wondering what I’d let myself in for. I was there to begin conducting a sales training program. My initial reaction was, “This gig is over. When the dust settles there won’t be any salespeople left to train.”

Bill, the vice president of sales, stormed out, slamming the door behind him. There was silence for a few seconds. Then one of the salespeople said to me, “Don’t worry about it. He does this all the time. This afternoon he’ll be making the rounds, kissing ass and making up to all of us.”

OK. Let’s put aside Bill’s unacceptable behavior and look at the big picture: 

  • First, the cause of the temper tantrum. As it turned out, sales were terrible. The group was way off quota. They were 30% behind the previous year. They had lost several major customers and their share of market was declining. Not a pretty picture.

Bill’s job was in jeopardy and he was worried. He had just been told by the CEO to turn sales around or look for work. Still, not an excuse for yelling at people or belittling individuals in public.

  • Second, and the real problem, Bill was scared. He was in over his head. He didn’t know what to do so he lashed out and blamed everybody else. Again, not an excuse for acting like a spoiled brat.
  • Finally, we look at the consequences of behaving like a jerk instead of like a professional sales manager:
  • He had lost the respect of his subordinates. They found his behavior unacceptable.
  • He had lost all credibility. First, he publicly humiliated his salespeople and then he apologized. Worse, it had become a pattern, so nobody took his outbursts seriously.
  • He wasn’t doing anything to fix the problem. There was no strategy, no plan. Just ranting and raving … maybe hoping for Devine intervention. Sales continued to languish. 

Screaming and bullying didn’t work. What should Bill have done instead?

He was at his wits end. He managed thirty salespeople and the sales were just not happening. Upper management was putting a lot of pressure on him and his job was in jeopardy. “Each salesperson has an assigned quota and I track the numbers and let them know where they are on a daily basis,” Bill said. “I just don’t understand why they’re not selling more!”

Guess what? Looking at the numbers every day is not going to change them. It’s a little like looking at your checking account balance every hour and hoping that something changed. It won’t increase unless you make a deposit. Sales numbers are no different – Bill was just confirming that his sales team was not selling enough. 

He couldn’t change history. It was frustrating and it’s a mistake that a lot of sales managers make. The rationale seems to be that if they let their people know where they stand versus quota, those people will work harder and sell more. The reality is such action alone is not enough and rarely if ever works.

You can’t manage the numbers any more than your salespeople can. You can, however, manage activities, and you can manage behaviors. Activities are the number of calls that the salesperson makes every day.  Behavior is what the salesperson says and does while interacting with the customer.

So, what could Bill do to turn sales around? Here’s the formula we worked out. A word of caution about this formula: it requires time and effort. There are no quick fixes – there is no magic dust. The sales manager must get involved and he can never stop. There is no screaming. 

He also had to get his butt out of the office and spend more time in the field making sales calls with his people.

  • He had his sales force professionally evaluated and he found out he didn’t have enough of the right people in the right positions. He also discovered what kind of training his people needed to become productive. He also found out that sales management was a big part of the problem. 
  • He set clear expectations in the following three areas: sales goals, activities required, and behaviors required. 

The sales manager must determine how many calls an individual salesperson must make every day to reach the assigned sales goals. This will vary widely from industry to industry and within companies. 

The closing ratio will vary from salesperson to salesperson depending on the territory, experience and skills so don’t get hung up on this metric. The only thing that really matters is the salesperson talks to enough qualified prospects every day. 

There are two primary reasons salespeople fail. The first is that they don’t talk to enough prospects, and the second is that they don’t say or do the right things when they interact with the prospect. 

To ensure your salespeople are saying and doing the right things, you must establish criteria for behavior – a selling system. Teach your people how to use it and require that they follow that system in every call. 

Now I’m not suggesting that you turn them into robots because that won’t work either. They must, however, be able to uncover their customer’s real needs and be able to provide solutions to those needs. They must be able to build rapport quickly and they must be able to establish the ground rules for the sales call. They must be able to deal effectively with money issues. You must help them become skilled in consultative selling.

  • Track their activities and behaviors weekly. Unfortunately, you get what you inspect – not what you expect. Require call reports and use them.
  • Hold each salesperson individually accountable for his activities and behaviors. Accept no excuses for failure to perform the required activities. Use the “three strikes and you’re out” rule. You cannot accept an activity level of six calls a week when you require 24 calls. That would be like having another employee showing up for work one quarter of the time or five days a month.
  • Coach and mentor your salespeople.

Strategize the important calls beforehand and debrief them afterwards. Spend time in the field with each salesperson so that you can see firsthand what their strengths and weaknesses are. Help them grow and do better.

  • Recognize that being a sales manager is a full-time job and it requires every minute of every working day to perform it properly. It is so much more than checking the numbers. It’s about helping your salespeople succeed.

Bill hung in there for another year. During that period, he began to develop a solid sales team. The numbers improved and so did morale.  He then decided he didn’t want to work so hard and he moved on to greener pastures. As far as I know, he never again screamed at his salespeople, never lost his temper in public. 

Take a lesson from Bill’s story. Roll up your sleeves, go to work and help your salespeople succeed. And, never, ever scream at your subordinates or lose your temper in public.

I’m Oliver Connolly and I help sales managers, vice presidents of sales, owners and presidents create a sales team that consistently overachieves. 

Oliver Connolly