How to fire my top salesman
May 31, 2016 11:58 AM   Subscribe

I've got a salesman who has been with me for a long time. I can't stand him. He's disruptive, grandstanding, and has an ego that is unbelievable. He has every other employee in my company pissed off at him at all times due to his insults and personal jabs. He's let his sales numbers go to his head.

Unfortunately, he's my top performer. Ideally, I'd like to talk to his accounts ahead of time, explain what is about to happen, and confirm that they'll stay with us if I go through with getting rid of him. I think most of them would stay. We're a small manufacturing company and I work with the accounts as much or more than the salesman -- he's just the one who brought them in.

He is not an employee and he is strictly 1099. But he's a loose cannon, and I feel like if I get rid of him he will go to my customers and bad-mouth or worse.

I'm looking for general advice from anyone who may have been in this position. I want to retain as much of our accounts as possible. I did a lot of googling, but most info pertains to underperforming people. Thanks!

(I think I've included enough info, but if you want more, please ask!)
posted by PSB to Work & Money (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do you want him to stop the behavior or do you just want him gone at this point? Unfortunately I think you're probably right that if you fire him, you will have some fallout if that's the kind of guy he is.
posted by corb at 12:01 PM on May 31, 2016

To clarify: I want him gone. He's too disruptive and he hasn't changed in 7 years despite numerous blowouts. He's a loose cannon.
posted by PSB at 12:03 PM on May 31, 2016

Did he sign a noncompete agreement when you brought him on? I.e. does he have any disincentive to try to take business with him?

(edit - agree this is worth talking to an employment lawyer about. A lot can go wrong; and a lawyer will know if there's anything you can do in your separation to protect you.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:09 PM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

He's not an employee and has no non-compete.
posted by PSB at 12:11 PM on May 31, 2016

While you can't tell the clients before you tell the employee/contractor the reason, you should set up phone or in-person meetings for the few days after you make it official. You need to be the first one to tell the story of why to your clients. You also need to come prepared to that meeting ready to explain the plan for managing their account - how you'll handle requests, questions, and concerns. And depending on the relationship with the client you can also get out in front of any possible badmouthing, by saying that if they ever have any concerns or questions you're always happy to answer any questions. You value transparency and honesty with your clients.

Don't badmouth the former contractor to anyone, simply provide vague answers to questions about why he's gone with a, "while we value the contributions he's made over the past 7 years, we ultimately felt that this was not a great fit. We wish him lots of luck in his next opportunity and know he can do well."
posted by brookeb at 12:12 PM on May 31, 2016 [28 favorites]

If you tell his clients ahead of time I can almost guarantee that he will know ahead of time. You might get lucky and they might all keep their mouths shut but I would NOT assume that.

1. I would work out my script to use to call his clients as well as an email version. Something non-committal that also indicates who they should contact from now on and how smoothly this transition will go. In fact, you already have this new contact reaching out to set up status meetings with each client.

2. Fire the dude.

3. Ensure he does not have access to his company email or company phone

4. Immediately call / email all clients with your script from #1.

5. Work with a lawyer to set up non-competes with your salespeople.
posted by magnetsphere at 12:12 PM on May 31, 2016 [19 favorites]

If he's going to badmouth you to "his" clients, then he's going to do it regardless of how soft you try to make that landing (and pretty much regardless of whether you have a noncompete or other agreement). If I were one of those clients, I wouldn't want you to talk to me about this ahead of time. If you're providing me a good service, I would expect a personal email from you, sent immediately after you let Salesman go, saying something like:
Etrigan --
Just wanted to let you know that [some other person] will be handling your account from here on. I'd like to talk to you personally about it -- is [time, on same day] good for you?
-- You
Your Company, Inc.
And in the phone call, just say "We've decided to let Salesman go, and [some other person] will be handling your account. He's here on speakerphone with me. Do you have any concerns?" Don't get into the why of it.

But talk to a lawyer, because there's a good chance he will, and having your ducks in order is never a bad idea, if only for your own peace of mind.
posted by Etrigan at 12:13 PM on May 31, 2016 [14 favorites]

I'd fire him asap. If he's 1099 he's a contractor, and unless you have a contract with him, you can decide you don't need his services anymore.

Deactivate his email, cell phone, etc first.

Then put together a phone bank and make contact with his current customers as quickly as possible. Do a blast email to contacts. Your CRM can help with this.

Will he make a fuss and badmouth you? Maybe. But if you're done, you're done. You tried to address it and he didn't fix the problem. This won't come as a surprise to him. No one eats shit forever.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:13 PM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

All I can say is that my grandfather used to tell me, "When an employee thinks he is not replaceable, replace him." I think you are correct in getting rid of a cancer even if he is profitable.

I think it appropriate to set up a meeting with all the accounts under the guise of just wanting to touch base to see if we are performing up to standards and mention that whomever is the sales rep on the account, the company appreciates their business. I would do it with some of your other sales people accounts so as not to look like you are singling him out.

Be prepared to cut him off from all access such as email, cell phones, etc. I would remotely wipe his cell phone if it is a company paid for one.
posted by AugustWest at 12:14 PM on May 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you talked to me about it first, before you talked to him, it would actually make me more likely to take his side of it. "Oh yeah, they're dysfunctional there at $company, everybody goes around behind each others' backs, making their problems everybody else's, etc. etc."
posted by Polycarp at 12:18 PM on May 31, 2016 [9 favorites]

1) Contact an employment lawyer stat

2) A place I used to work, we just used the CRM (as noted above) to generate a list of all the person's contacts, and they were contacted while the person was in the meeting with HR. I wasn't privy to the exact details of how the conversations with accounts were handled.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:18 PM on May 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've been around when this has been done several times, and it seems like the important thing is to prepare a customer communication (probably email, but you may want to plan to call your Top 5 customers personally) that is entirely positive and above reproach, and send it out while the guy is packing up his desk (supervised, obviously). Don't say anything except that guy isn't representing the company anymore, and then talk about all the things you are available to help them with, plus all your contact details. This is a good time to re-include your elevator pitch for the company's services, in case the recipient is someone entirely different from the original point of contact at the customer.

There's only so much you can do about what he does. The time to handle noncompete, nondisclosure and all that was when you hired him, but talk to a lawyer if you want the exact details on what you can do and what your rights are.

You may lose a customer or two. I don't think most people especially like salespeople when they don't need something from them, but he'll have one or two golf buddies or whatever. Sometimes the upheaval of making the announcement will remind someone they've been meaning to go elsewhere, that happens too. All you can do is be quick on the draw so you don't leave anyone confused if he tells them something weird like "they're going out of business" or whatever. Make it friendly-sounding, let them know you'll be touching base personally as their account manager in the next few weeks, but in the meantime, if you have any questions or need to talk about new stuff, give me a call.

Just don't wait. Strike as quickly as possible so he's not the first person anyone hears it from.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:19 PM on May 31, 2016 [13 favorites]

And actually, as I reread my answer, I'd say invert the order of the information delivered:

First, hello I'm your account manager, if we hadn't met before, and wanted to make sure you have my contact information.

We're looking forward to a great summer at Acme, Inc, and we're here for you any time you have questions or new requirements or need a new widget. Don't forget that Acme Inc is your one-stop-shop for the shiniest widgets in town.

And if you'd been communicating with the company through Joe Salesdude in the past, you can come to me now, I'll be happy to help you out.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:22 PM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

You also could take the long route and starve him out.
You could reassign all of his clients and tell him you want his expertise for brand new client development. Stack the deck so his book will dwindle. He's 1099 so there's nothing he can really do.
Set up the transfer of his clients so he actually agrees with it, maybe by "promoting" him to Executive Director of New Business (Doomed Division).
Months later he'll be looking for a new job when he can't meet the goal of the new job and he's not making any money.

It's not very pleasant but I've seen this play out a few different times, often with people that the company was trying to quarantine away from the core of the business. You'll end up with double your business or you'll get your wish and he'll leave.
posted by littlewater at 12:33 PM on May 31, 2016 [18 favorites]

Just to lend some of what I've learned from my business coach on personality psychology: This person is likely a risk-taker. It's probably a good idea not to beat around the bush--consider delivering the bad news very directly, a la Moneyball. Otherwise the chances of getting dragged right into a vortex are high because this type of person typically sees anything but immediate feedback as an opportunity to catastrophize.

Of course: The other advice here is really good. Employment lawyer, great. Etc.
posted by circular at 12:33 PM on May 31, 2016 [4 favorites]

Nthing the call to discuss this with an employment lawyer. A couple hours spent discussing it with one may save a lot of grief on the back end. Don't try to starve him out. Don't assume there's nothing he can do because he's 1099. Don't assume you can't tell your clients. Just..... don't assume and don't ask metafilter. Ask a lawyer.
posted by dpx.mfx at 12:54 PM on May 31, 2016 [5 favorites]

Months later he'll be looking for a new job when he can't meet the goal of the new job and he's not making any money.

That new job is he is going to be looking for will likely include stealing all those clients you just reassigned away from him.
posted by sideshow at 1:10 PM on May 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

One anecdote: saw a company fire a salesperson that had been with them from incorporation. This was 8 years later when said person was fired. The response from the clients was surprising. Pretty much everyone was OK with it, and a few even said something along the lines of "it's about time."

The employment lawyer consult is a good idea. I would say, though, once your ducks are in a row, don't drag it out.
posted by azpenguin at 1:26 PM on May 31, 2016 [4 favorites]

He's disruptive, grandstanding, and has an ego that is unbelievable.

Nthing you need to work this out with a lawyer, period, because this is the kind of person who will sue you because ego and he's got nothing to lose.

So cover your butt and don't do anything without getting a lawyer's advice on protecting yourself.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 1:28 PM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Firing your top producer is INSANE. He brought in his accounts, and he will take them away with him when he leaves, and probably other salesmen's accounts just to show you who is the top dog.

Here's what I would say: "Joe, another awesome year. You are great on the road and on the phone. I want to give you this big new territory X. So you can still see your kids why don't you set up a home office (and here's $5k to furnish and equip it) and to handle the workload why don't you hire an assistant for yourself and she can get your tickets in and handle all the nonsense back here."

From that point forward, he's neither seen nor heard by anybody in the office / plant ever again and he's gloriously happy about it.
posted by MattD at 1:31 PM on May 31, 2016 [15 favorites]

Yes, employment lawyer. I don't know if he uses a company phone or a private phone (as a 1099, I imagine it's his own tech), but you'll want to talk to your IT people. Have your IT department ready to cut off access to all tech, corporate card if applicable, and email while you're giving him the "we're letting you go" speech.

I've fired someone before and it's no fun, even when you know it's absolutely the right decision, so I feel for you. Be brief and straight to the point so there can be no misunderstanding. Dragging it out won't do anyone any good. Have any termination paperwork at hand and a few empty boxes nearby.

If at all possible, while you're doing the deed, have your Number Two gather your other employees away from the terminated employee's desk and let them know so-and-so will no longer be working for the company as of now, that you wish him the best, and explain the transition plan. It's not ideal if the first they learn of it is watching him box his things up (which is also very awkward, even if he isn't liked), but if there isn't a second in command, then I would schedule a staff meeting as close to the termination meeting as possible to deliver the news. (Ensuring of course that the terminated employee is supervised while boxing things up and escorted out.)
posted by smirkette at 1:40 PM on May 31, 2016

Maybe you can give him a healthy severance based on his signing a non-compete/ non-disclosure agreement?

Have you actually talked to him about his attitude before? It might be good to have documentation in case he tries to pretend he was fired without cause.
posted by serenity_now at 1:59 PM on May 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Nthing the advice to have your ducks in a row regarding client communications before he is terminated. You want to be reaching out to people while he is being fired, not after. Make it a positive thing ("We're so happy to tell you X, and looking forward to Y this year. By the way, please bring any questions/concerns about your account or about sales to me.") not a negative thing ("Mr. McSalesface doesn't work here anymore, but you can contact me with questions/concerns.").

I'm with serenity_now, above - a severance package may help him resist the urge to bad mouth.

Here's what I would say: "Joe, another awesome year. You are great on the road and on the phone. I want to give you this big new territory X. So you can still see your kids why don't you set up a home office (and here's $5k to furnish and equip it) and to handle the workload why don't you hire an assistant for yourself and she can get your tickets in and handle all the nonsense back here." (emphasis added)

Ugh. If you do this, please resist the urge to preemptively assume that this assistant will be female. It's 2016.

posted by schroedingersgirl at 2:06 PM on May 31, 2016 [24 favorites]

I am a sales guy, and although never fired as top dog, I did endure a pay cut because I was selling too much and thus making too much. I left a few months later.

How much business you will lose will depend in part on the nature of what you do. If you sell a commodity and it truly doesn't matter where it's sourced, expect to lose a lot because the customers are buying from him, not you. If you have more value add than that this may not hurt that much, as the clients may see the value in what you do, not the sales guy.

If he is clueless that this is coming it might not hurt to ask him to set up meeting with the top 5, or whatever, under the guise that you need to get out of the office and spend more time with clients. Then you have a little more personal connection to save the accounts after you sack him. This assumes you don't already have that personal connection to the top accounts.
posted by COD at 2:08 PM on May 31, 2016

I like the alternate strategy of sandboxing him, even if it comes with a frank discussion of "Joe, you're a great salesman but you're also a bleeding anus so kindly stay the fuck out of the office and continue to bring in at least $X/month".

But DO NOT put yourself in the position of hiring his assistant— he will burn through them and it will be your fault and your responsibility to staff. Create a staffing allowance for the position and a contact at a temp agency.
posted by a halcyon day at 3:28 PM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Good for you for firing him. One of the most toxic mistakes I ever made as a manager was failing to fire someone who was not in line with the values of the company just because he was a top producer. I learned the hard way that you get rid of the people who are values low/ performance high *first*-- even before the non-performers-- because they are often really good at poisoning the well for everyone.

As noted above, you and your HR team need to talk to a lawyer about your exposure-- I assume you are legally sound in treating them as a contractor, but it is worth the time to check. You may also consider cutting him a package even though he is not an employee in return for signing some kind of agreement to walk away from your clients. It may be your cheapest and easiest option in the long run versus having him take some key customers with him.

(And if you don't already have this, you need the lawyer to review the agreements you make with your contractors to address client relationships going forward. Have you considered hiring salespeople as employees? I'm largely a customer in this current role and I'm always a little bit mystified when vendors have people with no company loyalty as my main contact point-- I can tell the difference clearly in most cases when it comes to behavior.)
posted by frumiousb at 3:43 PM on May 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

I am a senior manager type who in a former life managed salespeople (and was one myself).

Talk to an employment lawyer. I really don't think there are many risks here as long as you don't do anything stupid (esp. since he's 1099), but it couldn't hurt.

Clean break, with severance pay. I've done the "bring in another rep and work around them" when forced to by a company owner who was slow to act; it's not so bad when the rep is simply not selling, but in this case he'll figure it out and you'll be financing his time to plot and plan.

Friday afternoon is always good for a firing, but in this case particularly, it needs to be a 5 o'clock, sudden strike. (as others have said, maybe you're calling him in at 4 pm and having someone call the top 5 customers at the same time). This way he can cool down over the weekend and can't easily contact the customers (yes, he could probably email some, but it will complicate things for him.).

If he's difficult to you, your customers will not object to his departure, by and large. Most customers, even when they like a rep, will stay with the company, not gamble on whatever new line/company the rep comes up with. You will have put him on the back foot by taking the high road. For him to come to your customers with a competitor's product will require him to come in and say "I used to sell brand X (and sell against brand Y); now I'm here to talk about brand Y..." You may lose a few; odds are they will be ones you won't mind losing.

I'm a big fan of the No Asshole Rule, so stick to your guns and follow it. You will energize your company (and probably some customers) in the process.
posted by randomkeystrike at 4:30 PM on May 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

(in sales here)

It is generally not a good idea to eliminate a top-producing sales rep unless he or she becomes a massive liability. Even if there were no relationship problems on his departure, it will cost you time and money to replace him.

You don't say if this guy is a new-business hunter or standard account-manager. You said he brought the accounts in, but not whether he's bringing in new accounts. This distinction is important. Hunters are harder to find than farmers.

One way to manage sales people is to create the comp plan that gets you the behavior you want. So, if he's a better new-business guy, arrange his comp plan that way. If you want to make relationship management a part of his comp plan (customer satisfaction scores - filled out by other employees, because they are customers too) you have a way to modify his behavior. Does your culture allow that? Should it?

Good, smart sales people are malleable toddlers, and will modify behavior if the comp plan is worth it. If it's not, they move on, on their own.

You can ditch the guy if you want. But he may have value if you re-focus his skills and keep him away from the people managing accounts on a day-to-day basis. It's a way to creatively get what you want, because sales people are specifically and willingly manipulated. It's part of the game.
posted by Thistledown at 5:40 PM on May 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

Bring in a full time salesperson with a non-compete contract and start putting him on the guy's accounts, phasing the guy out. If the guy comes to you about it, explain to him that he is a great salesperson and you will give him a shining recommendation but, he has upset too many of the other employees to keep on. Don't get personal. Tell him you wish him the best but you don't feel he is the best fit for you.
posted by myselfasme at 9:15 AM on June 1, 2016

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