In the late 1990’s, I had an ideal job in IT sales. My company innovated great products, and I loved selling them. My income grew. I was having fun every day, and I felt immensely fortunate.
There’s a saying that all good things come to an end, and this idyllic sales job was no exception. My company was bought by a publicly traded conglomerate, and everything changed. Revenue pressure from investors penetrated the sales organization, setting off a vicious spiral of onerous quota increases and declining commission payouts. The treadmill for making goal sped up from a run to a constant all-out sprint, with no room to catch one’s breath.
For a time, the top-heavy sales management hierarchy bobbed along, riding the stock market vicissitudes based on what securities analysts said about the company’s revenue potential. Territory staffing, already bloated before the buyout, remained unchanged. Branch sales managers still reported to district managers who reported to region managers, who reported to the corporate VP of Sales. The company kept the tap open on its generous car allowances and expense accounts. But the writing was on the wall: Sales was an operational boat anchor, a fat, wallowing target in the CFO’s budgeting crosshairs. With a flurry of mouse clicks from his West coast office, he converted rows of SG&A costs into zeroes. Organization, flattened. Not bad, for a few minutes work.
Expectedly, pink slips flew like popcorn from a popper. Overnight, people I’d worked with for years were gone. Jim, the pre-sales technical specialist in Philadelphia, along with Mary and Ashok in the same office. Atlanta and Boston? Same story, different names. Deciding not to stick around, I got busy sending resumes and soon accepted a sales position outside the company.
I remember how disappointed my branch sales manager was when I told him. Sitting in the front passenger seat of my car after we made a sales call together, he confided how he planned to have me on board till the end of the quarter to close what I had in my pipeline. After that, he was going hew to his boss’s demand to chop down his team, leaving one salesperson to cover all of Virginia – who, by the way, wasn’t going to be me.
In deciding to bail, my process was easy. I used a key skill I gained over many years in selling – situational awareness – to assess my situation. And no matter how I sliced it, my situation wasn’t good. I was far from alone.
While I’m not advocating that salespeople abandon their company at the first sign of trouble, every rep should have his or her exit strategy ready to execute. The best time to plan for that moment is when you're riding the crest of a wave. And bone up on your personal situational awareness – it’s an invaluable exercise.
Here are warning lights indicating that it might be Go Time:
- You are underusing your skills. Evidence: you’re bored and don’t feel challenged.
- You are not following your passion. Evidence: you don’t care whether your customers buy. / You are unmotivated to start work each day. / You constantly think about how happier you’d be if you were doing [name of something else], or [name of something else], or [name of something else] . . .
- The work environment is unhealthy. Evidence: you feel chronically stressed, and/or your mental health is deteriorating. / The company’s culture is antithetical to your values and how you like to work.
- There are no opportunities for growth. Evidence: the company is not investing in your personal development, and other than getting fired, there is no career path for you. / You emphatically don’t want your boss’s job.
- Your company’s future looks bleak. Evidence: Relative to your competitors, the company’s innovation pipeline is sparse or horribly slow. / The company’s revenue or industry revenue is steadily declining. / The company is not adding staff, only reducing. / The company’s reputation has taken a beating, and it’s not being addressed.
- Your ethics are being compromised. Evidence: you are asked to do things that don’t comport with your personal values. / The tactics promoted in your sales training sessions make you uncomfortable. / Customers and other stakeholders are suffering harm as a direct consequence of the company's strategy and tactics. / Management ignores – or encourages – unethical behavior at the company.
- You are under-compensated. Evidence: your colleagues in similar territories earn substantially higher income. / Your average earnings are significantly below other salespeople in your industry. / You’re making quota, but haven’t earned the “on target” compensation you were promised when you were hired.
- You are no longer able to fulfill your job responsibilities. Evidence: You feel overwhelmed and hate coming to work. / You repeatedly set deadlines for quitting, and let them lapse.
- You wouldn’t want your friends to work there. Evidence: A position opened up at your company, but you decided not to share it with anyone you love or care about.
- You’re consistently underperforming. Evidence: You’ve been placed on a “Performance Improvement Plan” more than once. / You’re routinely assigned to remedial training not required of on-target producers.
- Your company has an unending pattern of breaking its commitments and promises. You spend too much time dealing with customer complaints about your products and service delivery. / The company repeatedly fails to honor its contracts with employees and customers. / Your manager never gets around to delivering what he or she told you they’ll do.
- Your situation is unfixable. Evidence: Other than compromising your needs and expectations, you see no workarounds for the conditions driving you to quit.
A recent Gallup survey about the Millennial Generation, a group that comprises a large chunk of today’s sales professionals, found that only half strongly agree that they plan to be working at their company one year from now. This compares to 60% of non-Millennials. Extrapolating that finding to the sales force, I see copious employee churn on the horizon. Great news if you’re a sales recruiter, but a trend that has Chief Sales Officers chugging Maalox.
Salespeople seeking a new position should understand their risks. Some of my former colleagues bolted from a selling situation they loathed, only to discover their new position was infected with the same problems. Therefore, before you bail from an untenable job situation, make sure you’re heading to one that’s truly better. Or, at least, portends to be. And, while you’re at it, keep the bridges behind you intact.