THE NAGGING PROBLEM OF THE PLATEAUED SALESPERSON
Our latest survey shows that you needn't give up in despair.
By William Keenan Jr.,
Sales & Marketing Management
Just mention the problem of plateauing to anyone in sales
management and you'll get a nod of recognition. It's a problem
that's been around for a long time, and one that continues to plague
sales managers. It has to do with people who have reached a point in
growth as sales professionals where they've stopped developing, stopped
improving, perhaps even stopped showing an interest. They're
just going through the motions.
And it's not just an isolated phenomenon: As many as 15% of
the people on a typical sales force may be out making calls on that
plateau, and that percentage goes much higher for some companies.
What causes the problem? Who is most prone to plateauing?
What are the early warning signals, and what can be done about it?
We put these and other questions to a random sampling of
S&MM subscribers and came up with some responses that you should be
able to use in dealing with the problem of the plateaued sales
professional in your organization.
In particular, the results tell us:
-Inadequate or ineffective management is a leading cause of
the plateauing phenomenon.
-There are clearly observable warning signals that sales
managers can spot in advance.
-You can get salespeople off the plateau and back on an
The Plateauing Picture
Virtually everyone is affected by the plateauing phenomenon.
Only 7 of over 200 responses to our survey indicate that plateauing is
not a problem for their organization. Of course, the degree of
severity ranges widely from company to company. While nearly 20%
of our survey respondents say only 1% to 5% of their sales forces
had hit a plateau, almost the same number estimate the group to be in the
20% to 25% range, and 11% say that it exceeded 25%. Some of our
respondents say that plateauing is a problem with as much as 40%
to 50% of their sales forces. Plateauing also seems to be more of a problem
with very large and very small sales forces. For companies with 11 to 100
salespeople,the median rate of plateauing falls in the 11%-15% range; for
companies with fewer than 10 salespeople and those with more than
100, the median falls in the 16%-20% range.
Compensation plans also seem to have an effect on the degree
of plateauing that occurs in a sales force, with the highest median
levels of plateauing occurring at companies with compensation
plans that pay commission only (16%) or that pay a salary, bonus, and
commission mix (17.5%). The reasons for the higher rate of plateauing at
these firms is somewhat unclear, but Robert Whyte of Porter
Henry & Co. Inc., a sales training firm, suggests that companies that
base compensation primarily on commissions more often find that their
people reach an earnings "comfort level" that leads to plateauing.
Our survey findings bear this out somewhat. Companies with
commission only or salary plus commission compensation plans also put
"economic needs currently met" near the top of their ranking of the causes
of plateauing (though this is not the case for companies that offer
a salary, commission, and bonus mix).
The type of products or services sold and the markets to
which they're sold seem to have little effect on the degree of plateauing.
The medians for virtually all of the markets we touch on -
consumers, manufacturers, offices, and retailers - fall in the 11%-15%
range. The lone exception is for those selling to wholesalers - their
median is in the 16%-20% range.
What Causes Plateauing?
According to our survey, the leading cause of plateauing is
the lack of a clear career path - in effect, managers say, the
phenomenon occurs when salespeople see their career growth coming to a dead
One reader, a director of sales for a company that provides
hospital systems and services, likens the plateauing phenomenon
to a "lifestage," a period during which individuals "feel trapped,
with no way to progress. They do not accept where they are but are
unable to see a path out." Another reader cites the "sameness, the lack of
stimulation and challenge" in some sales situations. He adds
that "too few 'wins' over an extended period of time can leave a
salesperson with "too much time for nonproductive
Running a close second is the notion that the plateauing phenomenon
is a result of inadequate management. Many sales and
marketing managers, in effect, are willing to lay the
responsibility at their own feet. "Plateauing and burnout, in most
cases, are euphemisms for bad management," says the marketing manager for a
company that sells capital equipment. Another says, "My job as
manager is to establish an environment in which my salespeople
are self-motivating and self-energizing; then I get out of their
Finishing third and fourth in the overall ranking of causes
are boredom and burnout. The fact that economic needs are currently
being met finished a middle-of-the-pack fifth.
However, perceptions of what causes plateauing change
somewhat as we shift perspectives. In companies that pay their
salespeople strictly by commissions, for instance, inadequate management
narrowly edges out burnout as the chief cause. And at companies that pay
salary, commissions and bonuses, burnout is the number one cause
by a significant margin. Boredom, on the other hand, is given as the
most significant cause of plateauing at companies with more than 100
people on their sales forces.
Another factor may be the number of sales managers the
typical plateaued salesperson has worked under. "It hasn't gotten a lot
of attention," Whyte of Porter Henry says, "but in my experience,
the plateaued salesperson has been through four or five sales
managers, and somewhere along the line has just been written off."
The Warning Signals
Can you see it coming? Are there signals during the early
stages of plateauing that give managers adequate warning and sufficient
time to head off the result?
Our readers suggest that you can see it coming and are
virtually unanimous in their belief that the number one warning signal is
that the salesperson doesn't prospect hard enough. This holds true
regardless of the market salespeople are selling to, whether
they're selling a product or service, whether their sales forces are
predominately men or women, and regardless of the size of their
company or their sales force.
Plateauing's Early Warning Signals
Row 1-Signals Overall
Row 2-Mostly Men
Row 3-Mostly Women
Row 4-Sell Product
Row 5-Sell Service
The numbers in each column indicate how early warning
signals were ranked by S&MM survey respondents overall and by
several subgroups. (By "mostly men" or "mostly women" we mean
sales forces comprised of at least 60% men or 60% women.)
Doesn't prospect hard enough
Doesn't follow through
Works fewer hours
Lives in the "good old days"
Doesn't keep up with new
Gets more customer complaints
Sick and absent more often
That's followed by a failure to follow through; a tendency
to work fewer hours; and resistance to management. All of these are
clearly observable symptoms and suggest that if a salesperson
does go into a plateauing mode, it's not because he or she hasn't
provided any advance notice or warning. In addition, it lends support to
those who are willing to lay the blame for plateauing on a failure to
The subsequent rankings vary to a slight degree, as you can
see in Table 1 (see above). For companies with more than 100 sales
employees, "living in the good old days" is the third leading
cause and "resistance to management" falls to seventh. For sales
forces comprised primarily of women, "living in the good old days" ranks
near the bottom - probably because for most women in sales there were
few, if any, "good old days" to remember.
The Causes of Plateauing
Row 1- Causes Overall
Row 2- Mostly Men
Row 3- Mostly Women
Row 4- Salary Only
Row 5- Salary + Bonus
Row 6- Salary + Comm.
Row 7- Salary, Comm., Bonus
Row 8- Commission Only
The numbers in each column indicate how causes of plateauing
were ranked by S&MM survey respondents overall and by several subgroups.
(By "mostly men" or "mostly women" we mean sales forces comprised of
at least 60% men or 60% women.)
No clear career path
Not managed adequately
Economic needs met
Discouraged with company
Overlooked for promotion
Lack of ability
Avoiding risk of
Reluctance to be
The Gender Trap
The generic portrait of the plateaued salesperson, according
to the results of our survey, would be a male between the ages of 40
and 45. But that's not to say that women are not affected, too.
Only a relative handful of our survey respondents (7%) feel
that women are more susceptible than men to the plateauing phenomenon.
The majority - about 60% - say there is no difference or have no
opinion either way. Another 33% say that they believe men are more
susceptible - but many indicate in their comments that their
sales forces are made up predominantly of men, and this, of course, may
color their thinking.
Many of those who see men as being more susceptible to the
phenomenon argue, as does one sales manager whose people sell
industrial equipment repair services, that "men are under more
pressure to succeed in business before they are forty," and that
men are under the "new pressure" of competing with women in sales. A
few men suggest that married women, in particular, could avoid the
plateauing trap by moving around. An advertising sales
executive, for instance, suggests that "women can take greater risks
such as job-hopping if they're married and their spouse is working."
Interestingly, some female respondents also feel that men
more often fall victim to plateauing - with similar and no less
cynical reasoning. A woman working as a regional sales manager for a
long-distance services company, for instance, says that men are
more susceptible because "most men have an ego problem and think there
is nothing new to be learned." Another attributes plateauing to the
"peddler mentality" that she sees as common among men.
The truth, however, is that plateauing occurs somewhat more
frequently at companies in which women make up the greater part
of the sales forces. Responses from readers at whose companies women
make up 60% or more of the sales forces indicate that plateauing affects
a median rate of nearly 16% of their work forces, as opposed to a
median of about 14% where the sales forces are comprised mostly of men.
However, that difference may be more a function of a
still-pervasive discrimination against women in sales in some
industries than it is of gender. The sales forces in which women
predominate are significantly smaller (averaging 24 salespeople, compared
to 111 at organizations where men predominate) and are probably dealing
with higher-volume, lower-ticket goods and services. The average
sales volume per person at companies dominated by women in sales is
$410,600 - compared to more than $2 million where men predominate.
Turnover rates are higher for companies with a higher percentage of women
(19.7% vs. 11.6%), length of service is shorter (4.2 years vs.
6.9 years), and burnout is seen to be the leading cause of plateauing.
All of which suggest a pressure-cooker sales situation that would
its toll on men and women alike.
In fact, the plateauing phenomenon may take its toll sooner
on women than on men. The average age at which plateauing takes
effect for women is in the 30-35 age bracket, compared with the 40-45
bracket for men. Of course, this might be explained by the fact that the
average age of women in sales as a group is less than that of
Off The Plateau
What can you do when a salesperson hits a plateau? Two
strategies for dealing with the problem come out at the top of
the list in our survey. The first is to give the salesperson a new
assignment; the second (closely related, when you look at some of
the assignments suggested) is to assign the plateaued salesperson to
some kind of leadership role.
And while at first glance it might seem off to offer a
leadership role - in effect a reward - to someone who has plateaued, in
reality it's not. One of the things that makes plateauing such a major
problem is that it's usually not the lackluster salesperson who
suffers from it. The solution would be simple if we were talking
about poor producers - they'd be out the door. What complicates
things is that "these people are generally great salespeople," as
one of our respondents, a sales manager for a textile products
company, says. They've performed well in the past, have a wealth of
experience, and still have a lot to offer their companies.
Termination, in fact is the last thing the typical sales manager
would consider, according to the survey results.
The types of alternative assignments often given to plateaued
salespeople also suggest a recognition of their continuing value.
In particular, this is true of the two that lead the list in a
literal tie: to use plateaued salespeople to coach other sales
representatives and to gather competitive intelligence.
Getting plateaued salespeople - in particular, the senior
salespeople - involved in coaching and training "lets them feel
they are making a contribution to the success and future of the
company," says the vice president of sales for an industrial equipment
repair company. "It's a stroke for them to develop proteges," says
another, the director of a health club chain. And "as they coach other
sales reps," says the vice president of a security systems company,
"they see many of their own mistakes." The executive director of a
company that supplies industrial medical services agrees: "Training
others helps salespeople redefine their own jobs and expectations."
Using plateaued salespeople to collect competitive
intelligence is also a highly rated alternative assignment. "This gives the
salesperson a more involved outlook," says the planning manager
for an industrial fasteners manufacturer. "They feel more useful
because we're asking them to provide input and opinion." The assistant
marketing manager for a medical services company suggests that
"their background experience in the industry gives plateaued salespeople
a powerful perspective from which to monitor competitors and
contribute their knowledge." In addition, says another respondent, market
research and competitive intelligence tasks "without coming right
out and saying so, actually aid in expanding a salesperson's product
Shifting accounts, while not always possible, is another
popular response to the problem among our readers. In fact, shifting
accounts is the number one strategy for companies with salary only or
salary plus commission compensation plans.
"It works because it requires starting over," says the
director of sales operations for an information services company, "and
newness helps if the salesperson is in a rut with existing accounts."
The general manager of a radio station in the Southeast suggests that
"giving a salesperson the opportunity to work on a particularly
challenging account achieves a twofold goal: The account is
handled by a competent salesperson, and the salesperson is motivated by
the difficult challenge." Shifting accounts also "forces the senior
sales rep to 'relive' his or her novice sales experience to a limited
What many of the respondents seem to be saying is that it's
really a matter of remotivating and reenergizing the plateaued salesperson,
whatever strategy you choose. Plateauing, in other
words, is a management problem demanding management action.
"Somehow he or she must be convinced that the company
appreciates past performance and needs it to be continued," says the regional
sales manager for a business forms producer. "You have to help
the salesperson develop an action plan for self-development through
status checks and feedback sessions," says the field sales manager for a
company that provides medical products. "Make the salesperson
aware of his or her specific problems and offer possible solutions,"
says the sales manager of a company that produces computer printer
ribbons. "You have to listen and observe to keep the person motivated to
put forth quality effort," says another reader, the sales manager for
an industrial equipment company. Or, as one sales manager tells us:
"Good management stays in touch and senses the plateauing problem
early -before it becomes entrenched and unsolvable. The fact
that management cares and acts to help is, in fact, half the
Get the message?
Plateaus Past & Present
The format of our S&MM survey is modeled after a similar
survey conducted in 1984 by Porter Henry & Co. Inc. And a comparison of
the results from the two surveys offer some interesting insights.
In the 1984 survey, for instance, the leading cause for plateauing
was seen to be that the economic needs of the salesperson were already met.
That is, salespeople were thought to plateau because they had grown
comfortable with their current level of earnings and saw no need to work
harder. That perception falls away in our present survey, and managers
are much more likely to see plateauing as their problem - a result of
ineffective management or motivation.
In many other respects, the plateauing problem has changed
very little. The most common victim was seen then, as now, to be a
male in the 40-45 age bracket. The extent of the problem - the
percentage of the sales force affected - was put then, as now, at about 15%.
And the most common strategies for dealing with the problem were
then, as now, to give the plateaued salesperson a new assignment or
Interestingly, in 1984 sales managers saw a somewhat
different set of early warning signals to the plateauing phenomenon. While
in our recent survey, a failure to prospect and a failure to follow
through were seen as symptoms, respondents to the Porter Henry
survey saw incomplete or superficial paperwork and reports as leading
symptoms, followed by long lunches, frequent absences, and late
starts as the early warning signs. The change, however, may simply
reflect management's closer attention to plateauing and current
management's having more reliable means of tracking a salesperson's
efforts at prospecting and follow-through.
In general, though, the conclusions drawn from the Porter
Henry survey agree with our own, and the advice it offers is certainly
still valid: "Learn to look for the symptoms and warning signs that are
often the plateaued rep's cry for help. Once you and the sales
rep both recognize the problem, you can work together to develop a
plan of action that will give you a rep who is motivated and productive."
What can you do to deal with the problem of the plateaued salesperson?
Here are some approaches offered by some of the respondents to our survey:
"Confront the problem as soon as there is evidence of it.
Talk about what plateauing is about and strategies to avoid
cutting back on effort. Challenge them - through new assignments or
"Give true perquisites - vacations, bonuses, etc. -
immediately after landing a new or big account."
"Continually create new challenges by introducing new
products, redeploying resources, reassigning accounts."
"Assign the salesperson to a different manager, one who
relates well with subordinates."
"Ask the salesperson to help develop a new territory or to
survey customers for new product/service ideas. This gives the
salesperson an extra objective on sales calls."
"Speak frankly with the person and tell him or her what is
expected. Set a time limit in which you expect to see
improvement. Advise the salesperson to get back to basics,
to do the things that made him successful in the first place."
"Offer a transfer or a change of role."
"Have him assist newer sales representatives in making new
"Set up special bonus or recognition plans such as
Salesperson of the Month awards."
"Probe for reasons. Define a plan of action to address each
reason. Require a detailed accounting of all of the salesperson's
activities. Set a probation period and enforce it."
"Make the rep recognize the problem and have him or her come
up with possible means of eliminating it."
"Conduct regular training and motivational sessions to serve
as a reminder of how exciting sales can be."
"Provide an ongoing goal attainment assessment program that
sets and resets goals as they are approached and reached."
"Give them some time off. Increase perks and benefits."
"Reevaluate the relationship between the company and the
employee. Clear the air. Redefine goals and set definite schedules
for reevaluating the situation."
"Give them a rest and a chance to rethink their life and
options while they regenerate their selling juices."
"Make sure the sales manager is at least equal to the
salesperson in competence and experience."
"Encourage salespeople to be creative. Listen to any ideas
that will open new markets - we pay a premium for this and find
salespeople to be a good source of new product and packaging ideas."
"Hold personal meetings with the salesperson. Encourage him
to explain what he sees as the problem. Then, together, decide
what is the best course of action."
"Manage, lead, communicate, pay attention, and don't wait
until too late to take corrective action."