Our latest survey shows that you needn't give up in despair.


                     By William Keenan Jr.,

                         Senior Editor,

                  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

upward curve.

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.

Table 1 
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






Resists management






Lives in the "good old days"






Doesn't keep up with new







Produces late/insufficient







Gets more customer complaints






Manipulates commissions/quotas






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

manage adequately.

     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.

Table 2

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


















Burned out









Economic needs met









Discouraged with company









Overlooked for promotion









Lack of ability









Avoiding risk of

management job









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

leadership role.

     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."

Creative Solutions

	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

additional responsibilities."

     "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

 customer presentations."

     "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."