Sales leadership in turbulent times

Steven Rosen

STAR Results

Dan Smith is the VP of sales of a leading pharmaceutical company. He has been a sales leader in the Pharmaceutical Industry for the last 10 years. He has spent most of his pharmaceutical career engaged in various sales and marketing roles. He remembers the days when “we would be adding a new sales force every year or two”. He reminisces about the good old days when he went to extravagant sales meetings in exotic locations, and had fun.

In 2009, Dan recognizes the need to move to a smaller sales force. His company is facing patent expiration issues, having difficulty gaining formulary coverage for new drugs and experiencing decreased access to physicians. Over the past 6 months Dan has worked behind closed doors examining countless sales force alignments, permutations and configurations. He has made 3 presentations to his boss and corporate VPs. Dan has convinced the executive team that his plan makes sense.

Dan has carefully crafted a new approach to the market place, an approach that involves creating “Moments of Magic” for his customers. He has listened to their needs and is restructuring his organization to be lean and focused. The days of detailing are gone. He knows that sales reps need to move the needle on each and every call. They need to bring value to their customers and drive business forward.


“The days of detailing are gone. He knows that sales reps need to move the needle on each and every call.”


In the days ahead, Dan will implement his restructuring plan. This is when the rubber will hit the road. He knows the subsequent weeks will be painful and challenging. He has a critical leadership role to play. As his executive sales coach I have been privy to his plans for the last 6 months. We have had long discussion about the stress and burdens of his responsibilities. I have been a sounding board and have helped him develop the change management skills necessary to lead the organization’s restructuring.

Dan has hopefully set the table for success. Prior to roll out, Dan has a 4-part plan, which I have detailed here.

1. Have all your ducks in a row: HR and legal have put all documentation in place. There are packages prepared for each sales rep that is being laid off (severance letters and outplacement service offerings etc.). The people who are going to contact the sales reps have been trained and know how to effectively communicate what is happening.

2. Act quickly: Even though Dan has tried to keep things quiet, rumours of layoffs will inevitably circulate, creating stress for all. Unfortunately the rumour mill is running wild with fear and negatively impacting morale, focus and productivity. All the more reason to set deadlines and make sure you meet them effectively and efficiently.

3. Ensure the new vision for the sales organization is in place and ready to roll out: Dan is ready to clearly and concisely communicate his new vision. He is going to explain what the organization will be doing differently. What the new sales structure looks like, and what the new roles and responsibilities for team members are going to be. He has carefully crafted the rationale for the downsizing to share at large.

4. Set up individual meetings: Dan believes that it is critical to meet face to face with each employee. Keep meetings brief and factual. Treating those who are being laid off with respect by thanking them for their efforts and offering fair severance packages were important to him. He knew that word travels quickly and the way people are treated on the way out sends a message to the remaining sales people. He did his best to ensure that sales people were being treated fairly in terms of transition packages and with dignity.

Now that word is out Dan has outlined 3 goals for his sales management team:

1. To retain all top performers

2. To regain productivity and positivity as quickly as possible

3. To transition to the new way of doing business

Dan knows that the success of his new vision is dependent on the buy-in of his front line sales managers. For any change management program to work it needs to be led from the front lines. This is a critical time for Dan, as he needs to effectively communicate to the entire organization. His front line managers will look to him for leadership. He will be the role model, his attitude and behaviors through the initial phase will send an important message to the entire team.


“For any change management program to work it needs to be led from the front lines.”


Dan has been working on the changes for the last six months. He has had time to deal with his own guilt, anxiety and fears about the impact his vision will have on the organization. His managers on the other hand, are just starting to deal with their own emotions. They have lost colleagues, sales reps and friends. They will have to deal with their emotions, anxieties and grief. Dan and I have developed an approach that will help him transition his organization to the new vision.

1. Win their Hearts: You need to win their hearts before you win their minds. The managers need to believe in the changes and their future with the organization. The real work starts after all the announcements have been made and the layoffs completed. Senior sales management must now focus on the remaining sales managers and sales people.

2. Be an Empathetic Leader: The key is to be open. Listen. Help your staff deal with their emotions and be empathetic. By showing concern and interest, you will be working towards getting everyone back on board. Set up weekly group meetings to provide feedback on how the transition is progressing. Put out the small fires and try to address them before they become infernos.

3. Offer Support: Your efforts need to be focused on coaching and encouraging people to be successful in transitioning to the new vision. Be available, be present, and be there for your people. You may want to offer your sales manager’s access to an executive sales coach to help them deal with any issues. An executive sales coach can help accelerate the transition by offering an unbiased sounding board and be an outlet for managers to discuss issues that they may not be comfortable raising with you.

4. Promote and Communicate Positivity: You need to exude optimism and a “can do” attitude regarding the transition. Promote optimism and positive thinking in all your communications. Be sure to highlight positive movements and all success stories, no matter how minor. Reward each success and allow the people who adjust quicker to become role models for the team.

As you may have figured out Dan is a fictitious Executive. He represents any and all VP’s of Sales in the industry who have in the last few months announced downsizing in their organization.

I encourage sales managers who have recently experienced a downsizing to share their challenges and successes. Please feel free to provide your first hand experience, I welcome all comments, concerns and issues.

About the author:

Steven Rosen, MBA is a sales management expert who helps companies transforms sales managers into great sales coaches. Steven’s works with sales executives to, hire top performing sales reps and managers, develop their team into top sales managers and achieve greater personal and professional success.

He is the CEO of STAR Results, author of many articles in the areas of sales management coaching and sales management training. He is a member of Top Sales Experts. Steven’s mission is to inspire sales leaders, managers and sales people to achieve their full potential. He can be reached at or +1 905-737-4548.

How has sales force downsizing impacted you?