"It looks like you have a sound, productive sales system. When you follow the system, you provide better service to your customers and create more and bigger sales. So, what's the challenge?" I asked.

"It looks like you have a sound, productive sales system. When you follow the system, you provide better service to your customers and create more and bigger sales. So, what's the challenge?" I asked.

I was visiting with a newly promoted manager. After many years as a salesperson, this overachiever was just crowned sales manager. As a salesperson, she created her own winning system for developing good relationships with her clients and following through to win-win-win sales. She summarized her system this way:

  • Greeting. Greet the customer and establish a relationship.

  • Listening. Ask good questions and listen closely to the customer, noticing needs and wants.

  • Problem solving. Present product and service options, focusing on the benefits to the customer.

  • Sealing the Deal. Ask for the sale and expect a "Yes!"

  • Not right now. Follow up when the first answer is "No."

  • Delivering the goods. Make sure your promises are kept and offer additional products and services.

There are simple things you can do each step of the way (under "problem solving," she has "Present the proposal binder in person within 24 hours of the customer's visit."). And, she has all these items written down in her checklist. Smart! Her sharp boss noticed her good performance. He is committed to helping her succeed in her new position. So, we met on the phone to discuss ways to help her help the members of her sales team achieve their goals.

"Well, I have shown my sales system to the team," she said. "But they don't use the same approach. And I am concerned about follow up. Sometimes a client just gets ‘dropped.'"

Ouch. That can happen, even with the best of systems. However, a good system will keep you on track 90 percent of the time. That's why a formal sales system is so important.

I pressed on. "So, is your sales system a suggestion or a requirement? In other words, are you willing to fire a salesperson who won't use the system?"

Long pause.

"I guess so."

Aha. I asked the right question next. "Have you ever fired someone?"

"Um ... No."

"So, you're a Virgin Manager. You can fix that. Let's pick someone right now for you to fire," I said, only half jokingly. I figured there probably was someone on her team who should not be there anymore.

She whispered, "I don't want to fire anyone!"

"Well, that's good," I assured her. "However, you have to be willing to fire everyone on your team. Your willingness to do that may keep you from having to. Here's the good news: As you adopt systems and hold your team accountable for using those systems, people really fire themselves."

Her boss started to chuckle on the other end of the phone. "That is exactly what happens," he said. "As a manager, your job is to help your team succeed. If there are things that, if done with each and every customer, will help you serve customers better, well, your team needs to do those things. Your job is to make sure that they know what those things are and how to do them. Their job is to do those things."

Her boss is a good man, a stellar manager and a great friend of mine. And, he and I have a similar philosophy when it comes to business - which is why he called me. Sometimes it is nice to have someone back you up, especially when you are talking about firing people. Management has its perks. Firing people is not one of them.

People Fire Themselves

"Remember, we have a progressive disciplinary process," added her boss. "The first violation of procedure is a verbal warning. The second violation is a written warning. The third violation results in suspension without pay. That gives someone three strikes before you fire them. This is how we let our team members know we want to keep them! But we can't compromise our integrity. Good people like to be held accountable."

Well put. When you operate from ethical, customer-focused, written systems, people fire themselves. We hung up the phone after she promised her boss she was willing to fire someone - though she hoped she wouldn't have to. I hope so, too. However, I suspect someone on her team will fire himself.

Are You a Virgin Manager?

I've known a few managers who just love to fire people. I guess it makes them feel powerful. I hope you never become someone like that. Those folks are just unlikable. I imagine that you will not enjoy your future "You've crossed the line" conversations. Remember, if your company has solid systems in place, people will fire themselves. You just make it official by verbalizing and writing down the conversation. With systems, the only good reason to fire someone is that person is unwilling to play the game by the rules.

When you start using systems, you also hold yourself to a higher standard. Should you break from the system, and fire someone for the wrong reason, it will be obvious - to you and everyone else on your team.

I have fired lots of people. I can look myself in the eye about every one of those firings, knowing that I made the boundaries clear and that they fired themselves - except one. In one instance I fired someone for the wrong reason and it is a stain on my soul. Let me tell you about it ...

The Wrong Reason to Fire Someone

Once upon a time, I was a restaurant manager. Ever work for a person who just doesn't know what they are doing? That's how I felt about one of the owners of this restaurant. I will call him Ted, for the sake of this story. I tolerated working for Ted because I loved the other owner and the rest of the team and Ted's visits to the restaurant were blessedly infrequent.

One time, Ted came to "help" while another manager took a vacation. Ugh! He and I worked a Friday night together. All night, I did my best to keep the systems working and settle the upsets Ted caused with his brusque criticisms. Driving to work on Saturday, I sighed with relief realizing he had boarded a plane for home earlier in the day.

One of our restaurant systems was a manager's logbook. In the logbook, we would leave notes for each other. This way, the next manager on duty would be aware of anything out of standard operating procedure needing his or her attention.

I walked into the manager's office and looked at the logbook. Ted had left me a one-line note: "Ellen: Roll Don."

In restaurant lingo, that meant, "Fire Don."

I called the owner at his home. "Why do you want me to fire Don? Don is an awesome employee. He is at the top of the scoreboard for sales, and he doesn't have a single performance violation in his file. He shows up neat, clean, sober and at least 15 minutes early for every shift. What's the problem?"

Ted drawled over the phone, "I don't like him. He talks funny."

As I pressed for a reason, I grew to understand that the homophobic Ted suspected that Don was gay. Whether or not he was, was none of our business. And certainly firing someone for being gay was a discriminatory move. It is just plain wrong.

Ted reminded me more than once that he was the owner and he was giving me a direct order.

So, I sold out. I called Don into my office and rolled him. He and I both knew it was a bogus thing to do. I couldn't look him in the eye as I lied about being overstaffed. He knew he was good. We had systems and kept score. On every measurable level, the guy was a winner. And I fired him. My stomach hurts every time I think of it. On the day I quit that job, I remembered Don.

The next chapter of this story was written many years later. At that time, I was struggling to turn around our plumbing company. To help streamline the accounting, I decided to use a payroll service. I met with a payroll service sales rep over the phone several times. He was a great salesperson. He was prepared, polite, super helpful and he won my account. We decided to meet for lunch to finalize the paperwork. I showed up for the lunch meeting and my jaw dropped as I realized the sales rep was Don. Don recognized me, too. I stammered an apology, "You know I should never have fired you. It was the wrong thing to do. No excuse. I am sorry." I stumbled over each humbling word.

Don looked at me, and let me stew. After a long, painful moment, he looked down at the payroll information. He smiled and said, "No problem. I make a lot more money than you do."

I deserved this painful moment and Don enjoyed it. I remain hopeful that this experience reduced a bit of my karmic debt.

Life is too short to compromise your integrity. Hold people accountable. Let them fire themselves. And don't fire anyone for the wrong reason.