How to spot the prima donna syndrome

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Don’t let your super sellers with bad attitudes control your sales organization. Here are some simple guidelines for handling a prima donna.

December 28, 2011

I am well qualified to discuss the “prima donna syndrome,” because in 1971 I was the prima donna in my company. I was the top seller with the highest-volume home builder in a South Florida community, and I didn’t think I had to attend sales meetings or play by the established rules. I perceived that my performance was as good as it gets, and that allowed me to play by my own rules.

Then I got a wake-up call in 1974 with the terrible recession caused by the oil embargo. Suddenly, builders couldn’t give houses away in South Florida, or anywhere in the country for that matter. I started to ask myself if I was really an outstanding salesperson or if those previous sales had just fallen into my path. Now I was bemoaning the fact that I didn’t pay enough attention to the process of selling.

This is how the prima donna syndrome comes about. It’s very prevalent in companies where “experienced” salespeople don’t have a well-defined process, but are making just enough sales to be doing fine. Without a process, if a salesperson is successful, how can he or she replicate it? Failure that results from a process that is implemented will be far more valuable over time than success in the absence of a process.

Brad Pitt once told a story of advice he was given by veteran actor Charles Bronson. Pitt asked Bronson if there was any advice he could give him as a relative newcomer. Bronson replied, “Yeah kid, don’t ever confuse the size of your paycheck with your talent, and remember not to ever believe your press clippings.” That’s exactly what some salespeople in the home-building business tend to do. Because they are selling what they think is better than anyone else in their sphere of reference could do, they don’t want to participate in sales meetings, role playing, mystery video shops, filling out tracking reports, etc., and claim they’re too busy or don’t need training. Oftentimes, they attempt to justify that attitude with words to the effect, “Besides, just look at my sales in this tough market. I must be doing something right.”

Some of the characteristics, strengths, and traits that make good salespeople are also the same attributes that make them hard to manage. And they may try to use those same skills to hold the company or sales manager hostage by threatening to quit. Here are some guidelines for the sales manager faced with this challenge:

1. You must have a measurable standard of accountability for the proper attitudes, skills, and habits — a selling process — for all of your staff.

2. You must hold your prima donnas to the same accountability and set of rules as your other salespeople.

3. You must be willing to run the risk of telling your prima donnas that if they don’t want to subscribe to your success program they would be better off elsewhere. I know a terrific sales manager who uses this phrase on those occasions: “It’s not personal, it’s business, and I think it’s best if you take your excellence elsewhere.” That means having a program and the confidence that you can recruit, educate, and motivate good replacements. As Zig Ziglar says, “The only thing worse than training your salespeople and losing them is not training them and keeping them.”

Pat Riley, one of the winningest coaches in NBA history, wrote in his book, The Winner Within, that there is no such thing as status quo. On any given day, you are getting either better or worse at what you do. The prima donnas subscribe to the mindset that they are not only the best they can be, but are better than anyone else. What they don’t realize is they’re actually moving backwards. They bristle at the notion of considering this question: Doing what you’re doing, the way you are presently doing it, how many sales are you missing, and how much money is being wasted in the process?

Don’t let your so-called super sellers with bad attitudes control your sales organization. The other members of your team who probably look up to the “superstars” are being directed backward, and they might not know it. Stay firm in your resolve that you expect accountability to a process and, therefore, the very best each and every day from each and every team member. If you do, you’ll end up with a win-win situation for everyone.

Bob Schultz is president and CEO of Bob Schultz & The New Home Sales Specialists, a full-service management consulting and sales company based in Boca Raton, Fla. Schultz is the author of two best-selling books, The Official Handbook for New Home Salespeople and Smart Selling Techniques, and was named a Legend of Residential Marketing by NAHB in 2010. He can be reached at bob@newhomespecialist.com. For information, visit www.newhomespecialist.com or call 561.368.1151.

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