Think there's nothing you can learn from a salesperson who didn't work out or is jumping to a competitor? Think again. Often turnover is a sign that your hiring, training, or compensation must be modified to improve productivity, but you'll never know what to change if you don't conduct exit interviews with departing salespeople.

IMPROVE YOUR HIRING PROCESS When salespeople leave your company, don't let them walk out the door before mining them for information that could help improve your business.

“Sometimes managers hire wrong,” says Mel Payne, president of Knowledge and Success, a Doylestown, Pa., sales and management consulting company. “And you can never improve if you don't have an exit interview, which can help you to find out how to change your hiring process,” he adds.

“Exit interviews have helped us better identify candidates, reduce turnover, and improve our training, and they're a low-cost way to do those things,” says Bob Dillon, president of Unique Window & Door in Indianapolis.

For example, Dillon has learned through exit interviews that salespeople didn't think there was enough personal interaction or role-playing in the company's training, and that managers would do things differently in practice than was taught in training.

SELECTIVE EXIT INERVIEWS “I don't interview people I'm getting rid of,” says Todd Schulz, co-owner and vice president of Weather Tight Corp., a replacement company in Franklin, Wis. “But I interview people I would have liked to have kept on my team.”

Schulz says he discovered through an exit interview about two years ago that his company's commission structure wasn't properly explained. “It was confusing and, because of that, there was a lack of trust between sales and management,” he says. In response, the company modified hiring procedures to better explain the commission structure.

WHO AND HOW An exit interview shouldn't be conducted by a departing salesperson's direct supervisor, Payne says. “Many times, you're doing an exit interview to determine if your management team is effective,” Schulz agrees. “If there's an issue, the sales rep isn't going to tell the manager, or if the rep does, that information certainly isn't going to get back to the owner.”

Dillon recommends that you ask open-ended questions and start with one that allows salespeople to vent their grievances, such as why they're leaving the company. Once you've cleared the air, you can ask:

  • What could have been done to salvage the relationship?
  • What was different from your expectations of the position?
  • How would you change the position, training, or company?
  • How would you help your manager improve?

Even though exit interviews may have value, says Vin Gerrior, president of retail operations for Thompson Creek Windows in Lanham, Md., he believes they're unnecessary for managers who have a high-touch management style. “We manage every salesperson three times a day,” he says, “so if I had to do an exit interview, I'd feel like I wasn't doing my job.” —G.M. Filisko is a freelance writer based in Chicago.