Addressing Tough Sales Performance Issues with Performance Counseling
One of the most challenging situations for many sales managers is dealing with reps who have sales performance issues caused by something other than obvious skill or knowledge gaps. For skills or knowledge based performance problems sales coaching is an appropriate intervention.
These problems are straightforward and relatively easy to diagnose. But sometimes a performance problem is due to factors other than lack of skill or knowledge. That's where performance counseling comes in.
Performance counseling is a management action used to resolve employees' job performance problems that are caused by motivational, attitudinal, or behavioral issues. These are very challenging problems to address.
Typical on-the-job problems that might be caused by motivational or attitudinal problems include:
- Decrease in productivity (where salesperson possesses the skills and knowledge to be productive),
- Excessive complaining, bad-mouthing other employees, the company, or management, and disrupting other people's work.
Please note that performance counseling is not appropriate for extremely severe performance or behavioral problems. In these cases, more significant interventions may be required and you should contact your HR department.
Your Role in Performance Counseling
As a sales manager, your role in performance counseling is to identify problems and bring them to the attention of the salesperson by explaining how his or her behavior is negatively affecting performance, results, or other people. In other words, discuss the observable negative results of the problem with the salesperson.
Once you have identified the problem, you now need to deal with the problem. That is, establish guidelines for the salesperson to improve the situation. There can be a very fine line here between solving problems and improving performance, particularly when job performance is negatively affected by salesperson’s personal problems.
Your role is not to solve employees' personal problems or be a "pop psychologist." Your role is to work with the employee to find methods to improve performance. If you can also help solve a salesperson's problem, that's a bonus. Having said this, you should be aware of certain situations that you should not deal with alone.
These circumstances should be discussed with HR before you discuss them directly with the salesperson, even if you only suspect these problems are present.
Conducting Effective Performance Counseling Sessions
Here is how to conduct a successful performance counseling session:
#1 Open the session
Open the session in a positive and serious way. This is critical because performance counseling can sometimes be awkward for you and the other person, so you want to get the performance counseling discussion off to a positive yet serious start.
You may wish to mention positive past performance, if you think it's appropriate. This kind of positive reinforcement, especially if it is directly related to the performance problem at hand, reminds the employee that he or she can do the job, and that you recognize his or her capabilities.
("I recognize that you are capable of meeting these expectations, because you've done so in the past."). You should also state the purpose of the session, emphasizing performance improvement.
You then want to quickly transition to the specific problematic behavior/results and review related performance expectations. Here you want to pinpoint the indicators, or observable actions, words, or behaviors, that lead you to believe a performance problem (that can be resolved via counseling) exists. For example, excessive lateness or absence, declining productivity, or an increase in customer complaints.
#2 Wait for a response
After you’ve opened the session, wait for a response. Give the salesperson a chance to react. It is not uncommon at the beginning of a performance counseling session for a salesperson to deny that anything is “wrong.” In other cases, the salesperson may offer reasons or excuses for the problem behavior or results.
#3 Seek a solution
The next step is to seek and/or offer a solution. Your primary objective should be to get the salesperson to devise a solution. (“What can you do differently to improve this area?”). The best way to create such a dialogue is by asking questions, so prepare questions you will ask.
The performance counseling session should be a conversation, not a lecture. One of your most important questions in almost any performance counseling session will be, "What will you do to change and improve your behaviors?" If the salesperson offers vague or unworkable solutions, state why you have concerns that their solution will not work and offer your own solutions.
#4 Gain commitment
Next, gain commitment to solutions – make sure you get the salesperson to verbally agree to take the necessary actions to correct the problem. (“Will you agree to this solution?”).
Once you’ve gained agreement on the solution, you’ll want to establish a method to follow-up with the salesperson, specifically when and how.
#6 Close the session
Close the session in a positive manner, stressing your belief that the salesperson can improve.
The final step is to document the performance counseling session.
Having the Right Mindset
There are some elements that lie at the heart of effective performance counseling (and effective sales management, too). Remember to:
- Focus counseling on behaviors only and avoid attacking or labeling people or behaviors in negative ways.
- Focus on plans for improvement - not on excuses or blame.
- Be sure outcomes are realistic, practical, reasonable and likely to produce positive results.
- Build trust with your sales team. Obviously, this is something you have to accomplish on a day-to-day basis over time.
- Genuinely care about the success of your sales team and their efforts at success. When you do, much of what makes managers effective comes as a natural expression of that caring: you are involved, supportive, positive and always treat people with - and earn - respect.
There are some common errors managers make that interfere with effective performance counseling. Avoid using counseling as a punitive intervention. This is not the time to “beat up” anyone, so don’t go on and on about how awful the behavior is or how you’re suffering because of it.
Performance counseling, like all management actions, works best when you protect the self-esteem, confidence, and motivation of the employee. Do not conduct counseling with a negative belief about the outcome. If you believe that, “He’ll never change” or that, “This will be a waste of time”, your self-fulfilling prophecy will come true. Also, if you really believe that, why aren’t you choosing a different management tactic to resolve the issue?
About David Jacoby
As a Managing Director at Sales Readiness Group, David helps large B2B sales organizations improve sales performance. Previously, David was a Principal at Linear Partners, a sales consulting firm providing sales strategy, sales operations, talent management, and interim management services to emerging growth companies. In the past, David has served as Vice President of Business Affairs of Xylo, Inc., where he was responsible for the Company's business development, sales operations, legal affairs, and financing activities.