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How to Manage Underperforming Sales Reps

By Norman Behar

A look into each of the characteristics top performing sales teams have in common. Watch this video to help your team achieve their full potential.

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***Video Script ***

One of the most difficult aspects of managing underperforming sales reps is determining what actions you should take as a manager if a salesperson isn’t meeting expectations. The reason this is so challenging is that we are dealing with multiple dynamics that influence sales behaviors and, ultimately, results.

Clarify Expectations

The first dynamic is making sure the expectations are clear. That is, do each of your salespeople know what you want them to do (behaviors) and what you want them to achieve (results)?  If you are looking for help in this area, please see these suggested guidelines for communicating expectations.

Provide Feedback

Another dynamic is tracking and providing feedback on performance gains and gaps on a consistent basis. All too often, managers forget to point out what their salespeople are doing right (performance gains) and wait way too long before they discuss when a salesperson is performing below expectations (performance gap). In fact, some managers neglect pointing out performance gaps until they are “forced” to conduct annual performance reviews and, as a result, live with subpar performance far longer than necessary. Ideally, managers should be analyzing performance on an ongoing basis and then consistently providing feedback (formal and informal).

Focus on Performance Gains

Focusing on performance gains is a great way to motivate and empower reps and should be as specific as possible. Unfortunately, hollow comments like “great quarter” have very little impact since they do not clearly point out what the sales person is doing well, and the benefit associated with that behavior. A more meaningful statement to a rep that just beat their number is “Great quarter, not only did you exceed quota but you also brought in seven new accounts which bodes well for future quarters. Nice way to set yourself up for success.”

Address Performance Gaps

Similarly, sales managers should be proactive in addressing performance gaps and not assume that performance will improve on its own. It is very rare that managers claim they should have waited longer prior to addressing a performance issue.

The first step in addressing a performance gap is one of introspection by the manager that includes ensuring the expectations are clear, and determining whether there are outside forces that are impacting performance beyond the sales rep’s control. As a benchmark, the manager can look to whether the performance gap is prevalent across his or her team or isolated to that individual salesperson. In the event multiple salespeople are having the same issue it is probably worth a closer examination of the expectations that were set (i.e., were they clearly communicated and reasonable).

Assuming the performance gap rests with salesperson, the manager should engage in an open supportive discussion to determine the underlying cause(s). As a starting point, they should share what they have observed and over what period of time. They should then make sure they provide an opportunity for the sales rep to respond to ensure that there is agreement on the performance gap. In the event there is any level of disagreement, the manager should clearly restate the expectations (verbal and in writing) and set up a meeting to review the sales reps progress.

Assuming there is agreement on the performance gap, the manager (with the salesperson’s input) has to determine whether this gap is due to a lack of motivation and/or due to a deficiency in skills/knowledge. This is essential since the management action required will depend on these factors.

Taking Action

Unfortunately when it comes to taking actions, managers often feel like their options are limited to living with the status quo, putting the salesperson on a performance plan, or terminating the salesperson. In reality they have a much broader set of options including empowering, training, coaching, counseling, discipline, and (when necessary) termination.

Most importantly, keep in mind that you are actually helping support the sales reps development when you are proactive in addressing performance gains and gaps.

Learn how to transition star sales reps into high-performing sales managers

About Norman Behar

Norman Behar
Norman Behar is Chairman and Managing Director of the Sales Readiness Group (SRG). He has over 25 years of senior sales management experience, and is recognized as a thought leader in the sales training industry. His blog posts and whitepapers are frequently featured in leading sales enablement publications including ATD, TrainingIndustry.com, and Selling Power.

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