Underperforming sales people plague sales managers and organisations in every industry sector. Over the decades business leaders have adopted an assortment of tactics to combat and address this issue, with most showing little in return. Some large businesses have a policy to let go of the bottom 10-20% of sales performers each year and replenish with new sales blood. Other organisations are too slow to address the real issues affecting poor sales performance often tolerating incompetence. Neither strategy is useful, leaving people operating in a climate of fear or mediocrity. However, the majority of sales managers do try their best to improve underperformers’ results, often spending 80 per cent of their time with this bottom 20 per cent. There are occasional miracles and much heart ache and this isn’t due to the underperformers, it’s mostly that the sales managers simply aren’t equipped for the job. So where do we start? How do we turn around underperformers and create a healthy, well performing sales force without neglecting the other sales people who also deserve our attention? Many of us want to see the potential in others and give them a go. Is this wishful thinking on our part? Possibly. But, hiring doesn’t have room for wishful thinking. We need to hire for results not potential.

The preventative path to eliminating underperformers from being an issue begins with our sales strategy which determines the type of sales force that best suits our business, our markets and our customers. A well developed sales strategy helps us properly define the type of sales people we need; consultative sales people, new business development managers, account managers, internal sales people or a blend of all. Rather than wishful thinking we need to be discerning about the qualities and competencies we need to recruit to. What knowledge, skill and mindset do we need to fulfil the requirements of the various sales roles? Hiring people to these standards is a preventive approach to the issue of underperformance. Another preventative measure following the hiring stage is to put in place a structured induction program which educates and trains our sales people in the following:

  • Sales processes: sales planning, prospecting, sales communication, account management
  • Knowledge: company story, product, pricing, customers & markets, competitors, message and marketing plans, business acumen, etc.
  • Operations: technology, CRM, OH&S, distribution.
  • Culture: vision, purpose, company values, code of conduct, customer service ethic, etc.
  • Goals: company, team & individual goals

Zappos, the famous online shoe sales business, actually pays people $2,000 to leave the business after their induction program if they do not think they can deliver the Zappos promise. Following a good induction program (usually over a period of 2- 6 weeks) sales people perform much better if they then get regular coaching support out in the field (tactical or deal based sales coaching) and in more formal settings where strategic coaching (with a longer term focus) can take place. This would be supplemented with relevant training in core areas, as well as purposeful sales meetings and planning sessions.

So now we need to wonder how many sales people have been given an induction program supplemented by ongoing sales coaching and training that has covered the areas sited above in detail to give them the best chance at a good start? Sadly most sales people receive no induction or follow up coaching and training. Instead they are often thrown in the deep end expected to sell from day one trying to learn as they go by watching what other people do and working it out for themselves. No wonder we end up with pool of underperformers struggling to stay afloat. If salespeople don’t receive a proper induction to the business and its sales approach how can one expect to turn underperformers into sales winners? It all begins with us – the sales managers, leaders and business owners. Have we set up the right environment? Do we:

  • Encourage open, constructive communication between ourselves and our employees.
  • Provide feedback on how people are doing on the job.
  • Allow for mutual understanding (between manager and employee) of each employee’s job responsibilities and performance expectations.
  • Facilitate identification of individual capabilities, strengths and areas for development.
  • Identify factors negatively affecting employee performance (e.g. work environment, job design, organisational policies and practices, personal issues, external factors, etc) so that action can be taken to alleviate them.
  • Use a structured and documented process that encourages objective evaluation and fair treatment.
  • Assist in the achievement of strategic goals.
  • Provide a consistent way of setting goals, monitoring performance and formally reviewing performance.
  • Create an environment for self-managing for proactive individuals.

Any individual will not be motivated to perform to a high standard if they are not supported and encouraged. This performance depends on a number of factors. Of greatest significance, however, are those factors that can be incorporated into the equation:

Performance = Capability + Role Clarity

Role clarity includes providing clear guidelines regarding responsibilities and targets to be sure they can be held accountable. Capability can tie into intelligence, preferences and cultural fit. It is important to understand our team member’s preferences and values and how they may be similar or dissimilar to ours and the organisations. Experts believe that at least 50 per cent of performance problems in business occur because of a lack of feedback. Managers simply don’t make the time to talk and listen to their people and find out how they are going. Sales people will not see a need to alter their performance if it is never spoken about because it will be deemed as acceptable by their manager or company. They are not mind readers. We have to give them feedback and check in with them. Here is how we can check in when people are not performing at optimal levels Below is a list of questions that we can use to probe those team members who are not performing at their optimum level. This may assist us (and them) with uncovering what is lying at the source of their current level of effectiveness:

  • How satisfied are you with your job and your role?
  • Do you feel a sense of purpose in your job and/or in working for the company?
  • Do you have belief in yourself and your ability?
  • Are you experiencing any personal problems (e.g. health/home life) that may be impacting your current state of being?
  • Are there any issues around your actual capability to perform any tasks incorporated in your role?
  • What is your level of commitment to the company?
  • Do you feel you have a lack of training?
  • Are there enough processes for you to follow?
  • Are you experiencing any relationship issues (either at work or in personal life)?
  • Do you think that your job description and KRA’s (key result areas) are appropriate and accurate enough to provide you with the guidance, direction and focus required for your role?
  • Do you believe that you are receiving enough recognition and acknowledgement for your level of performance?
  • Do you feel that you are receiving effective guidance and management?
need to find the fit of a sales person

Does the person fit?

We need to work out if the issue with underperformance revolves around the following problems; perception, resources, training, aptitude, expectations, relevance, or incentives and correct accordingly. By creating the right space for our team members to share what they are experiencing and skillfully probing with the right questions, we are also creating the opportunity for both ourselves and/or them to uncover what lies at the source of any level of ineffectiveness. Doing this, we’re paving the way for an effective plan of action for their future development and improvement and of course, for our business success. Remember everybody lives by selling something. Author: Sue Barrett, MD of www.barrett.com.au

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