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Providing Positive Feedback to Your Sales Stars

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Fri Aug 17 2012

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There’s a paradox about using feedback in sales coaching.

Research from Gallup, McKinsey, and Harvard say that giving feedback should be the most used tool in a coach’s toolbox. In fact, it’s the basis for the coaching conversation. Yet for many coaches, feedback is still in its original wrapping—still shiny and new—showing few signs that it’s hardly been used.

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In theory, there’s nothing complicated about sincere feedback. In practice (from the research perspective), it consistently receives a low rating by employees because it’s rarely done well.

Why Feedback Fails

In my experience, feedback often is confused with being critical—pointing out what isn’t working. This attitude stems from the perspective that coaching is first and foremost about rectifying actions that the sales rep is performing poorly. Coaches have forgotten to reinforce the objective context (or the big picture) for coaching: “What needs to be done?” and “What’s right for the business?” Instead, they pass on to reps subjective “wisdom.” But sometimes feedback simply needs to be positive reinforcement—shining a spotlight on what is working really well, and exploring why that is so coaches can tap into it as a resource for coaching other sales reps.

To further complicate matters, rather than spending time coaching high performers, most managers exhaust their energy and resources dealing with underachieving and average performers. When managers actually can find time to focus on sales stars, they assume that these stars already know how much their contributions are valued. You’ve told them, “You’re doing a great job.” So, isn’t that enough?

The importance of feedback to sales stars is simple:  The opposite to love isn’t hate, it’s being ignored. And it’s this indifference that can cripple your relationship with them.

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Stop right there. I already hear your response: “I’ve told my stars that they do a great job and that they have everything under control. But when I mention those things with them and tried to make it sincere, all I get back is a glazed look and a half smile. Isn’t this stating the bleeding obvious?”

Adding Value to Feedback

Perhaps it’s time to provoke conventional thinking. Consider this: As social animals, we all have a basic psychological need to be recognized and acknowledged. Everyone needs to feel a sense of accomplishment. We actually expect it.

In addition, Gallup research has found that the best way to give feedback is to link comments with the star’s own values and beliefs first. Then link the comments with what happened in the sales interaction. Often, feedback is only based on the latter. So that means if you haven’t checked-in on your grasp of your star’s values and beliefs, your feedback won’t be as meaningful. And as sales stars, their values and beliefs are likely to be different from the other team members.

Next, decide what you’re actually giving feedback on. Studies have shown that feedback is far more powerful if there is an objective context to performance. Do you have company or team consensus for what “success” or “a good job” looks like?

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Have you discussed with your sales team how determining success applies to their work (as sales star vs. average performers) to establish your and their expectations of performance? If your feedback is an expression of your (subjective) opinion of performance, then there’s more potential for resistance, debate, or argument.

Feedback Leads Stars to New Heights

Finally, the CEB/ Sales Executive Council’s research says that, for sales stars, you should also be focusing your coaching time on working with them to create further business-building opportunities.

So, before the sales call agree on what immediate and future issues you’ll focus on. Remember to recall the behavior seen in the sales call rather than the outcome of the call. Then, the post-call discussion can center on “what went well/was good/worked?” and “what would you do differently?” This relates to both immediate issues and future opportunities.

By now, you can see that great feedback takes a fair bit of preparation and attention to detail. You would expect the sales star to put a fair bit of effort into planning and preparing for a sales call on a high priority customer; you should be apply the same effort.

The funny thing is that the sales star will notice and respect the preparation—just as any high-priority customer would—and respond appropriately. In other words, give respect to receive it.

One caveat: Never think or say to your star that “there is nothing that you need to work on.” Renowned business coach, Marshall Goldsmith, maintains that (in a survey of over 4 million leaders) the highest ranked behavior of top performers is a commitment to self-improvement. Sales stars want—and need—to learn and grow both themselves and their business.

Bottom Line

All in all, never waste an opportunity to 1) catch stars being successful and 2) help them be even more successful.

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