How Do You Deal with Motivation-Based Sales Performance Problems?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

One of the most challenging situations for sales managers is dealing with reps that have performance issues that are not a result of obvious skill or knowledge gaps. Indeed, skills or knowledge-based performance problems are straightforward and relatively easy to diagnose, and sales coaching is an appropriate intervention. But sometimes a performance problem is due to other factors. Enter performance counseling.

Performance counseling is a management action used to resolve employees' job performance problems that are caused by motivation, attitude, or behavioral issues. Typical on-the-job problems that are a result of motivational or attitudinal issues include:

  • decrease in productivity (even when the salesperson possesses the skills and knowledge to be productive) 
  • excessive complaining 
  • bad-mouthing of other employees, the company, or management 
  • disruption of 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.

Manager’s Role in Performance Counseling

As a sales manager, your fist task in performance counseling is to identify problems. Only when you clearly identify the behavior issue, can you deal with it. This starts with explaining to the salesperson how his behavior is negatively affecting performance, results, or co-workers. In other words, discuss the observable negative results of the problem with the salesperson.

Next, you need to 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 are circumstances that you will need to discuss with HR before you address them directly with the salesperson—even if you only suspect these problems are present.

Counseling Sessions—Start to Finish

Here are seven steps to conducting a successful performance counseling session.


#1: Open the Session. You want to get the performance counseling discussion off to a positive yet serious start. Consequently, opening the session in a positive and serious way is critical because performance counseling can sometimes be awkward for you and the other person. You may want 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 she can do the job and that you recognize her capabilities.

You should also state the purpose of the session, emphasizing performance improvement. Then, you 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. Some example issues include 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 or offer a solution. Your primary objective should be to get the salesperson to devise a solution. Remember that the performance counseling session should be a conversation, not a lecture. The best way to create such a dialogue is by asking questions. 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. Explicitly ask them: “Will you agree to this solution?”

#5: Follow-Up. 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. Just like opening the session, you want to close the session in a positive manner. Be sure to stress your belief that the salesperson can improve their performance.


#7: Document. The final step is to document the performance counseling session.

The Right Mindset

There are some elements that lie at the heart of effective performance counseling—and effective sales management.

  • 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 over time on a day-to-day basis. 
  • 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 care. You demonstrate that you are involved, supportive, positive, and you always treat people with—and earn—respect.

However, there also are some common errors managers make that interfere with effective performance counseling. For instance, 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,” it will become true. Also, if you really have those beliefs, why aren’t you choosing a different management tactic to resolve the issue?

If you would like more insights on how to improve sales management skills, I encourage you to get a free copy of the whitepaper, Developing Great Frontline Sales Managers.


About the Author

David Jacoby is a managing partner at the Sales Readiness Group, an industry leading sales training company that helps Fortune 500 companies develop and deliver customized sales and sales management training programs. David is a thought leader in instructional design and the use of innovative technologies to deliver online sales training programs. Previously, he was a principal at Linear Partners, a sales consulting firm focused on providing sales effectiveness and development solutions to emerging growth companies. He writes frequently on the topics of selling skills, sales management, sales coaching and sales training. Follow David on Twitter: @DIjacoby  

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