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Poor Performance is Real. Accept it. Now, What Are Your Options?

Apr 19, 2017
10 min read
At some point, most sales organizations struggle with poor performance. Here are some ways you can improve performance and prevent future performance dips.

I can’t believe more people aren’t talking about me.

I’m the best at everything I do—I’m the best employee, son, and husband. Growing up, I was the best student and most gifted athlete; and the very best at video games. My son is also the smartest, and my dogs are the cutest. It’s amazing.

Actually, as you might have guessed, reality probably says different.

Even so, I can’t help but feel this way—in fact, many of us feel such extreme positivity about our circumstances, or at least close to it. We overestimate the good while putting on blinders to block the negative.

There’s a name for it—illusory superiority: “A cognitive bias whereby individuals overestimate their own qualities and abilities, relative to others.”

Psychology aside, I like to think of it as we only know what we know, and we know ourselves better than any other. We can explain away our failures and hype our successes better than anyone else can.

Such a mindset is harmless human nature—most of the time. Where it wreaks havoc is when results start pouring in, and we are forced to face the music, but ignore doing so: You mean to tell me the valedictorian might have actually been the best student at my high school? And, those who went on to play college baseball were actually better athletes? I see where that can make sense. (My son and Jack Russells really are the best, though.)

I bring all of this up because if you can’t first accept that perhaps you aren’t the best around – and the best you can possibly be – how can you begin to improve? In sales, if you think you are the best rep, what is pushing you to be better? And if you think you manage the best sales team, then how could you not feel like you’ve got it all figured out and should just keep doing what you’re doing?

Only 57% of quota-carrying reps actually reach attainment. So, many reps really aren’t the best, and a good part of the sales team is coming up short. I don’t want to get into what percentage of reps should be hitting quota, and perhaps this rough 40% missing the cut is just fine. That’s a different blog topic altogether.

Instead, my goal with this post is twofold—remind you that the world is made up of top, middle, and bottom performers, and, the decisions you make with such reps and employees (the bottom and middle specifically, for the sake of this blog) could greatly help or hinder your bottom line.

Again, not everyone needs to be the best—not everyone can be. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be working to identify ways of getting better.

Train Bottom Performers or Let Them Go?

Think about a baby learning the ways of the world (did I mention my kid is the smartest?). If he or she doesn’t place the square peg in the square hole on their first attempt, does that make them a failure? Of course not—they just probably didn’t know what was required of them to be successful in this instance, and needs training in that regard.

The same goes for those trying to make a sale. Immediate failure shouldn’t doom their employment, but should be first met with attempted remedy because training and coaching has proven to be helpful in driving the performance of many a rep. Nothing ground-breaking here.

But with that said, some reps don’t benefit at all, or only very little from education and guidance. Despite the extra attention, some remain on the bottom tier year after year, with little or no improvement. Why?

Will + skill = peak sales performance.

Meaning, skill is only half of the required input, and without the will to succeed, performance goes nowhere. Flip it around, and a rep willing to improve but not able to capitalize on extra coaching by bolstering their skills is still not ever going to reach peak performance. In case you’re wondering, that’s not because coaching might not be up to par—even world-class instruction can have a marginal impact on the skills of your weakest sales reps, according to the Harvard Business Review, because reps are simply not right for the role.

So why are these reps kept around? One reason ineffective reps are retained is because managers themselves could be on the edge of meeting their sales quota. A broken clock is right two times a day, right? So, it’s seen that a few poor performing reps will contribute at least a few closed sales, regardless of their lack of skill, which is better than no sales at all.

What’s not being considered, though, are the costs involved. For those few sales that poor performing reps are making, how many leads are they mishandling? Even one solid lead lost to the competition is a price that’s probably too steep to pay, but that’s not being measured. And what about rep attitude? How is their presence impacting culture? Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, those circling the drain will bring down anyone they can latch on to.

So again, should these bottom performers stay or should they go? To help weigh your options, consider the following:

  • How do reps respond to coaching? To figure out if coaching is going to stick, you’re going to have to try it; not only to see an improvement in skills, but to check for a potential improvement in attitude/will. If observation shows that a rep’s will and/or skill remains poor quarter after quarter, and you’re confident in your coaching skills and setup, they’re pretty much forcing your hand at that point.
  • Are managers making the right decisions? Look at the data—which reps are being let go, and when? If data shows fewer bad reps are let go when sales teams are close to quota, managers may be holding on to reps to gain a few sales. If it’s found that managers would actually be willing to let a rep go if that rep’s quota was taken out of the group quota total, consider the option of quota relief.
  • How much are bottom performers really costing you? If you’re going to justify keeping a rep around because they are going to make your sales data look better, then you have to look at all sides of the story. Meaning, also use data to determine exactly how much a rep “costs,” versus how much he or she is bringing in. You’d be surprised to learn of all the impacted areas: wasted time, lost opportunity, damaged credibility, decreased team morale and productivity, increased mistakes, and more.

Accept the fact that poor performance is real and that not everyone can be a superstar, but don’t accept retaining poor performance because there might be a small positive benefit here and there.

Here is more math for you: “addition by subtraction.” For every sale that brings you closer to quota, more opportunities are potentially being wasted.

Meddle in the Middle

As a baseball fan, I remember the seasons where my team finished in first place, but sadly, I remember the years they ended up in the basement just as well. Of course the foggiest of memories have to do with the times they finished middle of the pack.

Thus, the true curse of the mediocre is that they don’t perform well enough for praise, but more importantly, they don’t perform badly enough to raise a red flag. Thus, they aren’t given the improvement love they deserve. It’s funny—you’ll often find more resources being poured into bottom performers in hopes they shoot to the top, rather than working more with those in the middle who are actually closer to breaking through to success.

By identifying reps with the greatest capacity for improvement, you can bump performance by as much as 19 percent. It’s your mid-range performers that are in fact your untapped sales performance gold mine. Think back the equation above. Will and skill. If you subscribe to the 20-60-20 theory, you know that your mid-range performers are the middle 60 percent of your sales team. They have the will to succeed, and it’s obvious they have enough skill to move the needle. They simply need help refining their skills to deliver even more. Here are a few steps to take to make the most of your middle performers:

  • Identify lack of skill vs. lack of will: Again, what is it what is preventing your middle performers from climbing the ladder? Do they need help building better rapport? That’s a coachable skill. But reps who don’t have the will are limited in their capability to improve performance. Likewise, if they lack inherent qualities of competitiveness and thick skin, it’s going to be harder to ever improve their sales performance as well.
  • Then, assess skill strengths and weaknesses for each rep: With their skills, what strengths and weaknesses does each rep bring to the table? Most reps can’t identify their own weakness areas (because we all think we are great, remember), so work with them to pinpoint them together. Maybe there is a way to inject more of what they do well to compensate for the other, lacking areas.List out where reps excel and where they need work, and get it all on paper to start the creation of an action plan for improvement—making it a documented goal to improve those areas where they need help. It’s such a simple step, but many bypass it thinking “I’ll remember.” That’s not the point. There is a difference between remembering enough to recall something and keeping that same something top of mind. Set achievable, quantifiable goals for each sales rep—be specific. Be realistic. (Be SMART.) Reps need to accept responsibility for their progress, so buy-in is critical.
  • Coach and train effectively: Coaching and training are not the same thing. And, just because you do one, it doesn’t mean you’re doing the other. For instance, by combining training and coaching, companies see an 88% productivity increase, and only a 23% jump when engaging in training alone (according to the Center for Management and Organizational Effectiveness). Before you can even label someone a top or bottom performer, you need to be doing all you can with your on-boarding training to allow reps to hit the ground running.

Ditch the traditional idea of the training “blitz,” which often happens formally, and in marathon sessions. There are shortcomings to such an approach, and you aren’t alone in falling prey, as only 42% of companies say they’re effective in training and coaching salespeople. One big reason for faltering is that information can’t be fully absorbed during such sessions; there is simply too much to consume. Opt for bite-sized, digestible training courses, and materials that can be reviewed instantly, whenever and wherever reps get the urge.

Then, when it’s evident reps are struggling in certain areas, coach for improvement. Don’t be afraid of giving your top reps the reins by recording their winning pitches and making them available for others to learn from. Then, flip the script and encourage those in the middle to record their pitches and solicit feedback from your stars.

  • Follow-through on your improvement plans: At least once a week, sit down with reps to individually to discuss ongoing deals and important accounts, recent progress, and the plan for the coming week to make sure they’re free of roadblocks.Encourage buy-in by giving reps visibility into their real-time performance so they can better see how their incremental improvements are positively impacting their standing. Think about it. Weight loss programs recommend weekly weigh-ins, and professional athletes time their sprints daily, not just at races. Constant feedback and measurement fuels better sales performance.
  • Make sure your sales compensation plans are effective: When your incentive compensation plans incent right, your reps sell more. Is your plan doing what it’s meant to do? Find out by using analytics and reports to see what’s working and what’s not. Don’t forget this key point—sales reps sell to their incentive compensation plans, so make sure you incorporate these quantifiable goals into your sales compensation strategy. This means choosing the right metrics; those that matter most, and generally no more than three to four.

And importantly, are you offering competitive compensation? While comp planning used to be an art, it’s very much a science now, with companies having the ability to use big data when comparing compensation offered by companies of similar sizes and industry.

You can also experiment with incorporating non-monetary components into your existing incentive plans. Hold contests, offer bonus vacation days, and consider awards for the most improved sales people.

At the end of the day, if your sales team is in a drought, you might be pouring precious water into a leaky bucket with poor performers who don’t have the will or the capacity to improve.

But what if you were to dedicate those resources to the 60 percent of your sales team poised to perform much better? By linking sales comp plans to achievable goals, implementing action plans and benchmarking, and simply being proactive and dedicated to improvement, you’ll keep those in the middle from falling down, and greatly improve your chances of them jumping up.

Learn more about transforming sales teams into top performers here, or, specifically mid-tier teams through this Sales Management Association webinar from Xactly’s own, Erik Charles.

  • Sales Coaching and Motivation
  • Sales Performance Management
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Xactly News Team

The Xactly News Team reports on the latest product, events and market trends taking place within Xactly and throughout the revenue intelligence industry.