Confronting an Under-Performing Sales Rep

Every sales coaching workshop that I deliver I ask sales managers, “How many of you have a performance problem with a sales rep that is just unacceptable, and you know you need to address the situation?” Everyone raises their hand. Then I ask, “How long have you known this?” The answer I hear is often months, and occasionally years. Clearly, many sales managers have tremendous difficulty confronting an under-performer, and so they keep putting it off.

There are a variety of reasons why sales managers avoid this most difficult of all conversations. Sometimes it’s just a time management issue – the sales manager has many other more pressing issues to deal with. Another reason is that the sales manager blames him or herself for the salesperson’s lackluster results – “I haven’t provided the salesperson with enough ongoing coaching” or “I need to provide this person more training.” So the sales manager accepts personal responsibility for the rep’s performance problem, but that’s not right.

The simple truth for sales managers is that your team is only as strong as your weakest performer. You can say all you want to about sales performance, but your actions speak louder than words. Everyone on your sales team looks at the lowest producer as the minimum level of sales production necessary to stay on your sales team.

When you fail to address a sales performance problem you send a message to everyone else on the sales team – that you tolerate mediocrity. Face this issue now! Have the tough conversation. Don’t let another day go by without addressing this performance problem!

Before you have this “positive confrontation” conversation, jot a few notes down next to the following checklist so you are properly prepared:

What aspect of this person’s performance (and/or skills and attitude) is unacceptable?

Be very specific about what the person must change. Be prepared to provide examples.

Why has the person not been performing up to expectation?

As the sales coach, you must assess the performance problem. Is it the rep’s lack of skill, a lack of will, or both? During the meeting, ask questions to either confirm or disprove your analysis of the situation. You never know what might come out here. I once had a salesperson break down in tears in my office about his marital problems.

Why should the person make these changes?

Remember that Skill + Activity = Sales Results. All too often sales managers, when communicating expectations to the team, focus on the outcome expected (sales quota) rather than the inputs necessary to achieve the outcomes, and the importance of each step in that process. When you explain “why” a certain task must be accomplished with a certain amount of quantity or quality, you are also explaining why it cannot be avoided.

What should the consequences be if the salesperson does not make these changes?

Another conversation with the manager? A written warning in their personnel file? Termination? You must be prepared to explain in very clear terms exactly what will happen if the changes are not made.

The “Two-Roads” Discussion

One sales manager with whom I’ve worked refers to this is the “Two Roads” part of the discussion. “Ms. Or Mr. Underperformer, you have reached a fork in the road. If you continue down the path that you have been on this is what the consequences will be… However, there is another path for you to choose, and it leads to greater sales performance, more money, etc.” Ultimately, the responsibility for change is the rep’s responsibility, not yours. If coaching or training is required, or would help the situation, then do it now.

Peak performance sales managers do not accept mediocre performance. They realize that their entire sales team is watching how they handle the under-performer. They accept the responsibility for their role, and if someone is not performing up to expectations they address the problem sooner, rather than later.

Kevin Davis

Kevin F. Davis is the author of The Sales Manager’s Guide to Greatness”, which was named the 2018 Axiom Business Book Award Winner, Silver Medal. Kevin is also the author of Slow Down, Sell Faster!”.