What to Say to Your Demotivated Sales Rep

One of the biggest challenges sales managers face is what to say to a rep who has become demotivated and is stuck in a rut.

This is the salesperson who has, in the past, been a good producer and valuable team member, but who has recently developed a bad attitude, low will, and their production is declining.

There are two big issues here:

  1. People with bad attitudes, in most cases, don’t recognize it in themselves. So if you take a direct approach with the rep it comes as a surprise to them, and they will likely become defensive.
  2. You have no idea, really, what the source of the poor attitude is. Perhaps the rep is unhappy with a recent change in the organization—compensation plans, territory re-alignment, organizational structure, job responsibilities, etc. Or perhaps there is something in their personal life (divorce, illness) that is robbing them of energy and enthusiasm. Or a combination of any of these factors.

Because of these unknowns, you have to be able to approach them in a way that is not accusatory. You also have to be able to communicate your expectations that they will conform to the high standards you’ve set for your team in a way that is not threatening to them.

First off, put in “park” your dominant expert self. Your instincts tell you to be blunt, direct and to the point. But if you start off telling the rep they aren’t motivated or have lost their commitment or fire or have a lousy attitude, they will resist. And the trust bond that you have worked so hard to establish could be damaged or perhaps ruined.

What to do instead?

Switch your mindset into “help” mode. Be curious and ask a series of diagnostic questions. The goals of the conversation are:

  • Figure out what they are thinking and why (not telling them what you’re thinking).
  • Having both of you agree on whether the rep has a performance problem and exactly what that problem is.
  • Identify factors contributing to the problem. What has changed recently that led them to where we are now?
  • Make sure the rep understands the consequences if a change isn’t made.

Start off with something like … “There’s something going on with your performance that I don’t really understand. I was hoping we could talk about what is going on.”

Then ask a very open-ended question: “What’s been happening with you lately?” Listen to their answer, then steer the conversation accordingly.

If the person does not acknowledge the problem, then you have to get them to recognize that something has changed. Ask them how they would evaluate their own performance and how they think they’re doing now compared to 6 months ago. Find out what metrics they pay attention to. Provide productivity numbers and observations of specific changes you have seen in their behavior.

If the person admits that they have simply been complacent, your goal is to help re-ignite the fire. Find out what will motivate them—more money or more responsibility, for example. Re-visit the rep’s personal goals: “What’s your #1 professional goal over the next 12-months?” Discuss specific actions they can take to meet those goals, and the positive benefits they’d enjoy when those goals are met.

If there is something personal happening, discuss ways that you can accommodate their needs without jeopardizing the team’s morale or performance. As I’ve written about before, one bad apple on your team really can ruin the whole bunch! Remember: What you don’t confront you condone.

Dealing with a demotivation issue is very big challenge for sales managers. The big picture you want to keep in mind is how do you confront the situation in a way that results in greater levels of motivation by your rep? How can you not make the problem worse?

What great sales coaches do differently is they stop and think: How can I have the greatest possible positive influence on this rep and the situation? These are the “moments of truth” that will define how effective – or ineffective – you are as a sales team leader.




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!”.