UK: Coaching to Increase Sales

Last Updated: 12 December 2012

Poor sales performers crop up in nearly all organisations, and all too often they're tolerated and permitted to continue in their jobs. This can be a costly error in policy.

If you rank your sales force based on top performers to bottom performers, you'll usually find that the bottom staff are responsible for less than 6% of sales. All in all, too much time is spent on poor performers. The sales manager should spend more time with people at the top.

We believe a poor performer can't get better unless they learn by doing. Give poor performers the opportunity to grow their own skills. If you see they're not doing the right thing, you pursue a diagnostic path: Is it a skill problem or an attitude problem? Your options are to coach, counsel or terminate.

The sales manager must meet sales performance problems head-on, but always in a positive manner. Telling a sales rep they have to meet their quota "or else" is inadequate and probably self-defeating. Help them learn how to achieve this goal. Maybe they need to improve their sales presentations or try to reach different decision makers in the customer's company. A sales manager's specific recommendations enhance the overall chances of success with individual sales reps.

To help turn around a poor performer, we advise these steps:

  • Document the situation. Gather facts. Identify problems in the salesperson's performance.
  • Advice and counsel. Meet with the sales rep, making it very clear that your goal as sales manager is to help them become better at their job. Avoid placing blame or delivering ultimatums. Instead, demonstrate your confidence that, with coaching, the problems can be overcome.
  • Look for problem behaviours. Ask the sales rep what they think should be done to overcome gaps in performance. Does it mean adjusting selling behaviour? Making more new business calls? Find out what difficulties, if any, they anticipate in changing their behaviour. Address these difficulties before they occur.
  • Design a recovery plan. The plan, developed jointly by sales manager and salesperson, should be comprehensive and results oriented. Set targets based on (1) improvements in sales with each account; (2) new business penetration; (3) increased number of calls.
  • Have a follow-up plan. Following agreement on a recovery plan, the sales rep must understand that the sales manager will closely scrutinise sales efforts and results. The follow-up plan will track results and progress, supplemented by weekly follow-up meetings.

When salespeople don't hit the targets, hold their feet to the fire. In some cases, you may want to renegotiate the expectations. But if these were fair to begin with, you're better off sending that person on the way to their next career opportunity.

Praise and reprimand

A good sales manager understands the personality of the salesperson. Most of them crave praise and reassurance. They are often motivated by something beyond a commission – the challenge and victory of making a big sale.

How many salespeople are overly recognised for their achievements? Is there such a thing? Surprisingly, not enough companies have any such recognition system.

We tend to recognise people when the spirit moves us, but that results in inadequate motivation. Recognition doesn't have to be expensive, but it should be ongoing. It can range from a handwritten note saluting a person's performance to a luncheon or a birthday card personally signed by the CEO. These things are all easily done, and are well worth the effort.

Don't just say "Job well done" to your rep. Praise them in public meetings. Describe the specific results of their sales achievements. This demonstrates your confidence in the sales team, as well as your high expectations of them. When you expect people to win, they usually do.

In the same regard, criticism should always take place in private. Make sure you fully understand the situation before criticising. Start the session with a question, not an accusation. Listen to the individual's side of the story. Then work together to correct the problem.

Done properly, offering positive and negative feedback lets your staff know that, above all, you're concerned with their welfare. It's the best way to motivate individuals who flourish in an atmosphere of praise and recognition.

Sales contests

Non-monetary incentives to motivate salespeople must be carefully designed and implemented. A sales contest, for example, should be fun, exciting and inspirational. In general, there are three types of contests:

  • Hit the target. This contest is structured around a set goal – monthly, quarterly, and yearly. The winners are those who hit the target.
  • Activity-based. In this type of contest, sales reps conduct activities that garner credits leading to a reward.
  • "Top dog." Only the highest achiever takes home the prize in this "winner-takes-all" format.

Before you unveil a sales contest, certain elements must be in place. These include:

  • Funds and resources. Do you have the time, money and support available to run an incentive programme?
  • Achievable targets. Contest goals should not be outlandish or inaccessible.
  • Rules. Make sure that contest rules are clear and easy to follow.
  • Rewards. A sales contest is only effective if the contestants regard the prize as genuinely valuable.

The duration of the contest time period is another important consideration. By and large, a short-term framework is best – usually a month or so. That way, the contest triggers a time-limited but intensive burst of productivity. Going much longer than a month only suggests to less motivated salespeople that they have time to procrastinate.

Other tips:

  • Fairness counts. The outcome of many corporate sales contests feel decided from the start. Every company has one or two top performers, several people in the middle, and a few just trying to make quota. Obviously, the people most in need of motivation are those in the bottom half – the same individuals who have little chance of coming out the winner in a sales contest.

To keep things fair, consider setting a contest goal that focuses on something other than total dollars or number of deals – for example, the greatest percentage increase in sales relative to a previous time period.

  • Intermediate goals. When you are designing a sales contest, you must consider the sales cycle of your product or service. If a long cycle is involved, the contest should probably be based on something other than sales – for instance, the number of product demonstrations or the number of prospective customers who agree to a free trial period.

A word of warning here. To be truly effective, any non-sales goal must be with qualified prospects. Make it clear to everyone that the contest is judged as much by quality as by quantity.

  • Cash-alternative awards. Money isn't the only reward for high performance. Some companies award a professional tool such as a leather briefcase, engraved clock or inscribed plaque. These items bestow a certain prestige on the recipient, especially among their peers.

The best awards offer some intangible gratification for the winner. Among the possibilities: an all-expenses-paid night out on the town, a weekend travel getaway, tickets to a sold-out theatre production. Again, this marks the contest winner as someone special and deserving of unique treatment.

  • No conflict with existing objectives. Salespeople shouldn't be permitted to ignore ongoing responsibilities – prospecting or serving existing customers – when a contest is offered.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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