Sell to Win

Training the untrainable: How to turn lackluster performers into sales superstars

Maria Waida
Contributor, Sell to Win
Maria Waida
Contributor, Sell to Win
Employee hiding their head under a laptop

We know a name immediately came to mind when you read this title. Let’s help you set them straight.

Training underperformers was hard enough before remote work. Most companies don’t have adequate methods for dealing with performance issues. What’s a sales manager to do? 

According to best-selling author and executive sales coach Keith Rosen, there are three standard courses of action. And none of them work. 

  1. Do nothing. As Rosen wrote in his article for Top Sales Magazine, “hope is not a strategy.” Consistent underperformance needs to be faced head on. 
  2. Rely on potential. The longer you wait, the more the issue might snowball or, at best, stay the same. “Then, six months or a year pass and you’re still waiting for them to turn around their performance or attitude”.
  3. Hand over to HR. PIP (performance improvement plan) only works 17% of the time according to Rosen. The negative reputation of HR-led programs alone runs the risk of breeding fear-based mentalities, reducing teamwide morale, and breaking foundational trust. 

Clearly the system is broken. The good news is you can change that by taking back control. 

How to Turn Lackluster Performers into Sales Superstars

The strategies below come from the experience of sales, management, and self-help experts. They may even turn your lackluster performer into one of the greatest salespeople of all time (or close to it). 

Before you implement them, take stock of your team’s overall performance. How did you get to this place? What have you or other managers done to contribute to the issue?

Be honest, fair, and objective in your self-assessment. You may find that a few simple high-level tweaks are all you need to course-correct several employees at once. 

If you’re still stuck on one or two individuals, follow these steps:

Step 1: Schedule coaching sessions 

In most cases, a problem employee doesn’t want to be a problem. With a little additional guidance, they can soon be on their way to better performance in no time. As a manager, it’s important to further develop their skill set through formal or informal coaching. 

When you start a sales coach relationship, it's important that you acknowledge the employee's achievements and highlight their strengths. Doing so will help them feel valued and encourage them to reach their full potential. 

Having positive feedback at the ready can also help reinforce the expectations that you have for them and make them feel that they can fulfill them. 

In addition to highlighting their strengths, you can also talk about how they've grown and improved in their professional development over time. If you're coaching someone on a sales skill they’re learning for the first time, talk about their other related accomplishments and how those will give them a leg up with this new training. 

Schedule one-on-one coaching sessions either weekly for developmental talent or monthly for employees who need guidance but work better without hand-holding. Coaching sessions can be as long or as short as you need them to be. Work collaboratively with your employees to shape a routine that works for you both. This makes scheduling easier but it also gets the ball rolling on their ability to take ownership of the work as well. 

One big obstacle to overcome with coaching is shame and concern over public opinion. For many, being singled out for extra help can make them feel like a failure. No matter how productive we become, humans will always be human, so approaching an individual with concerns about their work will always require great care and empathy on your part. Plus, they wouldn’t want coworkers to notice and judge them. 

Really it’s all about how you frame it. So take care to consider the individual’s communication style before you approach them with this opportunity. For example, some people prefer to skip the sugar coating and get to the point (with kindness, of course) while others may be under the perception they really are doing a great job and have no idea you’re about to burst their bubble. 

A great sales leader and coach have one thing in common: understanding how people work and what they really need. Exercise this skill as you embark on your new mentor and mentee journey. 

Step 2: Reward or reframe behavior

The concept of positive reinforcement dates back to the early 20th century when the rise of the behaviorist school of psychology was just beginning. According to B.F. Skinner's operant conditioning theory, the key to reinforcing a person's behavior is to provide them with a reward or a reinforcement. This encourages the individual to perform that behavior again in anticipation of receiving another reward. If a behavior is not reinforced, it is less likely to be repeated.

Yes, this applies to sales training too. 

In their paper titled The Business Case for Recognition, corporate culture experts came to the conclusion that “employee recognition is more than an HR program—it has a profound impact on an organization’s workplace culture and bottom line.” 

Their findings show that 78% of employees who receive high levels of recognition are highly engaged, 89% feel a sense of drive and determination, and 81% feel a strong connection to the company. If your lackluster performer saw even a small improvement in each category, imagine how much they would improve over time with consistent recognition. 

But what about bad sales behavior? After all, you’re transforming a statistically ugly duckling into a grade-A sales swan for a reason. Somewhere between all the high fives and handshakes you’re dishing out for positive behavior, you’ll need to address the overstepped gatekeeper boundaries or the apprehensive sales pitch or the general lack of product knowledge.

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Step 3: Actively address their concerns 

The main reason why sales professionals tend to underperform is that they are not being heard by management, their team, or their very own customers. It can lead to feelings of powerlessness that make them unable to make decisions or fully engage with potential leads. And when they do bring up concerns with higher-ups, employees often feel as if the issues are not properly addressed.

It's important for sales managers to thoroughly investigate an employee's situation to determine the cause of their stress and how it can be resolved to help them get back on track. Doing so can help identify their motivation to succeed (critical for effective coaching) and help them resume or begin their journey to become a sales superstar. 

Although we can’t eliminate rude clientele or disaffected partners, we can help sales team members feel supported in their work no matter what situations they face. 

Step 4: Understand what honest feedback is and how to give it

Honest feedback is a simple enough concept. Yet many sales managers start off on the wrong foot when addressing issues with lackluster performers. 

When dealing with employees, it's important that you separate the behavior from the person’s character. For example, let’s say you aren’t seeing eye to eye on a particular problem. Instead of saying that the sales rep is bad at this skill, walk them through a series of leading questions that will help them see your perspective. 

Questions like, “Was this lead ready to close or is there a chance they felt pressured to buy and ceased communications when they experienced this behavior?” are helpful in shifting their perspective. Now they can see why what they did ended in a negative result even though they never intended for that to happen. 

You can also use this as an opportunity to brush up on your own feedback skills. For example, you may find that reviewing sales call recordings will give you concrete examples to share with your employee. 

Step 5: Compare policies to observations

Make sure that your employees are aware of the expectations of the company and that they are aware of the consequences of their actions. This is important during onboarding but it’s worth a teamwide review at least once a year to keep everyone on the same page.  

It's also important to avoid assuming that they can automatically follow the company's rules when it comes to problematic behavior. There might be personal or professional obstacles in the way of what they perceive to be an idealistic view of what’s possible for them. 

You’ll also want to keep a list of behaviors and dates they occurred when providing feedback to an employee. Indeed for Employers advises managers to document misconduct by “writ[ing] down every part of your investigation, including the initial report, the investigation plan, employee testimony, video recordings and other evidence.” Remember to add dates, times, and names of third parties present if the issues go beyond poor performance. 

Consider these documented behaviors against the sales team standards and policies. Ask the employee to make their own observations. Then, let them know you’d like to help them get closer to following those policies as best as possible without expecting them to always be perfect. As long as they continue to treat coworkers and prospects with respect and kindness, there will be room for them to grow in their sales skills. 

Step 6: Follow up again and again

A single conversation won’t solve the problem forever. Especially if this issue has been festering for a long time. If a manager fails to address or follow up on action steps outlined for the employee to follow, these goals may easily fall to the wayside as the employee returns to their usual routine. 

That’s where the follow-up comes in. Come up with a realistic and reasonable follow up plan with your employee. These can take the form of 15-minute meetings or a simple check-in via email. The point is to see how things are going from the employee’s perspective.

You can also take this time to review quantitative measurements. Are their numbers improving? Have their existing accounts increased in revenue or have they secured new ones? Were the issues you originally addressed resolved or do they need a refresher? 

Taking the time to pause and reflect on the training is an important step in making sure the changes stick long-term. And don’t forget to give them some grace! New habits are hard to form. That’s also why a check-in is important—they may be working harder than ever even though the numbers aren’t reflecting that yet. 

Step 7: Empower sales reps to own their journey

Don’t forget to give employees ownership over their experience. Let them know it’s their responsibility to live up to their potential and to perform the job they agreed to do. The rest is out of your hands. They have control over whether or not they step up or face consequences.

In addition to putting things into perspective, managers need to set up teams for success. There are lots of ways to do this but the practical, foundational elements include:

  • Make transparency around expectations, metrics, and suggested sales processes a policy 
  • Create skill refresh and development programs for sales reps looking to improve 
  • Provide the necessary hardware and software tools needed to succeed 
  • Support employees’ work towards fulfilling company goals as well as their own career goals 

These tasks take time and resources to accomplish. While it’s great that you’re asking your employee to make positive changes, you can and should model this behavior too. Keep in mind that consistent, incremental change over time is more powerful than a drastic but short-lived improvement. 

Grow your own sales dream team

At the end of the day, the right mindset and a strong desire to learn will always outweigh a top performer with an attitude problem. If your employee responds well to coaching, feels heard, and has the right tools at their disposal, there’s not stopping them from becoming the top seller you know they can be.

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