31 May 2023 |

If reps feel like you’re failing them

By Gabrielle "GB" Blackwell

If your reps feel like you’ve failed them, they might have a point

Years ago I was managing a team of reps I inherited. Some of them were doing just fine, while others had struggled mightily, and there was one in particular I wasn’t sure should have been hired. This person:

  • Struggled with basic concepts required for the role
  • Performed significantly below average
  • Seemed preoccupied in one-on-ones

Overall, they didn’t seem like a fit.

This rep would eventually go on a coaching plan, and then a performance improvement plan. During this performance improvement period, as I would share feedback to help them get better, they met me with a degree of defensiveness and discontent.

By the time they were on their way out the door, they had no qualms about sharing in excruciating detail the many ways I made them feel:

  • Misunderstood
  • Unimportant 
  • Like a nuisance

I heard them. I apologized for the experience they had. And then I got to work on doing whatever I could to keep other people on my team from having that kind of experience.

As I got to work, I began to see underperformance as a symptom of something, rather than a status. The question then became, what is underperformance a symptom of?

Underperformance is a symptom, not a status

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received is “If you don’t know something, go learn about it.” As someone who had been a top performing individual contributor, I couldn’t see why underperformance happened, so it made sense why I didn’t know how to help my people overcome underperformance.

Overtime, I learned that there are three root causes to underperformance:

  1. Reps are simply unaware of how to do the work
  2. Reps know conceptually how to do the work, but since things are so new, they are a bit insecure in doing the work well
  3. Reps are unwilling to do the work

If I was able to pinpoint the true culprit of underperformance, I could meet the reps exactly where they’re at and get better in finding a resolution.

Let’s tackle how to do just that…

People don’t know what they don’t know

There are many reasons why someone would not know how to do something in their role. Maybe they:

  • Just started at the company
  • Were asked to sell to a new persona they’ve never sold to previously
  • Just got promoted and it’s their first time in this position

If you’re lucky, reps will proactively tell you what they don’t know and ask you for help. 

But luck isn’t something you can rely on. 

The majority of people aren’t going to be comfortable saying “I don’t know what I’m doing and I need help.” To counter this, you’ll need to understand how to identify when someone might be lost on the job.

Of course, one of the telltale signs is when a rep falls behind activity expectations and/or has lower than average conversion rates for key metrics. 

Take, for example, the conversion rate from a meeting held to a demo set. If a rep’s conversion rate at this stage of their process is significantly below average, it could be because they’re missing something that high performers already know, i.e. having an upfront contract, locking down next steps, etc.

The best way to tell if being unaware is holding your reps back is to observe them doing the work. This way, you can spot exactly where they’re missing the mark.

Once you’ve identified the missing key, you’ll need to show them what they should be doing instead and then have them mirror back what you’ve shown them.

Assist: If you work in an office with your reps, do a side-by-side working session. Pull up your screen and have your reps shadow you doing the work. Explain to them why you’re doing what you’re doing so they have the context to successfully complete the work. If you’re in a remote setting, you can accomplish the same thing via screen share.

Words of affirmation can go a long way

Imposter Syndrome really should be called Insecurity Syndrome. 

Or even better, “I don’t have proof that this will work yet” syndrome.

When someone is trying something new and has yet to see it convert into a big win first-hand, they might struggle to stick with it.

If you sense that your reps may be unsure or insecure about getting the work done, your role is to validate them as they are adopting a new tactic or process and provide redirective feedback if they veer off track.

Assist: Validations need to happen at the ‘micro’ level, not just at the big wins. A rep overcomes an objection they previously struggled with – OH YEAH!! Your rep uses a new feature in Sales Navigator to help them find better prospects – BOOMSHAKALAKA!! Another rep gets a response from a prospect – LET’S GO!! TLDR; Microvalidations go a long way when reps aren’t quite sure of themselves.  

If there’s no will there’s no way

Let’s be real for a second – there are some people who step into sales roles, but are unwilling to do the work to be successful.

However, to come to the conclusion that a rep is unwilling to do the work, you first have to put in the effort to:

  • Identify skills gaps
  • Provide directive or redirective feedback
  • Validate what the rep is doing well

If you are doing all of this and your rep continues to underperform with no signs of improvement, then and only then have you earned the right to explore if unwillingness is at play with this rep.

Please note that I have chosen the word explore very intentionally. If underperformance is a symptom, so too is an unwillingness to do the work. You’ll need to cover all bases to make sure you’re approaching a rep’s unwillingness with the right approach…but we’ll save that for next week’s send 😉. 

🏀For Part Two of this series, we’ll get into what’s really to blame for a rep’s waning willingness and what to do about it as a manager! 🏀

Keep an eye out for it in your inbox at 11:30 am CT on Thursday, June 8th! 

Until then…