In this post, you’ll hear about Jeanne, the HR business partner to sales at a software company. You may recognize your situation in her story. Today’s post includes insight on what can go wrong with sales performance. It also includes the free downloadable SBI guide: 8 Steps to Sales Performance Improvement.


sales performance improvement cta1This past week, I sat down with Jeanne. I asked her about the biggest obstacle she faces in supporting her sales leaders. Without hesitating, she explained her toughest HR challenge. It’s getting sales directors to follow through on performance improvement plans (PIP).


Jeanne was so frustrated that her face grew red as she told the story. “A few weeks ago, I met with Barry, a regional sales director. We reviewed the quota attainment of his team. One of his reps had missed his quota for the past two quarters. Rick was on target to miss again. It was time to start the performance improvement process.”


Success Isn’t Guaranteed Just Because You Have a Process

Jeanne continued, “The first step in the process is to have a conversation. Next, we move to an initial written warning and then a final written warning. But the sales directors always give reps a long leash. They’re reluctant to take any action. This happens all the time.”


“Barry and I agreed that it was time to start the process with Rick. I called Barry a week later to see how the conversation went.  He said that he was still waiting to talk with Rick. I asked him what caused the delay. Barry said, ‘Well, I was going to talk with him on Friday, but Rick walked into my office with a signed order. I didn’t want to de-motivate him right then. You know, the timing was all wrong. So, I decided to wait.’ In the end, nothing happened. In spite of what Barry and I agreed to do.”


Is PIP Just a ‘Death Sentence?’  

Jeanne explained, “Each of our sales directors has their own process. It’s very hard to get them to enforce it. They’re afraid to upset their reps. The sales directors are great at positive motivation and inspiring their reps. But they flounder at holding people accountable. As the HR person, I’m stuck in the middle. I have to constantly push them to follow the performance improvement process.”


“Some of the sales directors think that PIP is just a ‘death sentence.’ But others believe they can actually use it to get a rep on the right track. There’s no consistency. The biggest problems start at the end of the year. By then it’s crystal clear which reps missed quota. Suddenly there’s a rush to exit the poor performers. But nothing’s documented. The 3-step process hasn’t even started. Now it’s a major HR problem. I can already see it happening again as we get closer to January first.”


Performance Improvement Impacts Everyone

If you’re like Jeanne, this probably happens with your sales managers. They need a strong, steady hand to help them tackle difficult HR actions. If you’re like Barry, you’re laser-focused on closing business and making your team’s number. People problems are a major distraction.


If you’re like Rick, the mixed messages from management are very confusing. Sometimes the PIP policies are enforced, but you can never tell. If you’re a senior sales leader, this whole subject just drives you crazy.


And if you’re a customer?  Dealing with ineffective sales support is intolerable. You’re calling the competition to solve your problems.  


The Recipe for Success: 6 Key Ingredients

Everyone suffers from poor performance. It’s not enough to have good intentions. A unified, consistent, documented process is the way. Here are the 6 key ingredients:


1. Timetable: Use a calendar to schedule regular performance reviews. Waiting until a performance problem happens is a planning for trouble.


2. Clear Criteria: Remove the mystery from PIP with a documented process that all participants acknowledge in writing. Don’t allow it to be personal. The process includes the following:


      • Specific metrics that trigger specific actions
      • Defined improvement action steps
      • Milestones for completion


3. Actionable Tools: The process is easier to follow if the right tools are readily available.  These include:


      • Step-by-step guidance (download the free SBI guide)
      • Sample script for the initial conversation
      • Email template to document the verbally agreed-upon actions
      • Email template for the written warning
      • Email template for the final warning


4. Training: The ability to conduct crucial conversations is a skill that must be learned. Sales managers need specific training that includes role-plays. Kerry Patterson’s classic Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High is an excellent resource. 


5. Consistent Compliance: Don’t let events dictate actions. HR and sales leaders must hold each other accountable. Compliance with PIP must be a performance metric for sales managers and HR business partners.


6. Leadership Commitment: This is the area that plagues Jeanne. She’s in the awkward position of enforcing a program without strong support from above. Performance improvement is a shared responsibility between HR and Sales. But only if senior leaders make it so.


8 Steps to Sales Process Improvement Guide


It’s Time to Take Action

Do you have a sales performance improvement process? Is everyone on the same page? This is the time to establish ground rules and expectations for next year. Get started today:


  • Download SBI’s free 8 Steps to Sales Performance Improvement Guide
  • Schedule time with HR and sales leadership to gain commitment
  • Set up 1-on-1 meetings for HR and sales managers to set expectations and agree on an action plan
  • Establish the quarterly review calendar for the year
  • Stick to the plan; hold everyone accountable


Feel free to share your own performance improvement stories in the Comments section below. If you’re like Jeanne, you’re not alone. This is a long-term effort, and it starts today. Give your team their best chance to Make the Number.