Managing Underperformers

Posted: 20/09/2012

In this blog we explore managing sales underperformers, the first of Five Challenges that Today's Sales Leaders Can't Ignore. In this economy, increasing sales, winning new business and maintaining existing client relationships are the issues that keep sales leaders awake at night.

To deal with these issues, professionals understand the need for strong leadership. We begin a series of five articles exploring the challenges sales leaders must address, starting with underperformers.

1.     Managing Underperformers

2.     Leading and Coaching the Team

3.     Identifying Incremental Business Opportunities

4.     Operational Excellence

5.     Motivating the Team

It’s surprising how often you meet people in sales leadership positions who really don’t understand what an underperformer is, or the consequences of underperformance for the team and the leader.

Let’s define exactly what an underperformer is.

There are two types of underperformance that can be explained through two hypothetical characters, Doing Enough and Not My Fault:

1.     Doing Enough: this is the individual who is probably not the worst performer in the team and does just enough to get by.

In terms of attitude, this might be someone who holds the view: ‘I am not the best performer, but I am certainly not the biggest problem’. In reality, this person will fluctuate between 90-100% of target and is often not seen as an underperformer.

Typically, ‘Doing Enough’ will be well established with the business, manage an existing portfolio of accounts and in the past may have been a top performer. These are facts that will be highlighted if performance is challenged. In most cases, these are individuals who, over a period of time, have not adapted to changes in the business and the demand for new skills or behaviours.

The ‘Doing Enough’ preference is to stick with a methodology that they are comfortable with, even though it is outdated. This will be supported with comments such as:

“I know what my customers want”

“The second half of the year will be better”

“This is what I have always done”

The challenge that sales leaders face is to understand the magnitude of this underperformance. It’s not just about hitting target; this is an individual who never asks the question ‘What could be?’ Thoughts of developing new opportunities, winning new customers and developing incremental income with existing accounts are non-existent, because somewhere near 90-100% is ‘doing enough’!

So, how do you deal with ‘Doing Enough’? Incentive schemes and other motivational solutions are not the answer; if they were, they would have already worked. The challenge is to create a solution that combines projects, focused activity and coaching all linked to a goal that will motivate the individual.

2.     Not My Fault: to many people, this is the typical underperformer. This is a demotivated individual who consistently misses targets, plans and objectives then rationalises performance with a series of excuses that emphasise ‘Not My Fault’:

“My targets are unfair”

“My customers are different”

“It’s different selling in my area”

“We tried this before and it didn’t work”

In the case of ‘Not My Fault’, the level of underperformance is usually apparent in sales results. The depth of the problem is also underestimated; you need to think about how the attitude of this individual will have a negative impact on two key groups:

  • Customers: new business opportunities are lost, relationships are not developed and customers are lost to the competition
  • Colleagues: the attitude of ‘Not My Fault’ does not help to create a positive team environment - it does the opposite. This is an individual that, if left unchecked, may demotivate colleagues and have a negative impact on their results

Dealing with ‘Not My Fault’ is tough. It’s a situation that the leader must address, or risk losing credibility with the rest of the team. Sales leaders will often utilise performance contracts to get ‘Not My Fault’ back on track. The problem here is, as soon as the performance contract ends, the individual falls back into old habits. Coaching and motivational techniques will often have the same short-term effects.

Performance contracts and coaching fail because these techniques deal only with the symptoms of ‘Not My Fault’s’ behaviour; the challenge is to deal with the cause. The real solution is a process in which the individual must identify and confront the problem and then choose one of two routes:

  • First: a plan to get performance back on track supported by the sales leader
  • Second:  a decision to move on; be that to a new role in the company or a change of employment

The challenge for the sales leader is to be fair but also to solve the underperformance issue that ‘Not My Fault’ creates, on a permanent basis.

Our next blog will focus on the second of our five issues: Leading and Coaching the Team.

TLSA International Ltd specialises in supporting sales leaders, account managers and sales people to improve performance. Browse the TLSA Sales Training site for more information on how to be the most effective sales leader that you can be, and for help and guidance on effective goal setting for your team. Follow us on Twitter @TLSAltd.