You’ve probably heard that first born children are the highest achieving people by many income and intelligence measures. Have you ever thought about why? One of the lead researchers in the field of birth order, Dr. Kevin Leman, determined the first born edge is partly due to the fact they receive more feedback that other children in the family. Not just any feedback, but a specific kind—process feedback. This same kind of feedback has by no coincidence been proven by educational researcher John Hattie to be the primary driver of learning. It turns out process feedback moves the needle in education more than any other program improvement including smaller class sizes. So with the mounting evidence that feedback is the key to our success, perhaps we should be developing our sales reps with the same strategy.

While any feedback is better to your team than no feedback, process feedback is the most effective. Any easy way to define process feedback is to think about asking your child to pick up their room. With a first born, that request more typically includes how to do it. “Please make your bed, fold your jeans, and put your shirts on hangars.” Mom might even have time to do these tasks alongside their firstborn. As the family grows, time presses us to whittle that feedback down to “Can you pick up your room?” We shouldn’t be surprised that the bed didn’t get made and all the clothes wound up shoved on the floor of the closet because we weren’t very specific about the process.

When developing your sales team you have many opportunities to provide process feedback. You can observe them during prospecting activities like cold calls and conferences, and you can ride along to meetings and watch their online demos. Every rep should receive regularly scheduled observations, and not just weak performers or there will be a negative stigma attached to these development opportunities. Do you think Michael Phelps gets any feedback from his coach?

During your observations make lots of notes and try to make them more comfortable about all your scribbling by telling your reps that the notes are so you can help them get their money’s worth from your observation. You can also say, “This is how I remember good wording you have that I can share with other reps.”

Immediately after the observation, share only positive thoughts. For one thing, you need time to process everything in your notes and you are going to be selective in your criticism. It’s best not to make any knee jerk statements like, “OK we have a lot to work on.” Just tell them that was a great session and thank them for letting you participate in their meeting/prospecting/etc. Get them a written response and schedule a time to walk them through it within a day or two. Any longer and they will start forgetting what really happened during the session.

As soon as you can, use your notes and memory to dissect what happened. Did the rep seem informed about your product? How about the competitive landscape? Did they ask open ended questions to determine need? Did they demonstrate knowledge of how the product should be implemented? Did they advance the sale with a next step? In each separate skill area you value try to list a specific strength and weakness. Even your best rep is going to have something they could improve upon.

Here comes the hard part. Prioritizing the feedback for the rep. You want to balance positive and negative feedback, meaning you will give one compliment for every criticism. So if there isn’t a lot of good news, you’ll have to prioritize the places where improvement will make the biggest impact. For instance, if the rep isn’t asking enough questions and surfacing need, that is an easy place to start helping them move the dial. Having expert answers to how your competition compares to yours might be able to wait until next quarter. Too much improvement feedback is discouraging.

Next, create process feedback, not just a compliment or criticism. Good compliments would be things like, “You prepared for the meeting well—obviously you researched their current suppliers and goals.” Bad compliments are personal compliments such as, “You are hilarious.” The rep may indeed use humor effectively, but personal compliments such as you are smart, funny, warm, genuine are not process feedback, they are just observations about the rep’s inherent quality. If you do want to focus on the humor positively, talk about the good choice to create rapport and set the group at ease which directly led to them opening up about problems at the district. That kind of feedback helps a rep visualize the process of making a sale, and how to consistently achieve success.

On the flip side, the same process feedback strategy makes criticism useful. It’s best to highlight the process here and not just knowledge. Let’s say the rep was weak on your product’s benefits. Remember, research tells us this feedback opportunity is most effective if it addresses “how” not just “what.” The way to provide effective process feedback would be to say, “During this part of your conversation you said “x” instead of “y.” With “y” the customer realizes we have more value than “x” which a lot of products can offer at a better price. I think studying our training resources will help you nail that next time. How about we set you up with….” Then create a simple, repeatable process for them to learn your products better.

Your feedback checklist:

  • Cover strengths and weaknesses in equal doses
  • Cover the work process behind the outcome you observed
  • Cover why alternatives lead to better results
  • Avoid personal compliments and criticisms
  • Avoid letting the rep off the hook inside a criticism, e.g. “this is a really hard skill to develop.”

Providing your reps with process feedback is far from micromanagement. This is the kind of coaching that endears a manager to their reps. No one respects a boss that just throws around empty compliments. They respect and want to work for the boss that helps them become better sales people not just for this company, but for their entire career. Build up that culture of process feedback and you’ll not only see better morale, but better sales results!

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