The highest performing sales reps in every organization have one of two things going for them.  Either they are naturally self-aware and inquisitive about their sales style, and use that curiosity to drive their own performance feedback loop, or they have a great manager with the talent for doing this with them.  If you have the ability to consistently find natural born self-coaching reps, more power to you – ignore this post and go back to tending your unicorn ranch.  If however your team struggles with how to get out of ruts and plateaus, or is seeing diminishing returns on efforts that once produced higher sales results, read on.  Today we’ll talk how great managers use a three-step process for giving feedback, and not just any feedback but a certain kind of feedback, to build great companies.

My husband and I went bowling with three other couples Saturday night.  It was perhaps my fifth such outing this century, and as a novice bowler I was purely concerned with our conversation and whether the house red or house white was less awful.  After 5 frames I had a score of maybe 26 pins.  Then my friend Theresa gave me some feedback.  It was something simple like, “I think you are taking the ball back crooked,” or “It seems like you do better when you follow through more.”  Whatever it was, it changed the event entirely for me.

At my next “at bat” I was aware she was watching and took a second to think about what I was doing rather than just chuck the ball, and in fact started to have a lot more success.  Back at the table I said, “Geez caring makes a huge difference.”  And one of the girls laughed saying, “I care – I am actually trying to knock those darn things down!”  I responded, “You misunderstand, it’s not me caring, it’s that Theresa cares how I’m doing and I feel like I have to shape up now.”  Though we were a bit tipsy and in high spirits, that observation gave us pause.  We caught ourselves in the act of proving it is not exclusively competitiveness that will drive a person to success.  It is also possible for the mutually responsible relationship formed between a coach and their player during a loop of observation, feedback and measurement to be the driving force behind high performance.   That makes sales success accessible to anyone through excellent sales management.

Feedback is the key to performance improvement in everything.  Research shows that first borns are the highest achievers in life because they get the most feedback from their parents.  Some of you education folks are no doubt familiar with John Hattie’s research on the impact of feedback in the classroom which shows it to be the number one performance improvement factor teachers can apply.  If you’re wearing a FitBit on your wrist right now, you’re doing so because feedback works.

The research shows that there are several types of feedback, and one stands out as the most effective for improving performance.  Process feedback is the one that makes the big difference.  Process feedback focuses on how a person is achieving a goal and how they might change their process to achieve a better result.  This contrasts for instance with task feedback that sets a task or goal.  It would be the difference between telling a rep they should contact each district in their territory 5 times a year vs. tell a rep that when they reference a district’s current technology improvement plan in their prospecting email they more frequently book a face to face meeting.  Both are good but the latter will help them increase performance more.

Great sales managers follow these three steps to deliver impactful process feedback:

  1. They observe their reps doing all aspects of their sales work frequently. This includes listening to them make sales calls, reading their sales emails, preparing for sales meetings, conducting sales meetings, making follow up contacts, and negotiating contracts.  Most managers believe a good ride along means flying in to town and going on some sales calls with their rep.  Sales calls are important, but they are only a fraction of the work a rep does.  The best managers also coach reps on their prospecting and follow up activities.  
  2. They measure the impact of varied techniques on the rep’s results. A great manager is helping the rep course correct by measuring what results happen as the rep employs a different approach.  Just like my friend – who incidentally is not a great bowler but who is a great observer – told me, “you do better when you pull your arm back straight,” great managers will work backwards from a successful sales moment to build data about what happened to cause it.  One of my favorite activities for this, particularly for beginners or “stuck” reps is detailed in this post.  Compiling the data after change has taken place is a great way to get reps to follow the advice you are giving.  If you don’t follow through, why should they?
  3. They give constant feedback. Great managers don’t save up a year’s worth of performance criticism for an annual performance evaluation.  That kind of feedback is useless. The greats are of course gathering data constantly through regular observation so they have frequent quality feedback to offer.  They also have a way of delivering it which doesn’t feel remotely like criticism, but rather as coaching.  “You need to make more prospecting calls,” for instance sounds like an attack.  Using the word “you” is a warning sign that you are critiquing or labeling the rep.  We can steal one of my favorite sales sentence openers, “I’ve noticed you…” and use it here for better management.  “I’ve noticed you are getting more prospecting calls in on days when you don’t have any appointments scheduled.  It might help to block time off for prospecting every morning.  If you work your appointments around those blocks you won’t get behind the eight ball should you come back too tired and distracted by meeting follow up tasks to sit down and prospect.”

B2E sales teams are not often composed of hard-selling, high powered, ‘I eat the competition for breakfast’ people.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t be high performing sales reps and great sales managers.  We are educators, learners, and introspective types.  We can use that strength to engage in studying our sales work, discovering what works, and using our sense of team to help one another succeed.   Remember that feedback is a continuous process, but it is proven to be the best investment of your time as a manager.

Further reading on the science of feedback in coaching:  Developing Reps through Feedback

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