Better Ways to Evaluate Those Misunderstood Sales People

Sales people, Sales management, and others who work closely with Sales people have some very effective, standard metrics that can be used to communicate about sales, such as leads, target accounts, funnel, win rate, and sales year-to-date. They also often do a nice job discussing target account planning and strategies to win, new products and how to promote them, and where to focus.

While these are important discussions to have, they rarely help pinpoint why a particular sales person is producing mixed results or is struggling, and what can be done to help.  And when the pressure is on, misunderstandings about what’s needed to create success for a specific assigned territory can result in really bad decisions about account coverage and the sales person. In fact, the discussion when sales performance is lackluster often spirals out of control quickly.

Once a problem is identified, the differences in perceptions between the sales person, their management and other key stakeholders regarding what’s working, what’s not, and what’s needed are often dramatically different. Left unchecked, these differences in perception result in misaligned activities between functions, with no constructive plan to turn the situation around. All too often somebody gets hurt, edicts are pronounced, and more bad results follow.

Unfortunately, the traditional sales metrics are only indicators of compliance to a system and measures of performance, not indicators of what might be wrong. What’s missing in all of the traditional sales metrics listed earlier is a recognition and common understanding of what specific skills are needed to succeed in a specific assigned territory or specific set of accounts.

Here’s a simple and effective process and tool to begin to overcome this challenge.  I first developed and used it when Sales, local Sales Management, and Product Management were struggling to evaluate & communicate about each sales person’s differences in sales skills, sales territory needs, and factory vs. field expectations at annual review time. While the process doesn’t replace the traditional planning and sales performance discussions, it definitely helps align and grow understanding for the specific skills of individual sales people, how they match their assigned customers & territory, and skills or outside help needed to fill gaps.

1.     Identify 4 or 5 key skills or attributes each sales person in your business will need to be successful. At my company, we did this for those in a technical sales position that worked closely with other sales and channel sales people. We referred to the attributes this technical sales person required as “hats” this group needed to wear. Our “hats” were:

  • Sales – yes, they needed to have general selling skills and techniques
  • Technical – our products were very technical, as were our customers
  • Commercial – beyond day-to-day selling, these people created local promotions & events
  • Leadership – this group needed to guide channel partners and other sales people

While these categories may seem a little vague, they were the perfect set of topics for our situation. During discussions that follow, each person added specifics as needed.

2.     Create a radar chart (as shown in this article’s initial graphic) and label each “spoke” as one of the key skills. You’ll use this as a way to graphically show what you think is the right mix of skills needed for the sales person’s assigned area or account package as well as the skills that sales person demonstrates. Excel enables you to create these pretty easily. You should label the axis from 1 to 5 to correspond with a simple rating system like: 

  1. = None
  2. = Infrequent / Poor
  3. = Average
  4. = Good / Needed
  5. = Exceptional / Important

The ratings you choose will be used to describe what’s needed to succeed in that territory as well as the fundamental skills and characteristics that this sales person demonstrates. You’re looking at fit between the sales persons’ skills and their territory’s needs, not their job performance.  

3.     Gather Input – Provide the chart & rating system to the sales person, the sales manager, and other key stakeholders and ask them to first rate what is needed succeed with this customer base/territory. Then ask them to rate what you believe are the current skills demonstrated by the sales person (in a different color).

4.     Discuss – Schedule live meetings between all to discuss the gaps. Consolidate each rater’s “territory” input on 1 radar chart, the “sales rep” skills on another, and average ratings of both on a 3rd… you’ll discover the following:

  • Differences of opinions about what’s needed to succeed in the territory
  • Difference of opinions about the skill set demonstrated by the sales person
  • Areas where the Sales person’s strengths & weaknesses align with the territory
  • Areas where the Sales person’s strengths far exceed what’s needed
  • Areas where there’s a gap – the Sales person isn’t as strong as what’s needed

5.     Get a plan. Here are a few common situations & actions:

  • A Gap or TWO – Often, you’ll find a gap or 2 that needs to be addressed. Since most Sales organizations are backed by others, you might look for creative ways to fill the gaps with additional coaching, training, direct support from the Sales Manager, or others in the organization. 
  • A Strength that isn’t needed – At times, you’ll find the sales person is very strong in areas that aren’t needed. There, you’re likely to find this gap is causing frustration for someone… the Sales person is unsatisfied and isn’t doing what they do best, or they’re doing it and other parts of their job are suffering. While your discussion may provide short-term relief and closer alignment, long term you may consider changing the role of this person.
  • Significant misalignment – You may find this sales person’s 2 or 3 strengths aren’t needed, but their 2 or 3 weaker areas are desperately needed for this territory’s customer base. Unless this discussion and specific coaching & training will improve the balance needed, its time to discuss other roles or assignments for this sales person.
  • Many Gaps – If this is the case, you likely knew it before using this process. You’ll need to determine if and how these gaps can be filled, or begin to discuss a role that better aligns with this person’s capabilities.

Your benefits are considerable. First, you’ll be able to better gain a common understanding of expectations for the territory and sales professional. The sales person will be able to better prioritize and balance their activities with what’s needed. Your support organizations will better understand what’s needed and help fill in gaps. You’ll be able to have a constructive discussion between sales, sales management, and others about what’s needed, and how to succeed with a particular sales person with specific strengths and weaknesses in a specific assignment. In the end, this type of discussion & resulting understanding will contribute to sales achievement better than many traditional approaches.

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