How to Impact & Improve Sales Rep Performance

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

I have spent the last 25 years singularly focused on answering one question: How do you improve a sales rep’s performance?

There may be higher callings in life, but this is the path I’ve chosen, and after 25 plus years, I believe I’ve discovered the most important ingredient to not only catapult a rep’s performance, but their level of engagement, as well.

So, what’s the key? What do all the high performing sales organizations know that you may be missing?

It’s not technology, or focusing on the right metrics, or even training (hard for me to say since I run a training company). The key to maximizing rep performance is… (drum roll please)… coaching. 


Why Sales Coaching is Critical to Improving Performance

I know it’s not sexy, and it certainly won’t land me on the cover of Time Magazine, but it’s the truth.

“Tom, tell me something I don’t know. Everyone knows the importance of coaching.”

I agree, but if everyone already knows the importance of sales coaching, then why are so few sales organizations coaching their people? And if they are, why aren’t they doing it well?

I think it has a lot to do with how the role of a coach is being defined. Most organizations confuse “coaching” with “performance evaluations.” I’m a big believer in developing a scorecard and ensuring each rep knows where they stand, but knowing your “score” just highlights the problem and offers nothing in terms of the solution.

In general, the business world is too bogged down in metrics. To really understand coaching, we need to look at the world of sports instead.

So let’s take a look at this idea through a football analogy:

I played football in college, and I can’t imagine what it’d be like if they had followed the same development plan as most sales organizations do.

“Hey Tom, for our opener, we are going to be playing Alabama. I really need you to block well and never drop a pass. So do your best this week preparing, and I will check in with you after the game on Sunday, and we will discuss your performance. Good luck, and just remember – we really need to win.”

Anyone remotely familiar with sports knows that this would never happen. Why? Because you can’t win games if you don’t help your players develop their skills.

In sports, you spend a large majority of your time under the guidance of a coach developing your skills, and much less time reviewing your performance. This usually happens on Sunday, after the game. If your performance was below par, you never had to guess how you played (usually with chairs flying across the room and the quality of your heritage openly questioned).

In most sales organizations, we just have the “Sunday meeting.”  For example, “Suzie, your percentages are down, and you’re not hitting your productivity goals. Now go do better and I will see you in two weeks.”

That’s not coaching. Coaching is about improving the future. Way too many managers, instead, just report on the past. They sit on the sidelines, filling out their scorecard with the hopes that things will get better.

I’m here to tell you, they won’t.


Tips for Coaching Your Team of Reps

As a sales leader, what is your approach to developing your team? Do you typically spend most of your time in “Sunday meetings” rather than helping each rep build their skills through true coaching? If you’ve recognized that, you may need to change your approach.

Here are a few tips to consider:

  • Don’t be a player-coach. You can’t coach if you don’t observe your reps’ performance.
  • Protect your time to coach. Under-performing reps will require at least one coaching session per month. If your plate is too full with administrative tasks, you need to ask yourself which puts your job at greater risk: a lack of administrative processes, or an under-performing team?
  • Recognize the difference between skills and knowledge. Skills must be observed and developed in one-on-one sessions with the reps. Knowledge gaps, on the other hand, can be addressed by delegating that responsibility to the rep, reducing the time required in a coaching session.
  • Focus on your reps’ desire. If a team member is unwilling to change, don’t waste your time coaching them. A rep’s commitment to the process is just as important as yours. Communicate that you are more than willing to invest in their developmental process… when they are committed to following through on their development plan. This will free up precious time to invest in those reps that are passionate about improving.
  • Assess your percentage of positive to negative feedback. Coaching is about looking forward and helping the rep achieve their goals. This should always be a positive interaction regardless of their current level of performance. One simple way to build your awareness about your approach is to watch for signs that reps are looking forward to the next session. If not, your coaching interaction probably feels a bit like a “Sunday meeting” after a big loss.


With all of that said, I challenge you to incorporate these tips and become an actual coach. Move beyond just delivering a backward-gazing performance scorecard during a “Sunday meeting,” to hosting productive, positive, future-looking coaching sessions. Although it will require greater intentionality, I guarantee that you and your reps will see the results you are both looking for.

Now let’s identify and address your biggest obstacles to making this happen. 


Prioritize Coaching Your “Line-Up”

I’ve challenged you to expand your role beyond just delivering a scorecard (i.e., assessment of performance) by highlighting the problem and focusing more time on coaching – the solution. 

But most likely you know this. The challenge is time. Conceptually everyone believes in the idea of developing their team, but at the end of the day, it’s just tough to fit it in. 

 Would you like to free-up another 5 to 10 hours a month to develop your team? Here’s how – stop spending time on those team members that are never going to change.


You Can’t Save Everyone

The first step is to realize that everyone will not make it, and you don’t have enough time to equally invest in developing all of your reps to the level of performance required. 

So where do you focus? Instead of just ranking reps A, B, and C based solely on performance, divide your team into four groups based on performance and their desire to change. 


Here is an example of how you can assess and group each team member:

  • Independents: Reps with adequate to strong performance, but little or no desire to change.
  • Detractors: Reps with substandard performance and lack the willingness to change.
  • Strivers: Reps that have a strong desire to improve and grow, but are not meeting the required performance levels.
  • Achievers: Reps that have a strong desire to improve and grow… and are meeting or exceeding the required performance levels.


Coach to the Rep’s Individual Level

Once each team member is placed in the appropriate group, you can implement the appropriate strategy for each rep and determine where to spend your time:


The Independents

With the Independents, very little time is required (we recommend ~5%). They are meeting their performance requirements and don’t want to change so leave them alone. 

The key is to raise the average level of performance for the entire team, and they will most likely be motivated to elevate their performance as the team’s average performance increases (i.e., “high tide raises all boats”).


The Detractors

The Detractors are typically the greatest drain on the manager’s time. If their desire to change is low or non-existent, all coaching and development efforts will fail. 

Therefore, the time invested in the Detractor should be minimal (~5%), until they demonstrate a willingness to learn and grow. 

Simply communicate that you believe there is a desire issue on their part, and then inform (or remind) them of the expected level of performance, the time frame required to reach that acceptable level, and a willingness on your part to support them if their desire to change emerges. 

What we do not recommend is to communicate that you don’t value the rep, but until they are willing to change, coaching is futile.


The Strivers

On the other hand, it’s important to heavily invest in the Strivers (~75%). This is your greatest opportunity to enhance the overall performance of your team. 

They embrace the idea that they need to improve and are open to input and ideas for improvement. 

Specific performance requirements should be communicated, but a bit more grace should be granted if they are committed to the development plan you have mapped out.


The Achievers

Second only to the Striver, managers should invest a considerable amount of time with the Achievers (~15%). These are the stars of the team who also have a desire to continually improve. Here the strategy should be to grow, challenge, and retain.


The Takeaway

Adopting this approach to coaching will help remove the first barrier to developing your team – a lack of time. 

Additionally, this process will encourage you to intentionally focus on the emotional barrier that keeps your Independents and Detractors from moving to the next level and places the responsibility to “get above the line” squarely on their shoulders. 

The message becomes extremely simple – “If you don’t want to show up for practice, that is your decision, but performance in the game is non-negotiable.” 

Now the accountability to perform has been clearly communicated, it is up to the rep to pursue you further for help. The next step is to focus all of your energy on those team members who will respond to your development support – Achievers and Strivers.

Good luck… and now go forth and coach!


Looking for More?

If you’ve read this whole article and realize that you struggle to make time to coach, and even when you do, reps don’t change, we may have a tool to help. The key to rep development is to pick the right behavioral gap to fix and the right exercise to fix it. 

Use Catalyst Core to simplify both and save time – for free. Catalyst Core  is a free, cloud application to make front line sales managers more effective at coaching and improving the results of their sales team with the three Core elements: Diagnose, Develop and Insight. Learn more and get started today.


In addition, if you found this blog helpful and want to go deeper into the concepts we covered, check out our new book, UnReceptive, at

As Co-founder and CEO, Tom’s primary role is to create content that helps people live, sell, and serve more effectively. Find him on LinkedIn

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