Almost every sales organization has at least one underperforming sales rep. Identifying the root cause of the problem can be frustrating since salespeople are quick to offer up excuses or explanations that are not the real issue. For example, reps will use ‘a bad economy’ to justify sluggish sales. Yet, top producers in the company are enjoying growth and exceeding sales quotas.

Since it is difficult to uncover the reasons and remedy for poor performance, you might be tempted to ignore the situation. However, you might change your mind when you consider how much is at stake by tolerating an under-producing sales rep.

Dr. Christopher Croner and Richard Abraham, authors of Never Hire a Bad Salesperson Again, present a cost analysis related to a bad sales hire or under producing rep. According to the authors, the typical cost of an underperforming sales representative is about $120,000 per year – a big loss for any organization.

There are a variety of reasons sales reps fail to reach their sales goals. As a sales manager, your first step is to evaluate the cause of the problem. Unfortunately, this is not always easy to do – mainly because underperformers usually have earned their place at the bottom of the sales roster for several reasons. Consider the following common causes and practical remedies to coach your underperformers out of the red zone.


Lack of time and effort. We have all heard that ‘selling is a numbers game.’ If you reduce selling down to its simplest elements, sales success can be translated to a simple math equation: More presentations = more sales.

The opposite is true, as well. Underperforming sales reps are likely not putting in enough selling time required to achieve the results expected. Less effort equals lower results.

You identify this problem and usually its resolution by analyzing company call reports. Comparing company norms and top producer averages to those who are not meeting expectations will expose areas for improvement. This assumes the report data is accurate. Usually deeper investigation will expose inconsistencies or match up with report data. Be sure to review reports with reps to gain a full picture of the situation.

Poor role awareness. Sometimes poor performance is an indication that an employee does not understand job expectations. Today’s lean organizational structures require that all employees wear multiple hats or roles. For example, some companies expect sales reps to double as collections representatives by tracking down delinquent customer payments. Other companies expect sales reps to serve as technical support or customer service representatives. Each of these additional roles takes away from selling.

In addition, sometimes sales managers assign special projects or secondary responsibilities that may be undermining core objectives. A review of priorities and projects pending may expose activities that are distracting or diluting a reps’ selling efforts.


Lack of skills. Most sales reps are hired based on their track record from a previous employer. Yet, the skills required by one company are not necessarily the talents needed for success with another. For example, the priorities of a distributor sales rep can be considerably different than those representing manufacturers. In addition, reps who inherit large territories when they have managed mostly smaller ones may have the time or territory management skills necessary for the new responsibility.

It takes a wide variety of technical, sales, communication and interpersonal skills to achieve success in sales. A lack of performance can sometimes be due to a lack of skills required by the job. In fact, after 40 years of research with over 20,000 corporate clients, Herb Greenberg, Harold Weinstein and Patrick Sweeney discovered that 55% of sales people did not have the critical sales talent to be successful. Another 20 to 25 percent of salespeople possessed the competence for sales, but their skills indicated they would be more effective selling a different product or service to best capitalize on their strengths.

The exact skills required by a job can be identified with the use of specific benchmarking tools. In addition, the talents of employees and job candidates can also be evaluated with impressive accuracy. The result, affords managers an unbiased method of comparing job skills against the talents of employee/candidates. [For more information visit]


Loss in focus. Typically sales people are good at operating independently with little management supervision. Top producers are excellent at maintaining focus on the priorities that will lead to achieving the results expected. However, underperforming reps may have lost focus on key priorities.

Sometimes managers can quickly get reps back on track by helping them prioritize and refocus on the activities and efforts that drive results. This can be achieved by a brief weekly meeting to review goals, priorities and accomplishments. It is important to guide without active micromanaging, as this will often demotivate or create over dependency on you and your guidance.


Lack of training. Sometimes a lack in performance can be due to insufficient training. Managers make some big assumptions when they hire new employees. They expect that the skills required to achieve success with one company are the same as another. Differences in company culture and performance expectations alone demand specific skills that may be underdeveloped or nonexistent by new hires. Differences in market status can require different skills. A rep working for a company with dominant market share requires different skills to sell as compared to a company that is emerging in popularity and repute.

Addressing underperformance with training might sound like a quick fix, but it isn’t always so easy. Often, managers will send an underperforming rep to receive additional product training and expect this to improve performance. The key to getting this training to ‘stick’ is to provide additional coaching and real time feedback through in field co-travel. This is a critical, but often skipped, component of upgrading skills and improving performance after training.


Ineffective management support. Another reason for underperformance is due to poor management or a lack of leadership among supervisors. The old adage, “People don’t leave companies, they leave bosses!” is true. A variety of performance related issues including turnover and underachievement can be explained by a few common mistakes made by managers:

  • Poor communication
    • Over involvement or micro manager
    • Fails to set expectations
    • Lack of regular communication
  • Lack of availability
    • Difficult to obtain one-on-one time
    • Manager is distracted, hurried or detached
  • Overly critical and judgmental
    • Routinely criticizes performance
    • Rarely acknowledges effort or accomplishments
    • Compares reps to self or others without recommendations for improvement

Reps who are not meeting expectations come at a big price for you, your company and your customers. Uncover the real root of underperformance as you are better equipped to resolve and restore representatives to reach their potential.


 By Anita Sirianni

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