Performance Improvement Plans, or How to Save your Rep in 3 Months!

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It’s been six months on the job for Tom Hanks, that promising new closing sales rep you hired over the summer. Unfortunately, the early results have been far from promising – in fact, after an onboarding period to teach Tom your product and process, he still struggles to pick it up. Closing B2B deals might not be Tom’s forte, and you very well might have made a mistake in hiring. Is it time to give Tom the sack?

No! Just because Tom is struggling at the moment doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of succeeding at this job. Maybe you ramped him up too quickly. Maybe he just has a different learning style than the rest of your reps. Maybe he’s simply been unlucky thus far.

Yet, even if there’s a good reason for his struggles, the fact remains that sales is a performance business; if you’re not delivering Closed-Won deals, you’re not doing your job. It’s on you, the sales manager, to help Tom be successful at doing his job, while still holding your team to high expectations and delivering results.

It’s time to put Tom on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP).

Why the PIP Works

You never want your reps to be surprised that they’re not doing well and are on the verge of losing their jobs – nobody wants the rug pulled out from under them. Transparency should be prevalent throughout your sales team, so everybody can measure themselves against their goals at all times. In other words, it should not come as a surprise to Tom that he hasn’t come close to hitting his number once. Everything in sales should be measured by the numbers, and Tom knows his have not been stellar.

At the same time, people should be given a chance to improve. It’s possible that Tom has simply been unlucky, or that the blame for Tom’s poor performance lies in your training and onboarding process. To account for that possibility, it’s only fair that Tom be given a second chance, i.e. the PIP.

This also means that the responsibility and pressure to hit his number is ratcheted up even further. With additional training and coaching also comes a hotter spotlight and more intense scrutiny. The PIP shouldn’t be considered a last-ditch effort, a ticking time bomb counting down to Tom’s demise, but rather a focused chance to make a concerted effort and improve.

The Structure of a PIP

Over the next week, have a meeting with Tom to tell him that due to him struggling to make his number – or even come close – he is being put on a Performance Improvement Plan, as of January 1. This will be a 90-day plan, by the end of which Tom will be expected to be hitting at least 90% of his monthly quota. It’s important to keep in mind that you don’t expect the rep to make up for lost time and past missed quotas, but rather to get on a path where they are near full-productivity for the next quarter. Break down the 90-day plan into smaller and more manageable milestones:

  • After Month 1, Tom should be improving and have hit between 10 to 25% of his monthly goal-to-date. You don’t want to make him feel that missing that first month is the end of the world – it’s not – but it is critical that he at least shows signs of improvement. He must start ramping up to full productivity here.
  • After Month 2, the gap should be closed even further. Tom should have hit at least 50% of his monthly goal by this point. Perhaps more importantly, his dedication to improve should be readily apparent – he has been performing more activities, is more dedicated to sales coaching and is being more proactive overall.
  • After Month 3, Tom should practically be a fully-ramped sales rep, hitting his monthly number or at least coming close (~ 90%). Cut Tom some slack if he ends up a hair short of hitting his number – as long as the improvement is there, that’s the important thing.

If Tom misses his milestones at any point early in the plan, it might be time to have a serious conversation with him about whether or not this is the right job for him. It’s better for everyone that Tom uses the last month or two to get a headstart on his next job search, rather than everyone expending great effort on Tom’s improvement when he’s clearly not a great long-term fit.

But of course, that’s not the goal. You want to save Tom! And you can, within this three-month time period, with the right focus and a concerted and personalized coaching effort.

Coaching for Improvement

The very first step in Tom’s Performance Improvement Plan should be for you to answer this question: Is it an issue of aptitude? Or attitude?

Aptitude can be worked on and improved, with additional sales coaching. Attitude? That is a much more difficult problem, and one that is best excised immediately. You can’t let one bad rep with a bad attitude ruin the whole team. As far as coaching to improve Tom’s aptitude…

  • Focus on activities – When reps are struggling, they can always add more input, in the hope of producing more output. Maybe 10 more dials a day will lead to one additional meeting taken, and that meeting just might make all the difference.
  • Review his sales pipeline more tightly – Hold more regular sales pipeline review meetings with Tom, focusing on early-stage opportunities – those are the opps where you can actually make a difference, unlike late-stage opportunities. Saving one or two of these early opps could close the gap on Tom’s number.
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  • Study previous lost opportunities – Knowing why he’s losing opportunities – and not just where – can provide real actionable insight. If Tom knows that some of his selling methods are actively losing opportunities, he can stop doing those things.
  • Keep motivation high – Tom might be struggling with his self-confidence, having been placed on this PIP. It’s important that as his manager, you keep his spirits and motivation high, even during tough times.

Performance Improvement Plans work. Putting your rep on one can actually save his or her sales career within 3 months. It requires a concerted and personalized sales coaching effort on your part, and full buy-in – with a willingness to be humbled, learn and give that extra 110% – on the part of your sales rep. Put a struggling rep on this three-month PIP, and you just might turn a diamond in the rough into a selling superstar down the road.

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