A couple years ago, you promoted one of your best salespeople, Martha, into a regional sales management position. She has five others reporting to her, and you believed she would be able to pass along her techniques and sales skills to the others. You hoped she would help this underperforming region to grow — but that hope has not been realized.
What went wrong?
There are many factors that could have prevented the success you had hoped for, but let’s focus on the issue of clarity of expectations. Did Martha understand that your expectations for her had changed? Did she understand that the skills that had made her successful in the past were not the skills that would make her successful in her new role? You may have taken time to explain this information to her, but did she embrace and own the different expectations? And, even if she did, was she happy about the change?
I am guessing that your initial conversation went something like this:
You: Martha, you have been doing a great job in your role as a salesperson! Your numbers have been rising every quarter for the past 10 quarters, and the feedback I receive from your customers is that you are great to work with, you deliver on what you promise and you make them feel like their needs are your top priorities. Way to go, and thanks for doing such a great job!
Martha: Thanks for the nice words. I enjoy what I do! In particular, I enjoy taking on a new customer and helping them understand why our products and services are exactly what they need. I have worked hard at becoming an expert on our products and feel good when clients value that expertise.
You: Martha, because you have been doing so great, I want to promote you to the regional spot in the central region. We think you can transfer your knowledge and expertise to the team and help them become great salespeople like you. Their sales numbers have been low for a while, and we are close to losing some big accounts. Of course, there is a raise in compensation that goes along with the promotion. Congratulations!
Martha: Wow, that’s great. I appreciate your confidence in me! Sounds like a challenge right up my alley. I can’t wait to show those clients how great our products and services are.
In the afterglow of this conversation, Martha may have convinced herself that her knowledge and proven ability to sell is what earned her the promotion. She couldn’t wait to show you that promoting her was the right decision, and she saw it merely as moving to a larger stage.
Meanwhile, you may have convinced yourself that she understood that what you really needed was for her to coach and train the underperforming employees in better selling practices. You believed that her ability to communicate, motivate and develop others would turn around this underperforming region. Each of you walked away from the conversation with a different view of expectations.
Two years later, you are disappointed that you see little overall improvement, and Martha is likely just as frustrated. Managing the five employees is taking a lot of her time — time she could put toward actually selling, to continue to prove that she is an expert.
Before this situation goes any further, it is time to have a problem-solving conversation. The purpose is not to point fingers and assign blame but, rather, to make sure you are both on the same page with regard to your performance expectations. Make sure you both understand the role you put her in; be sure she not only understands the role but also that she wants the role as you have defined it. If not, let her go back to selling, and find another high performer who wants to be a people leader.
Here is a useful model to follow for this problem-solving meeting:
Step 1: Clarify the Problem
Focus on the problem: Sales are not growing, customers are leaving and individual salespeople’s performance has not improved. Do not focus on why this problem is happening or who is the cause of the problem until you both agree on what the problem is.
This step of the conversation will likely illustrate that the two of you have been seeing the job differently. If, at this point, the (clearly defined) regional position is appealing to Martha, you can proceed to help her figure out how to turn things around.
Step 2: Explore Options for Addressing the Problem
Are the right people in the sales positions? Have they received all the training and information they need to be successful? What changes does Martha need to make in her activities to be sure she provides coaching and training to the salespeople? Are the right feedback processes in place to give each person the performance feedback they need in order to know if they are on track?
Step 3: Decide on a Plan of Action
Agree on what happens next. Martha needs to know she has your support. After all, you are asking her to become a coach and mentor and to give up the role of expert salesperson. This request could be scary for her, and your support will be critical.
Step 4: Follow up
Set up a time to check in with each other to see how things are going. What help does she need? Is she feeling good about the role as you’ve redefined it? You can also use this follow-up discussion to remind her that she is no longer a salesperson: She is a sales leader who will be successful only if she can help her team to be successful.