“What if I have someone on my team who is just lazy?” is a hushed question I am asked at almost every coaching workshop that I teach. It’s asked in a confidential, quiet way that suggests that the sales manager isn’t even comfortable verbalizing the question. I understand — no one wants to accuse someone of being lazy.

When I probe further to find out why they suspect that the person might be lazy, the answer is usually some variation of, “Well, they just won’t put the work in to make the change we are asking of them.”

This response could be true — but maybe managers are asking these “lazy” employees to make a change in such a way that they are guaranteeing that they can’t — or won’t — do it.

Here’s a scenario that I’ve seen in countless coaching sessions: The manager and rep agree on an area of improvement. The manager then says, “So, from now on, when I listen to your calls or observe them in action, I will see you doing this 100% of the time.”

100% of the time?

The first problem with his approach is that the manager is asking the impossible. What Hall-of-Fame baseball player gets a hit every time at the plate? Not even Michael Jordan made 100% of his free throws! Even a talented tennis player like Roger Federer has unforced errors. If his coach were to say to him, “So, you’ll never make another unforced error, right?”, it would be unreasonable. And, because it’s unreasonable, he would not be able to commit to it, because he would know there is no way that he could succeed.

If you want people to make a significant change, don’t ask them to change. Instead, ask them to try it. You will achieve a better result that way.

A Better Approach

I once observed a coaching session between a manager and a rep who was not asking enough discover questions to learn about the customer, instead jumping to a “feature dump.” The manager tried to get the rep to commit to asking five discovery questions on every call going forward. The rep muttered, “Sure.”

The manager asked the rep, “Sounds like you are not bought into the value of this approach?”

The rep replied honestly: “I am not.”

At that point, the manager turned to me and said, “I don’t know what to do next.” (It’s a fair statement; it’s why sales managers should receive coaching on how to coach: It can be tricky.)

I said to the rep, “Tell me more about your hesitation.” It turns out that he had always been successful in simply talking about the product, and he felt like this new approach was going to “take away his game” — a common concern.

I told him, “I don’t want to take away from what’s working. We’re just here to brainstorm if there’s anything that can add to your game. Would you be willing to test it out and see if it works for you?” That question is an easier ask of the rep, and he was willing to give it a try.

Why It Works

With this approach, you’re not asking the rep for permanent change, so it takes away the risk and fear associated with such a drastic shift. In addition, most people see the inherent fairness of a “try” or an experiment. It’s hard to say no to.

If you try this approach, here are a few things to keep in mind:

    • A valid test is not something the rep tries once and then declares unsuccessful. A test is something that he or she tries 15 to 20 times.
    • To set up the test properly, the two of you need to be align on what it is. Using the discovery question example, you might agree on three to five specific discovery questions that your rep will try using that you know are effective.
    • A valid test also requires tracking results. It can be as simple as jotting down a note about how the customer responded, how the course of the conversation changed because of the three to five questions or whether the customer seemed more receptive to the rep’s recommendations later.
    • Finally, the two of you need to reconnect to discuss the findings. Be sure to discuss what the rep tried, how often he or she tried it, and how well it worked.

When I’ve set up a test in this way, I have been pleased by how often the person comes back and is surprised but excited about how well the new skill or behavior works and how much it benefits them. If you have those team members who seem hesitant to change their game, rather than assuming they’re lazy, give this approach a try.