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You know they’re important. HR is on your case about getting them done. But, they’re time consuming, uncomfortable, and disorganized. And as a manager, you have more important things to focus on right now.

We’re talking about the dreaded performance review.

They’re among the most underused levers for affecting behavior in most organizations. Reviews encourage people to play by the company rules, stop bad habits, set priorities, and clarify accountabilities owned by the sales rep versus the manager or the firm. Doing performance reviews well reinforces effective leadership skills.  

I recently published my new book, Aligning Strategy and Sales, and its entire tenth chapter focuses on performance reviews. Pulling from that section, here’s a guide for what to do before, during, and after the review.  

Step 1: Before conducting a performance review …

You just checked your calendar and there it is glaring back at you. Performance reviews consume an entire afternoon next week. Stop groaning. Let’s get prepared.  

1) Make standards clear.

Sales managers must make both company and industry-wide ethical standards clear. Identify what’s important and how much you expect from the employee. This may seem obvious, but it’s often not done.  

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2) Schedule enough time.

Reviews examine an employee’s role in the company, their salary, and career outlook. These important issues shouldn’t be taken lightly. Doing a quickie review leaves reps feeling confused or undervalued.  

3) Identify specific examples.

To be effective, a performance conversation must be part of an ongoing process, not a one-shot deal. Take note of activities and behaviors exhibited by the employee throughout the year so that you have specific examples to provide during the review, not just do-good-and-avoid-evil platitudes. This underscores the importance of drive-alongs, de-briefs after sales calls, and a robust win-loss analysis process.

4) Make judgments about performance.

Is someone struggling because of motivation or ability? Or, both? Some reps may work hard, but lack certain capabilities. In those cases, consider training or coaching to enhance their performance. Other employees may have relevant abilities but lack motivation. Would different incentives or rewards programs increase motivation? These are not easy judgments to make but, they’re necessary and require varied action plans. Without them, it’s difficult to be mutually productive during the review.

Step 2: During the employee evaluation …

Once you’re prepared for the review, stay focused. Avoid falling into a wandering, casual conversation with the employee by concentrating on these five factors.  

1) Convey positive intent.

Remind your reps: Reviews provide feedback to increase their effectiveness. As a manager, you think they are a capable employee. The very fact that you’re having a meeting proves it. If you didn’t think their abilities and motivation should be praised or have room for improvement, you wouldn’t have a performance review — you would have a different meeting —  that ends with cleaning out their desk.  

2) Provide specific observations.

Sharing specific examples helps people understand more clearly and makes them more open to hearing criticism. Telling a rep, “Your pitch was terrible” doesn’t help her understand how to make it better in the future and invites defensiveness. Instead try saying,  

“Your pitch wasn’t effective because it didn’t include information on demographics, total lifecycle costs, or payment terms. Next time do this research before the call to get better results. I’m happy to show you an example later this afternoon to get started.”  

This type of response makes it easier for the employee to accept negative comments and take corrective action. Again, this requires lots of prep.  

3) State the impact of the behavior or action.

This step is crucial for both the rep and the manager. For the rep, improving performance ultimately means some change in behavior. So, focus on specific behaviors, actions, and performance. Again, it’s one thing to say, “You didn’t connect with the buyer.” It’s quite another to say, “You interrupted people throughout the meeting and therefore that buyer was less open to listening to your ideas.

Focus on the impact of behaviors within a rep’s control — as opposed to feedback about their personality — to minimize a common cloning bias. Is there really a problem with the rep’s performance, or is the performance achieved using a style you wouldn’t use to do the job? Always be clear about the difference.  

4)  Ask the other person to respond.

The Roshamon effect is alive and well in Sales. Two people can observe the same event or outcome yet interpret it differently. Two-way dialogue is important not just because it’s polite, but because it tests assumptions and reasoning. But, don’t let this become an argument. If the conversation heads down that road, it’s a good time to move on to step five.  

5) Identify a plan of action.

Focus the discussion on options and solutions. Keep it positive. This meeting may be called a performance review, but ultimately, these conversations are about today and tomorrow in the marketplace, not yesterday in the office or training seminar. No review is complete without a discussion of next steps in which both parties take responsibility for possible changes. Focus on identifying assets you and the rep can capitalize on to increase effectiveness, and benchmarks to use in measuring progress after the review.  

Step 3: After conducting the review …

As with training, the greatest impact from performance conversations comes after the review. Too often, there’s no follow-up or follow-through. The review becomes an isolated annual event and has little real impact beyond the size-of-bonus discussion.  

Behavioral change requires setting goals and providing ongoing feedback about progress toward those goals. To ensure this occurs, schedule recurring follow-ups and review progress against the metrics established in the performance review.  

Want to read more? Check out my new book, Aligning Strategy and Sales: The Choices, Systems, and Behaviors That Drive Effective Selling.

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