Break It to Them Gently

By Heather Baldwin

It’s a fact of any sales manager’s life that you must keep reps apprised of their performance. Every once in awhile, that means you have to communicate bad news or alert a rep to a problem. So, how can you do this in a way that’s consistent, professional and constructive? In his book, Value-Added Sales Management (Contemporary Books, 1993), Tom Reilly offers this four-phase model that he says will ensure you assertively and empathically communicate with your employees about difficult issues.

1. Preparation phase. Give some thought in advance to what you want to say, how you can best say it and what you want the meeting to produce. Write it down so the meeting stays on track and you don’t miss important points.

2. Opening phase. State the purpose of the meeting, make a statement about the problem and tell why it’s a problem. Reilly offers this example of a solid opening phase: Frank, I wanted to meet with you today to discuss a concern I have regarding your cold calling efforts. As you know, we’ve implemented a cold calling campaign to increase new business. Most of the sales force has bought into the concept and we’re beginning to see some positive results. The problem is you haven’t been cold calling and I feel you’re missing opportunities in your territory for new business.

3. Exchange phase. This is the employee’s opportunity to respond. Managers should get the employee’s understanding of the situation and find out about any perceived barriers. From there, the manager and rep should agree on goals and strategies and the manager should ask for a commitment to action. By involving the rep in the process of setting goals and deadlines, it’s more probable the rep will take ownership of the required action and be more likely to produce.

4. Follow-up phase. Check back with the rep on a predetermined schedule, monitor his performance and make the appropriate changes.

This model, says Reilly, provides a controlled atmosphere for discussing some potentially explosive issues. “You’re treating the rep with respect and dignity while asserting your point of view,” he explains. “You get the results you need and the rep gets constructive feedback to improve his or her performance.”