My client Mike, who manages a sales team on the West Coast, had a problem: One of his salespeople suddenly stopped performing. Their numbers were down, their effort was poor, and their morale seemed low. Mike knew that the sooner he fixed the problem, the better. 

Mike could provide feedback to the rep that should improve performance, develop their talents, solve problems, align expectations and improve the bottom line. However, for most managers and organizations, feedback is often sporadic and ineffective.

Almost everyone has difficulties with giving, receiving and accepting feedback, according to the article “Find the Coaching in Criticism” by Harvard researchers Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. Only 36 percent of managers complete appraisals completely and on time. More than half of all employees surveyed believe their reviews to be inaccurate or unfair. One in four hates evaluations more than anything else at work.

It’s obvious that most people view feedback as a threat. Stone and Heen found that even well-intentioned critiques “spark an emotional reaction, inject tension into the relationship, and bring communication to a halt.”

Most companies try to combat this issue by training managers to give feedback more effectively and at regular intervals. And although I applaud that effort, I agree with the Harvard researchers who found that the best feedback in the world isn’t effective if the receiver doesn’t absorb and apply what is said.

Feedback, or “performance reviews” as some like to call them, usually involves telling the salesperson what they are doing wrong and expecting them to stop it. Feedback is often provided in what is perceived as a high-pressure situation by the recipient. And as we’ve learned, statistics reveal that approach is not effective. So instead of focusing on what a salesperson is doing wrong, emphasize what would work better in the future.

Here are some tips about giving feedback that will help:

  1. Don’t provide feedback when upset or angry. Keep your emotions under control. If you are angry or anxious, the salesperson most likely will mirror your emotions or shut down. 

  2. Describe what you’ve observed, or what the performance data reveals. Be specific about what you are seeing. It’s not important for you to analyze why the salesperson is doing something. Focus on what they are doing or saying.

  3. Describe the impact on the business and on you. Is the business below its goals? Is the salesperson’s disrespectful attitude towards other co-workers causing you to lose employees? Don’t blame the rep, speculate or tell a long story. Be clear, and be brief. As an example, you might say, “When you are late for meetings and in updating our CRM system, I feel frustrated, and feel that you are discounting what this business needs from you to be successful.” 

  4. Listen to what the rep says. Let them share their reasons and thoughts. Stay engaged. Listen. Don’t assume you know what they are going to say and start formulating a response half-way through their explanations. When the rep finishes talking, repeat what you heard and then respond. Share your reactions to what the rep is saying. 

  5. Outline a way forward. This is your opportunity as the sales leader to explain what needs to happen next time and in the future. How would you like the sales rep to behave differently to achieve their sales goal? What could the rep do to make their co-workers feel respected? Be specific, and be brief. Make sure the rep understands the feedback. And here is the most important part of this stage: Get an agreement with the rep on the way forward. Without the rep applying the necessary actions and/or techniques moving forward, your feedback is virtually useless.

  6. Have a positive ending. As the sales leader, the way you end the conversation with the rep increases your chance of successful outcomes. Thank the rep for really listening to your feedback. Reinforce that you know change may take some time. Offer your support if necessary, and your encouragement. Express gratitude for having them as part of your team.