Putting Sales Reps on Probation

In the past, I let sales reps who weren't achieving quota remain with the company until they quit or I fired them. For the first time, I'll be putting an underperforming sales rep on warning.  I'm apprehensive about how he'll act around the office in the days and weeks after I give him the news.  What should I expect?  

Once a sales rep has been put on probation, warning, or a PIP (performance improvement plan), their behavior can only be described as interesting.  I can't predict how your rep will conduct himself.  I can review the patterns I typically see.

Surprise Resignation

Get ready. A week or two after you put him on warning, the rep may resign.   "Why did I bother to go to the time and effort of putting them on warning?" you might ask yourself.

In this case the sales rep knew he wasn't performing up to expectations.  Most likely, he'd been job hunting for a while.  Being put on probation was the catalyst for him to move things along.  Salespeople in this situation may take a job they don't really want to avoid being terminated.  It happens.

Your efforts were not in vain.  The time you invested in the warning process resulted in a quick and relatively painless exit on the part of an underperforming employee.  Look forward. Put your energies into hiring a new sales representative.

Committed to Improvement

In the early weeks of being placed on probation, these salespeople jump into action. If they're supposed to make 25 prospecting calls a day, they'll make 30.  Instead of the required 10 product demonstrations, they'll conduct 12.

These reps realize they value their job. Upset about letting their production slip, they refocus and work hard to prove themselves.  Managers find it very rewarding when salespeople make a real effort to get off of probation.  After all, they hired the rep with the idea that they would be successful. 

The Holding Pattern

Other reps will display the same sort of newfound dedication as "Committed" and put up strong sales numbers -- initially.  However their effort is only about staying employed until they can find a new job.

Observing this rep in action, you may optimistically say to yourself, "I guess being put on warning was what they needed all along. This may work out."

Don't be fooled. This rep's rise to the occasion is temporary. 

Waiting for the Ax to Fall

Some salespeople accept the inevitable almost right after you put them on warning. They'll never reach their sales goals and they know it.

Their energy level quickly deteriorates. Lunch hours get longer and longer.  They call in sick frequently, and take unused vacation or personal days.  Most distance themselves from their manager and peers.  It's a slow, awkward crawl to the finish line.

I Dare You

Perhaps you've threatened him with probation before.  Have you ever started the process and then quietly backed off with out following through? 

Whatever the case may be, probation doesn't phase this rep.  He makes no changes to his behavior at all. He's waiting you out.  Aware that he's not the most talented salesperson, he knows you could do better.  But you could do a a lot worse too. 

Confident you don't have the nerve to fire him, it's business as usual until you get back to normal.

Moving Forward

Forget about how you may or may not have handled underperforming reps in the past.  Put that behind you.  Commit to this process.  Go into it knowing that not following through on probation is worse than doing nothing.  It shows the salespeople that they can push you around.  Placing below-quota reps on probation is the right thing to do for you, your business, and the rest of the sales staff.

In next month's column I will offer tips on navigating the management of and interaction with a rep on probation or warning.