Putting Sales Reps on Probation - Part II

In last month's column, I outlined five reactions salespeople have when they are put on probation for failure to achieve quota.  I described those behaviors as "I Dare You," "Waiting for the Ax to Fall," "Surprise Resignation," "Committed to Improvement," and "The Holding Pattern."

No matter which attitude your salesperson assumes, the following suggestions will help you get through this challenging process.

Warning Letter

After making the decision to put a rep on probation, spell out the terms in writing.  Specifics should include:

  • Length of probation period
  • Minimum sales revenue expectations
  • Non-revenue related goals
  • Required reporting / meetings

Have a place at the end of the letter for their signature and yours.  Both of you should sign it after the terms of probation have been discussed and you've answered any questions they might have. As with any important document, consult your attorney beforehand.

Passive or Aggressive

After they've been formally placed on probation, reps fall into two broad behavioral categories: passive or aggressive.  Passive reps feel they'll be terminated regardless and let the probation process take its course.  Aggressive reps fight back by trying hard to save their job or acting hostilely or belligerently towards their manager. 

In my own experience, I find that categorizing their behavior one way or the other allows me to deal with the rep more consistently day to day.   

Managing the Rumor Mill

As a sales manager, I give the rep in question advice on how to deal with gossip.  After we sign the letter I say something like, "Two other people know you're on probation, the Vice President of Sales and the HR Director. If you confide in other staff members everyone will eventually know, probably within hours.  I advise you to keep this to yourself."

Some choose to disclose the information to a peer, others do not.  By making this statement, I help them decide for themselves.

Mandatory Appointments

Those wishing to save their jobs will choose to meet with you frequently.  Most will avoid any interaction with you.  Regardless, hold a formal meeting with reps on probation at least once a week.  If they're remote, speak over the phone. Review their productivity and provide any coaching and support they need. 

The letter of warning should indicate that these conferences aren't optional. Schedule the dates and times right after signing it.

Staff Meetings

Most reps on warning stop actively participating in sales staff meetings.  They attend but don't speak up much, if at all.  Others act combatively, taking you on in front of the group. Either way, their peers take notice.

Discuss their behavior.  Encourage the withdrawn rep to participate occasionally. Set limits with the one acting out. Especially if they want to keep their probation quiet, remind them it's in their best interest to behave as normally as possible.

Casual Conversation

Though awkward and difficult, make sure to informally chat with the rep on probation once in a while.  This is especially important if they come into the office most days. Ask questions like "I know you like baseball, were you able to watch the play-off game?" or "That was some rainstorm this weekend, wasn't it?"

Most will answer briefly but politely.  All will appreciate the fact you made the effort, even if they don't show it.

No matter how justified, it's almost as uncomfortable putting someone on probation as it is being on probation.  For managers, the first time through is the most difficult.  Always choose the higher ground when dealing with the rep and remember you're making the right move for your company