Why it’s crucial to rethink your sales reps’ annual reviews (part 2)

françois-xavier théry Published by François-Xavier Théry – 27 January 2022

So what’s the process?

We’ll start with the creation of a skills matrix, a key component for establishing a detailed, effective skills assessment, which enables you to define your development plans and guide each sales rep.

Many management books divide sales performance into four cornerstones, three of which are different sets of skills: technical skills specific to the company’s line of business, selling and/or interpersonal skills (separated into hard skills and soft skills), and finally organizational skills (whose importance should definitely not be underestimated). The final cornerstone is motivation.

More important than the structure itself is managers’ awareness of the fact that sales performance skews toward the weakest area. It would be ill-advised to think, for instance, that a sales rep well honed in sales and negotiation techniques will be able to “sell anything,” implying that this half-baked expertise will gloss over any technical shortcomings. Customers are not that gullible! The same goes for the classic case of the sales rep with a decent track record who balks at learning how to use a CRM or social selling (which they consider a waste of time that does nothing to boost sales).

So, in short, completing a detailed skills assessment for each sales rep identifying areas for improvement while recognizing and spurring on strengths is a managerial duty that helps develop sales performance significantly.

The first step is to ensure that the sales teams and HR are fully on board.

HR’s role is to define the framework and deliverables based on the processes set up with the other departments in the business, or the HRIS, in order to avoid entering the same information twice and hampering company-wide analyses. Their involvement is also key for achieving buy-in or even promoting the work to upper management, which can result in the initiative being expanded to other departments.

Fundamentally, HR departments can only be pleased with the prospect of sales departments understanding the value of annual skills reviews and updating the practice, or even creating a skills matrix for sales reps that truly reflects the realities of the job.

For the sales teams, a good method is to set up a project group of managers receptive to HR development (five to six managers is a good size) with different levels of experience and ideally both men and women, who represent the sales department as a whole. The goal of this group will be to produce or update the sales skills matrix with the help of a specialist, by leading an initial brainstorming phase with the teams to come up with ideas on the key skills that need to be acquired. This type of project can be completed in three to four months through a mix of group meetings, work in pairs, brainstorming sessions, and draft and final summaries.

Having led this type of initiative at several companies, I can say that the experience often sparks motivation among the managers in the project group, who are pleased and proud to be key stakeholders. The same can be said for the sales reps, who are elated to learn that the skills evaluation will reflect the realities of their job, and to be brought into the fold by their manager to help build the skills matrix.

The next step is to coordinate with everyone on how to use the matrix and to start the operational roll-out. It’s a key phase that alternates between guided training and theme-based workshops.

Three main working areas can be covered as a group, using an interactive approach:

  1. Achieving a shared interpretation of the skills matrix and the same understanding of the skills defined, the terms employed and the requirements at the various evaluation levels
  2. Collectively mapping out the skills targeted for the next 24-36 months based on the new matrix and the company’s goals
  3. Clearly defining all the related processes to set up: frequency of skill reviews (annual or semiannual?), format (length / logistics), methodology (prior communication, self-evaluation, conducting the review, feedback, HRIS, follow-up, etc.), building and implementing development plans, managerial approach, etc.

These are complex topics with which managers’ degree of experience often varies greatly, so it’s best to set up a personalized coaching plan (12 months or longer) during the launch phase to ensure proper implementation at the sales department and HR, and especially to measure the impact on performance and motivation.

Read the first part of this article

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