Sales Coaching Blog

4 Ways Managers Can Improve Feedback to Reps

Posted by Sarah Wirth

July 20, 2016


4_ways_managers_can_improve_feedbackDelivering effective feedback on reps’ sales skills is one of the most challenging, but also most important responsibilities of sales managers. We frequently have the opportunity to speak with sales managers about their feedback challenges, and here are some of the most common concerns or questions they share with us:

“I’m not sure how critical or cautious to be with my feedback.”

“I don’t want to overwhelm my reps with too many things they have to improve.”

“I struggle with getting my reps to actually make improvements based on my feedback.”

It’s not just the sales managers who say that giving feedback is a challenge, it’s also reps who believe their managers struggle in this area. In our Through the Eyes of the Rep Survey (TTEORS), we ask reps to rate how effectively their managers execute different sales coaching activities. Giving effective feedback on sales skills is always the coaching activity rated the lowest of the most critical coaching activities.

But what constitutes effective feedback? At EcSell Institute, we have been focused on researching the specific behaviors and best practices that contribute to highly rated feedback conversations, according to the reps who receive the feedback. Our research has shown four critical ways a manager can improve how they deliver feedback to reps:

1. Ensure documented feedback is provided on a regular basis

2. Provide feedback with the level of constructive criticism the rep needs

3. Offer as specific of ideas as possible for improvement of skills

4. Use questions to drive self-analysis and openness to improvement ideas

Let's discuss how you can improve your feedback skills by learning these four specific feedback best practices.

Feedback Best Practice #1:  Ensure documented feedback is provided on a regular basis

Sales managers who provide documented feedback at least quarterly to their sales reps are more likely to be on target to achieve their sales goal, according to EcSell Institute research. Documenting feedback doesn’t have to be elaborate – doing a simple rating of the rep’s different skills and providing a couple written recommendations is sufficient. While not overly complex, the documentation process seems to raise the importance of the feedback in the rep’s eyes and also provides a benchmark from which the sales rep can grow. Documentation is also likely to lead to more effective feedback because it ensures clear communication about what the rep did well, needs to improve and what they should do differently moving forward.

In summary, to effectively execute this feedback best practice, the sales manager should complete simple feedback documentation (ratings of key skills and a few written improvement ideas) on at least a quarterly basis.

Feedback Best Practice #2:  Provide feedback with the level of constructive criticism the rep needs

As we surveyed reps about how their coaching relationships with their managers could be improved, a frequent response was that they would like to receive more critical feedback from their manager. So we decided to study this concept further and ask all reps who complete our surveys whether they felt they would benefit from having more critical feedback. Their response shows that a rep’s need for critical feedback varies significantly from person-to-person (see below).

It would help you if your manager gave you more critical feedback on your selling skills.

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Clearly, there is a wide amount of disagreement among reps around whether they want more critical feedback, with about 30% agreeing to some degree and nearly an equal amount disagreeing. This shows how important it is to individualize your approach to your reps. Watch for how they respond to constructive criticism, providing direct feedback on what to improve when they seem to crave it and being careful in how direct you are when they seem to become defensive. 

In summary, to effectively execute this feedback best practice, it is crucial to identify if your rep responds well to direct, constructive criticism or if a more cautious approach to address improvement areas is necessary.

Feedback Best Practice #3:  Offer as specific ideas as possible for improvement of sales skills

Just like reps would often express the desire for more critical feedback on our rep surveys, many of them would also say they would like their manager to provide them with more specific ideas for improvement of their sales skills. As we sought to further understand the importance of this particular feedback best practice, we found an interesting trend. We asked sales reps about whether their manager was very specific when talking to them about ways to improve their skills and compared those results to how effectively they rated their manager’s overall management skills on a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being high). What we saw was that 80% of the most highly rated managers were seen as providing specific feedback, while 0% of the most low-rated managers were assessed as doing so (see below).

Your manager is very specific when talking to you about ways to improve your skills.

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This stark contrast between top- and bottom-rated managers in providing specifics when talking about ways to improve skills indicates that this feedback best practice is one that is crucial to driving more effective sales teams. To add more specifics to your feedback, ensure that you are very detailed in sharing the effectiveness of their current approaches and what they could do differently. Some managers may fear that too many specifics could be seen as condescending or micro-managing their reps’ sales techniques, but it’s clear that the best managers use this approach.

In summary, to effectively execute this feedback best practice, it is important to share detailed insights on the language, questions and overall sales approaches that lead to successful outcomes.

Feedback Best Practice #4:  Use questions to drive self-analysis and openness to improvement ideas

Like most of us, reps can be defensive when criticized or resistant to trying a new approach because of comfort with their current way of doing things. Using open-ended questions to engage reps in a dialogue can help create a coaching environment where they are more effective at identifying for themselves how they need to improve. Questions also help make reps more open to hearing suggestions for improvement.

Most managers are consistent in beginning feedback conversations with an open-ended question like “how do you think that call went?”  However, after that initial question, many managers then launch into their assessment of their reps’ performance, often talking at their reps and making it less likely their reps are open to their ideas. Going deeper in their levels of questioning can help alleviate this issue and create a greater level of analysis and collaboration in identifying areas for improvement. 

In summary, to effectively execute this feedback best practice, it is vital to use open-ended questions throughout the feedback conversation, beginning with general impressions and moving to more specific questions to teach reps how to analyze their own improvement areas which in return creates more openness to trying new approaches.

Overall, delivering effective feedback may be the most challenging coaching task, yet it also may be the most important to driving sales results. Just as we are asking our reps to constantly improve their sales skills, we must challenge ourselves to improve our coaching skills. We encourage you to consider the above feedback best practices and identify a couple ideas you will implement during your next feedback session. Becoming a better sales coach is the most important way to help your rep become a better sales producer.

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This post is a condensed version of a Sales Coaching Newsletter article. To receive full versions of articles like this one, subscribe to our newsletter here

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Topics: Sales coaching tips, Feedback to reps, Manager Feedback

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