In most sales organizations, performance improvement plans (PIPs) are a kiss of death—just one step away from termination.
But a PIP doesn’t have to be a prelude to a pink slip. Instead, it can be a great opportunity to help struggling reps pull themselves together. That way, they can avoid losing a job—and you can avoid having to pay for a replacement.
What’s more, if you implement a PIP correctly, you can not only improve individual sales reps, but the team as a whole.
In this post, we’ll walk through why PIPs aren’t just box-checking exercises, but a tool to evaluate rep performance gaps, improve individual skills, and boost your sales team’s output.
What is a performance improvement plan (PIP) for sales?
A performance improvement plan is an outline that you give to sales reps who are seriously underperforming. Generally, a PIP functions as a “wake up call” to these reps: get your sh*t together, or you’ll have to leave.
In most cases, a rep has to be in dire straits to merit a PIP:
- Consistently missing sales goals
- Inability to competently represent the brand
- Little or no desire to improve or respond to coaching
- Poor quality of work overall, beyond the initial onboarding and ramp-up period
Sales PIPs should clearly state where a rep is failing, and the steps they should take to improve — complete with a specific deadline.
PIPs are not meant for correction of behavioral issues or one-time issues. You need to evaluate if the failure to perform is an issue that has been repeatedly addressed. If so and there’s been no corresponding improvement, then a PIP may be in order.
While the specifics of a PIP vary, most of them follow this basic structure:
- Describe the expectations of their performance and how underperforming is impacting the business overall.
- List performance issues with examples, evidence, and metrics to back up your statements
- List measurable objectives for the rep to correct their performance, as well as a timeline for when these issues should be corrected
- List the resources that you as the employer will be providing to help them meet these goals (e.g. training, coaching, check-ins)
- Establish clear consequences for if they don’t meet those objectives
One rule of thumb with PIPs: always air on the side of clarity. When a rep is on the ropes, uncomfortable conversations are par for the course. It’s better to be clear—but kind—rather than sugarcoat things.
How do you successfully implement a PIP?
Success in implementing a PIP can be the difference between a “comeback kid” story and a hasty termination. Here are some tips to help make the most of this process, address key issues, and hopefully turn a rep’s performance around.
1. Review & re-review your plans
You don’t want to get halfway into a PIP and realize that you’ve sent the rep down the wrong track, or asked them to work on the wrong things. So before you implement your PIP, make sure your expectations are reasonable and essential, that they align with what you expect from other employees, and that you’re not setting the bar too high.
Remember: a PIP is meant to get a rep back to baseline acceptable performance. You can work on long-term skills development later.
It’s also important to set a reasonable timeline. After all, they’re not going to be able to turn things around in just a week. You can look at how successful reps have fared when put on a PIP to help ensure the goals you set are realistic.
2. Don’t just “set it and forget it”
PIPs aren’t a passive exercise. You can’t just “set it and forget it.” If you do, you’re certainly setting the rep up for failure.
Instead, make sure that you’re continually monitoring the rep, checking in, and providing them with the tools they need to be successful. You may also need to make changes as the rep progresses in the plan, so you need to actively manage this “ebb and flow”.
Finally, when a rep makes a successful change, be sure to celebrate that. PIPs can be nerve wracking for a sales rep, so if you can provide some positive encouragement, they’ll be motivated to keep going.
3. Be clear & transparent
If your rep doesn’t know what they need to improve, how can you expect them to improve it?
Whether you’re dealing with hard metrics like quota attainment, or softer skills like conversation quality, you need to set clear clarifications. Show the rep exactly where they’re falling short and what they need to do to improve.
On top of that, you should set clear standards so they can track their progress throughout the plan. As we said earlier, if a rep can track their progress, then it’ll encourage them to keep going. On the other hand, if they’re struggling with the plan, you don’t want them to have a false sense of security!
4. Work together as a team
While reps are responsible for their own performance improvement, they can’t do it on their own.
Reps often struggle because they suffer from unconscious incompetence: they don’t know why they suck. As the experienced manager, your job is to help reps become aware of why they suck. Then, they’re responsible for fixing the issue.
If you don’t do your part, they can’t do theirs.
5. Have a clear off-ramp
No rep should be on a PIP indefinitely. Make sure you have a clear definition of what needs to happen when a rep completes the plan.
If a rep fixed their problems, then you can “readmit them to the fold,” as it were. Make sure, however, that you continue monitoring them to ensure they don’t fall back on their old ways. And, of course, you need to work with them on a continual improvement plan to close additional skill gaps.
Then there’s the other side of the coin. If a rep didn’t fix their problems and showed no sign of improvement, then you need to close the PIP and let the rep go.
The hardest scenario is, unfortunately, the most common one: the rep improved in some areas, and not in others. In that case, you have a few options:
- You can let the rep go, because they technically didn’t hold up their end of the bargain
- You can implement the PIP again, this time focusing on the areas where they didn’t improve
- You can readmit them to the fold, but heavily prioritize those remaining skill gaps, and set clear standards that will cause them to return to a PIP
Final thoughts on performance improvement plans in sales
When done right, PIPs can be an effective tool to boost individual rep performance. When you get your entire team operating at the same level, it will have a positive impact on your overall sales organization of your teams or your overall performance in sales.
However, if PIPs are your only coaching method, then you’re missing out on a lot of potential. There are a number of issues that you can “nip in the bud” so you don’t have to use a PIP.
Coaching intelligence software enables you to identify these issues, address them, and monitor improvement—before they become big problems.
Click here to learn more about what coaching intelligence is, and how it can help you make your team better.