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February 27, 2015

3 Magic Questions for Your One-on-One Meetings

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In 2008, I wrote the book 1-on-1 Management: What Every Great Manager Knows That You Don’t. Admittedly, the title sounds rather pretentious. After all, who am I to suggest you don’t know something? 

However, most people do know the difference between an effective and an ineffective manager. What separates the two?

In my experience, one thing great managers understand that their ineffective counterparts do not is the value of one-on-one meetings. In fact, you might be surprised to know that the vast majority of managers do not meet individually with employees on a regular basis. 

But there is some distinction between an effective one-on-one meeting and two people who happen to have a meeting of some kind. Simply passing in the hallway and talking together doesn’t qualify as a one-on-one. A meeting to discuss a current project might involve just two people, but that doesn’t qualify either.

The one-on-one meeting has a very distinct purpose and structure, and it is designed specifically to benefit the employee, not the manager. Yes, the manager does benefit as well, but the intent of the meeting is to help the salesperson reach his or her potential through coaching and accountability. That's the critical difference.

Here are three magic questions I've structured my one-on-ones around for years that keep the focus squarely on the rep.

Question #1

The primary objective of one-on-one meetings will vary depending on the salesperson’s specific situation and level of experience, but the mechanics of the meeting are fairly consistent. In fact, my one-on-one meetings for 30 years have started with one very simple phrase:

“Tell me about last week.”

I know it sounds ridiculously simplistic on the surface, but trust me, there is a lot behind the curtain. You see, the real objective of a one-on-one meeting is to encourage dialogue.

Like any effective sales call, a sales manager should ask good questions and listen carefully. Unfortunately, in my opinion, too many one-on-one meetings become one-on-one beatings, where a manager focuses solely on numbers, constantly corrects behavior, dictates activity, and solves every problem.

But being a sales manager isn’t just about sales forecasts and KPIs. In fact, the critical aspect of sales management is actually the coaching and leadership involved. The one-on-one meeting provides a prime opportunity to instill confidence, demonstrate support, provide encouragement, and tune in to motivation. Done well, the dialogue created in consistent one-on-one meetings allows the effective manager to transform potential into top performance.

And it is this one simple question that gets the ball rolling. By letting the rep start the meeting with their view of the past week, the manager avoids the temptation to criticize and dictate. Just sit back and listen. Very carefully.

In my experience, when the salesperson does most of the talking, the manager will develop tremendous insight into that rep and their attitudes. You will understand why her performance is the way it is. You will know what is creating challenges for her. You will see how she reacts to adversity and failure.

During the meeting, I listen for specific areas that may need to be addressed. For example:

  • Does she create an effective plan each week; one that is consistent with her overall sales plan?
  • Is she executing her plan?
  • Does she have a strong understanding of our sales process?
  • Is her sales pipeline full of qualified opportunities?

However, I resist the need to correct and criticize every problem I see. Don’t jump into major correction during the first two or three one-on-one meetings because you'll want the pattern to surface and become apparent through observation.

Question #2

When it is necessary to address a particular issue, I take a very specific approach. I first tell the salesperson what I am seeing and then ask her for potential solutions:

“Jane, the past couple of weeks, I have noticed you’re struggling to follow through on some of your key priorities. What do you think the problem is?”

It’s way more work, and is probably less satisfying than jumping in and solving the problem personally, but salespeople approached in this matter begin to understand that they are expected to think, plan, and solve problems. Also, there is an enormous amount of information to be gathered from how the salesperson answers this simple question. Do they make excuses and blame others? Or do they openly talk about issues and ask for help? Then together you can identify root causes and create plans for behavioral change.

When things are going poorly, I may observe poor planning, poor execution, a failure to meet expectations, attitude problems, and so forth. And the one-on-one meeting provides the perfect opportunity to address these issues. I certainly don’t want to wait for the end of the quarter or, worse, the annual review!

In those situations when I most definitely want to offer specific advice, I actually ask permission: “I have a couple of ideas that I think might help. Would you like me to share them with you?” You will be surprised at the difference it makes to ask rather than simply dictate next steps.

Question #3

The review of last week’s activity is the perfect set-up for the second phase of the meeting. In each one-on-one, after the rep and I have reviewed the past week’s performance, I then ask the following question: 

“What about this week? What are your plans and priorities?”

As they tell me about their plan, I jot down a few notes, which I can then refer to in next week’s one-on-one meeting. This means that the following week, when they describe their activity, I can compare it to their stated goals and answer some important questions. Did they accomplish what they set out to do? Did they follow through on key objectives? Did they actually work their plan, or did they just tell me what they thought I wanted to hear? Most importantly, I get to evaluate their ability to plan and prioritize, which are critical skills for any salesperson and especially important if they aspire to sales management.

The one-on-one meeting has a singular purpose -- to develop the salesperson’s potential through the improvement of critical skills. By prompting the rep to lead the conversation, you keep the focus on them. And if you’re executing the meetings well, one-on-ones will help you develop your relationship with the salesperson. 

If you have questions on how to improve your sales one-on-one meetings, I’d be happy to be a resource for you. Send an email to Kelly@bizlockerroom.com, or check out my website.

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Topics: Sales Management

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