How to Give a Sales Performance Review in an Uncertain Economy

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Jay Fuchs
Jay Fuchs

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A lot can change for salespeople when the economy takes a turn for the worse — personally and professionally. In many cases, uncertain financial times lead to what might appear to be significant dips in a sales rep's overall performance. In a complex financial landscape, it might be unfair to maintain the same standards and expectations you've always held for your reps.

sales manager giving a performance review of a sales rep during an uncertain economy

When economic conditions are particularly volatile, the conventional metrics you've used to gauge your reps' overall performance won't be as reliable or reflective of the effort, energy, and sales acumen they're bringing to their day-to-day. So when you conduct performance reviews during troubling financial times, you'll need to adjust your strategies and frame of mind.

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Here, we'll share some tips on conducting a sales performance review in an uncertain economic landscape.

1. Prepare for a comprehensive review.

This point is relevant when conducting any sales performance review — and reviews carried out under unfortunate economic circumstances are no exception. If anything, it's more important to overview a rep's performance holistically and without recency bias before financial conditions are uncertain.

During rougher economic stretches, gauging a rep's performance can be less straightforward. A poor economy often means less consistent or erratic interest from prospects and existing customers. That can make certain KPIs less reflective of a rep's skills and effort.

When conducting a performance review during a difficult financial time, you might have to dig a little deeper to understand how a rep is faring. For instance, let's say you're reviewing an account executive's performance during an economic downturn. The clients they serve might be hit particularly hard by the shifting financial landscape — relative to their colleagues' accounts.

Factors like revenue or quota attainment are heavily influenced by the state of the economy. This makes them a less reliable way to see how they're actually performing. In that case, you'd need to take the time to understand the state of their accounts, the nature and extent of their sales activity, and whether they're actively contributing to your team culture in the face of economic uncertainty.

2. Start with some positive feedback to ease the mood.

As you can assume, a bad economy isn't exactly the most soothing backdrop for a sales performance review. Very few salespeople look at a financial crisis and say, "Neat! I love economic uncertainty and disrepair! I can't wait to take on this challenge! I hope things get even worse!"

No, those conditions tend to make things pretty tense for most sales reps, and even regular sales performance reviews are stressful in their own right. You bring those two together, and you have a recipe for some extreme anxiety.

Words matter; providing positive feedback can reassure your rep that you see the effort their putting in. Be specific, personal, and genuine when acknowledging what they’re doing well. That's why it helps to put reps at ease with positive feedback to start the review. Don't lead with harsh criticism or contentiousness. Instead, let them know what they've been doing.

Don’t hesitate to identify positive ways that they’ve contributed to the company overall, how they’ve chipped in to help their coworkers, or where they’ve gone above and beyond their typical duties. From there, you can reference areas for improvement.

3. Frame negative feedback as areas for improvement instead of brutal criticism.

Again, tensions are bound to be high under less-than-ideal economic conditions, and you can't be sure how the state of the economy is impacting your reps' lives beyond the office. That's why you need to offer more cushion to your criticism than you might have under the usual circumstances.

Though you should apply this point to any sales performance review — no matter the state of the economy — it's particularly pertinent in difficult financial times. Try to frame potential shortcomings as learning opportunities.

Don't scold your reps. Instead, let them know you believe in their ability to address and remedy the weaker parts of their sales efforts. If possible, provide some actionable feedback and advice on how they should proceed post-review. Ultimately, they need to understand that you have certain expectations for them but that it's well within their power to live up to those standards.

4. Establish reasonable goals and offer guidance on how to achieve them.

Managing your expectations is key to conducting an effective sales performance review under rough economic circumstances. Still, you can't suspend all your plans or undermine the insight you offer by not setting any benchmarks or standards.

Instead, you have to take an objective look at the situation, understand what you can reasonably hope for out of your reps, and try to come up with actionable steps for them to reach those goals.

Again, you need to be proactive with your criticism, and setting reasonable goals is a big part.

Make sure your targets are viable under more challenging economic circumstances and let your reps know what they need to improve to help them reach those benchmarks.


1. Abstract, Assessment-Based Qualities

In uncertain economic times, your reps can't be expected to deliver on the more demanding standards you'd generally set for your performance reviews. If your company is providing limited services or seeing a sales slump across the board, it's unfair to come down on them for falling short of the quotas you set before the economy took a turn.

Instead, you must lean on more abstract, assessment-based qualities to shape your performance reviews. See if your reps demonstrate initiative, work ethic, and leadership skills against a less-than-ideal economic backdrop.

Stress the importance of these aspects of their sales repertoires in challenging economic conditions. The broader circumstances around your reps' sales efforts are well beyond their control, so they must review their performance based on the factors they can personally manage.

2. Relevant Sales Activity Metrics

This point is a natural extension of the one above. Sales activity metrics gauge a sales rep's behavior and effort instead of their hard results. They include metrics like the number of calls made, the number of emails sent, or the number of follow-ups.

Again, like the abstract qualities mentioned above, these metrics don't rely as heavily on external circumstances as conventional KPIs. Instead, they demonstrate a rep's willingness to remain persistent in the face of adversity. In the context of economic trouble and uncertainty, that determination is among the most important qualities you can hope for.

3. Cultural Contribution

In the face of an economic downturn, your sales reps must be on the same page. You want your team to work as a cohesive unit to help see your company through difficult times. Making sure they meaningfully contribute to and work per your team culture is central to that.

Ensure your reps actively empower and cooperate with their fellow team members. Again, this aspect of your operations doesn't lean on the state of the economy — it rests on a rep's inclinations and attitude. Those are key components to keep tabs on and potentially adjust during uglier financial times.

1. When a rep's performance dips.

You might get used to a certain production level from your team, including some specific reps who consistently exceed expectations. But your team — and those star reps — might start to underperform when the economy is in a rut.

It's important to empathize with reps who are seeing performance dips that coincide with economic troubles. There's no telling how uncertain or unfortunate financial circumstances might impact their lives beyond their jobs.

Be willing to cut them some slack. That doesn't mean you need to suspend all your standards and abandon any accountability; you need to take a second to consider their perspective — particularly if the rep in question has been a high performer up to this point.

Give them a little leeway initially, but if their performance falls off a cliff — more than their fellow team members — it's worth taking extra time and attention to identify the obstacles they're running into. Regularly practicing empathy with your employees can help strengthen your relationship with them and potentially correct any performance issues before they occur or worsen.

2. Comparing reps' performance to goals set before an economic downturn.

This point ties into the one above, but if you set a quarterly quota — only to have the economy go into a tailspin shortly after that — you need to adjust your expectations. You shouldn't hold your reps to standards that are significantly less realistic now than at the start of the reporting period, given a radical shift in circumstances.

Instead, see how your team is performing and if reps are lagging. Don't be too quick to judge or harshly criticize them. There's no telling how global financial troubles are coming down on them. Instead, remain empathetic, which often means adjusting your expectations for your team.

3. When reps are adapting to new working conditions.

Changing economic circumstances can often lead to a shift in working conditions. For example, complex financial situations could lead to fewer hours, a newfound emphasis on remote work, or some other substantial adjustment to how or where your reps do their jobs.

If that's the case, be willing to give a little room for them to adapt to the new normal when conducting your performance reviews. On the other hand, if they raise concerns and grievances about how their new working conditions are adversely impacting their performance, hear them out and look for ways to work with them as they get used to their new surroundings. During such situations, it’s important to understand how employees feel and how they may be impacted by what’s happening around them.

If they run into early trouble that doesn't let up, take some time in your review to identify any potential blockers that stem from their shifting circumstances. Remain empathetic, and present actionable advice on how they can better adapt to their new situation. Try not to chastise them for hitting a rough patch after adjusted working conditions have thrown them off.

Conclusion

The key to conducting an effective sales performance review during an uncertain economy is thinking of the big picture. Be mindful of how external factors are impacting your reps both personally and professionally.

Give a reasonable amount of leeway and focus more on the effort, team contributions, and sales acumen they're bringing to your organization than results they're seeing.

An economic downturn has ramifications that impact your reps' lives both within and beyond the office. Keep that top of mind when conducting your performance reviews.

Editor's note: This post was originally published in October 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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Evaluate your reps' performance to goal, quarterly improvement, and areas of improvement to focus on.