Building a program for underperforming sales reps is pretty atypical. But that’s exactly what I did in 2017 -- I ran a bootcamp called Project Finish Line (PFL) for reps who had averaged less than 95% quota attainment last quarter. The goal? Get them to reach 100% quota attainment as quickly as possible.
And it went well. On average, the reps improved quota attainment by 31%.
Perhaps more importantly, all but one rep maintained a higher level of performance once the program finished. Three sales reps were later promoted.
The theory behind the program
Last year, I read The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, by Chris Anderson and David Sally.
The book discusses weak-link and strong-link thinking. To improve overall performance, you either help your weakest players get better (weak-link thinking) or your star players be even more successful (strong-link thinking).
Weak and strong-link thinking apply to any situation with a broad distribution of performance. I thought a sales organization was an ideal environment to test a weak-link program. First, modern sales organizations like HubSpot are extremely data driven -- meaning it’s easy to objectively quantify who the weakest performers are and provide them with support.
Second, weak-link thinking is effective. There’s clear and quantifiable room for improvement.
And third, it’s efficient. There are usually existing playbooks and structures in place that can be repurposed or adapted, rather than created from scratch. A weak-link approach should therefore require fewer resources than a strong-link one.
Many people believe improving top performers is the right approach and favor strong-link programs, but that's not the right strategy every time (although we do also run strong-link initiatives too). Admittedly, at some businesses, trying to improve low performers would be a waste of resources (they either can’t, won’t, or don’t want to improve), but I firmly believe that HubSpot’s high hiring bar shields us from that challenge and makes a weak-link approach worthwhile.
Choosing the participants
We began with a list of reps who’d averaged less than 95% of quota. However, we also gave sales managers the option to remove or add members of their team who they thought would benefit.
One thing I’m keen to reiterate is that PFL wasn’t a punishment. It’s a program designed for sales reps who we believe will hit quota with some support. If you’re thinking of running a similar program, use quota attainment as a starting point -- but build some flexibility in. You want people who can and will improve.
Once our sales managers had signed off on the participants, they held a one-on-one meeting to introduce the program to those sales reps, answer questions, and show how the program is designed to improve performance.
According to the 70:20:10 Model for Learning and Development, 70% of learning is experiential, meaning it happens on the job; 20% of learning is social, meaning it happens with your coworkers and peers; and 10% of learning is formal, meaning it happens during classes, training programs, etc.
PFL straddles the 20 and 10 parts of the model. It provides both social and formal learning aspects, so reps leave ready to apply what they’ve learned to their jobs.
Let’s get down to the execution and content of PFL. It lasted eight weeks and consisted of seven 45-minute training sessions delivered by subject matter experts. I also met individually with sales reps every other week to provide deal support, e.g. discussing deal strategy, setting up customer reference calls, or providing competitive intelligence.
Sales reps typically dislike training that’s one-size-fits-all, overly structured, and slide-heavy. So we wanted to flip the traditional playbook and create a semi-structured program that felt like a coaching or whiteboard session.
But it’s a challenge to make a whiteboarding or coaching session repeatable. To overcome this, and ensure the sessions could be replicated, we created a session plan with each subject matter expert and five slides for them to use.
Having just a few slides forced the subject matter expert to act as a coach and facilitator rather than a lecturer. Subject matter experts used the session plan as an outline but could go “off-script” or zoom in on a specificarea if sales reps found it valuable. Reps also received a handout after each session -- I was the dedicated notetaker and would share notes afterwards (sales reps were asked to keep their laptops closed).
Before launching the program, we spoke with sales reps to understand their learning preferences and came up with a set of guiding principles based on those discussions. I shared these principles with the subject matter experts two weeks ahead of their session.
|PFL is ...||PFL is not ...|
|Whiteboard and discussion led (five-slide limit)||PowerPoint/Google Slides led|
|Practical -- recordings, call scripts, case studies||Theoretical -- lofty overview of topics|
|Has Q&A running throughout||Q&A limited to the end of the session|
|Facilitated by subject matter experts||Facilitated by generic trainers|
|Tailored to cohorts of sales reps||One-size-fits-all|
|Small groups||Whole team|
For PFL to succeed, we had to position it very thoughtfully. The program wasn’t a punishment or pre-PIP move. Quite the opposite: It showed we were investing in our reps’ success. The message was simple and consistent throughout: We believe that with additional support PFL participants will hit 100% quota attainment.
Choosing which topics to cover
During the first session, we asked sales reps for an all or nothing commitment. They could come to every session or none of them. We also took this time to answer questions, allay fears, and analyze the group’s needs.
The needs analysis was crucial, as sales reps got to decide what sessions they would take. A menu of options was presented based on feedback from sales managers; sales reps could also suggest topics. Once we had a list, the group ranked the topics by importance and value, then agreed on the final sessions.
I firmly believe getting sales reps to co-create the program increased engagement and commitment.
Here was the session schedule:
- Intro to program and group needs analysis
- Uncovering a prospect’s true business need with active listening
- Delivering a high impact inbound growth assessment (IGA) and tie downs
- Bringing your demo to life with storytelling
- Delivering a winning demo
- Negotiating and building tension to drive a deal forward
- Managing your time
This program required a lot of resources, but as the results show, it was definitely a worthwhile investment. I'm looking forward to running the program again. If you have any thoughts or questions, please reach out via Twitter.