Do You Fail At Feedback?


As a sales professional, you are consistently reminded to mirror your buyer’s personality. GET IN THEIR OPERATING REALITY, you hear. Or, FOLLOW-UP, MAKE IT EASY FOR THEM TO TAKE ACTION.  So why is it that when it comes to managing a salesforce, sales managers’ first line of feedback is “HIT THE PHONES, JACK!”? 

Is it not true that your salesforce is essentially your customer? Should you approach feedback with a different mindset?

No one will dispute that feedback is crucial to continuous growth:

  • Asking for feedback signals a partnership - Soliciting feedback from customers/employees shows that you care.

  • Feedback motivates - When people know how to make something better, they’re more likely to do it.

  • Feedback elevates performance - Once people implement feedback and see that it works, they become more effective.

  • Feedback teaches - Little by little, feedback turns into wisdom.

  • Feedback is accessible and abundant - Everyone has opinions that they’re willing to share.

So... How are Sales Leaders Getting Feedback Wrong?

Generally speaking, leaders get feedback wrong by doing either too much or too little:

Feedback Failure #1 - Leaders don’t practice what they preach.

If you don’t offer your team the opportunity to give you feedback, then why should they welcome yours? More importantly, when your team does give you feedback, do you respond appropriately?

Feedback Failure #2 - Leaders have feedback, but avoid giving it.

If you’re afraid of getting it wrong… why do it, right? Wrong.

Studies conducted by Gallup found that when people were divided into one of three groups- one given positive feedback, one given negative feedback, and one given no feedback- the group that received no feedback from their bosses were the least engaged. 40% reported being actively disengaged and only 2% reported being engaged.

Case and point: Avoiding feedback does more harm than good. 

One way to force yourself to face the feedback is to build it into your schedule. Conduct quarterly performance reviews with each member on your team. In addition, allocate time for weekly one-on-ones and have a template to guide you through the discussion. The one-on-ones should be more operations-oriented (ex. What are you working on, are you on track this month, etc.) and the performance reviews can be more goal-oriented (ex. How do you see your role in the context of this company?).

Feedback Failure #3 - Leaders don’t take the time to understand what works for the individual.

Ok, so you’re giving feedback… that’s good! But it’s not enough. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to get a feel for each person you bring on the team. Just like your customers, your employees have different needs and motivations. You need to get a feel for what drives each employee from the moment they enter the hiring process.

Once you understand your employees, tailor your approach. Just like a sale, no one is the same.

Generally speaking, beginners tend to need more positive feedback than more experienced employees because they are trying to establish themselves… whereas more established employees can handle more negative feedback because they are trying to grow and thus, can take more criticism. 

Feedback Failure #4 - Leaders think that positive feedback is the driving force of motivation for their employees.

The first three failures focused on leadership not doing enough… but it’s equally possible (and probably equally prevalent) for leadership to do too much! Constant pep talks/positive reinforcement may seem unselfish or even altruistic in your mind… but if it’s disingenuous, excessive, or undeserved, it won’t stick in the minds of your employees…. Let alone motivate them. I mean, wouldn’t you agree that babying your employees with the expectation of creating top performers is counterintuitive? 

When giving positive feedback, you need to ask yourself:

  • Is this feedback earned?

  • Is he/she doing the bare minimum in their job description and getting high fives for it?

  • What’s driving your inclination to give this positive feedback? Read: Is it self-serving?

  • Can you cite specific details of why this behavior was good? 

If the positive feedback exists in the right context, these questions should have simple answers. Yes, of course he earned it! Or, she went above and beyond when she did X. Or, I was surprised when he took the initiative to do Y so I wanted to tell him!

Asking these questions can keep you from falling into the trap of being overly accommodating while ensuring your employees get positive feedback that actually means something. If your positive feedback is always “you’re doing a great job,” and you say that to every employee on the team, it has no impact. Be specific and be authentic.

Feedback Failure #5 - Leaders don’t know how to properly approach negative feedback.

Have you ever been in a meeting where a person in leadership is addressing the entire room, but slips in a criticism directed at one employee? Has your boss’ offhand remark ever made you wonder whether it was serious negative feedback or just a poorly executed joke?

When people don’t know how to approach negative feedback, it can lead to a sloppy and uncomfortable interaction that drives more confusion or resentment than positive outcomes.

The goal of giving negative feedback is not to humiliate, nor is it to prevent hurt feelings. The most important thing to remember is that you’re managing outcomes, not emotions. In order to do that, your negative feedback needs to be:

  • Productive - Was there something your team member could have done differently?

  • Voiced in the appropriate context - No public humiliation!

  • Aligned with facts - Can you point to concrete facts? If it’s about behavior, emphasize the “Hows”. What characteristics of that behavior make it wrong? 

  • Tied to some sort of outcome, positive or negative - Is your employee doing something that could prevent him/her from reaching an important goal? What positive outcome could happen if he/she changed that behavior?

The best leaders offer specific criticisms alongside positivity. For example:

  • Your new sales hire has a lot of potential, but it seems like he says “like” every other word. 

  • Your Response: “You want customers to take you seriously, right? When you say ‘like’ every other word, it makes you seem like you are not confident in what you are  talking about. You might be missing out on some opportunities, so I wanted to make you aware of this.”

  • If he pushes back: “I want you to be the best you can be. I know that’s what you want too. Lost opportunities can happen for any number of reasons, but you want set  yourself up for success, right? Of all of the factors that lead up to a sale, you want to control the factors that you can… and this is a controllable factor.”

At the end of the day, leading is just like sales. If you’ve achieved management status, you’ve obviously got a good handle on how to make a sale. Scan, be observant. Just like you’re always trying to feel out up-selling opportunities with your customers, you should always be trying to feel out growth opportunities for your employees.

As a leader, your job is to be a bridge to something better - so go out and do your job.