Leading a sales team is hard--it can be difficult to strike the right balance between encouraging top performance and overwhelming sales reps with impossible goals. Your success as a sales manager hinges on your team's ability to perform well, but it can often feel like their performance is out of your control.

While of course it's true to a certain extent that you can't force skill into an untalented rep, there are certain steps you can take to set your team up so that underperformers are more likely to excel. Read on for three surefire ways to set your reps up for success:

Set the Right Tone for an Environment of Excellence

In my career, as both a salesperson and a manager, I've consistently found that people generally conform to the expectations you set for them. If you act like a task is impossible, they'll fail to deliver. If you act like reps are destined to underperform, they will. If, on the other hand, you set high expectations from the start, it's more likely your team will rise to the occasion and meet them.

That doesn't mean that you need to apply intense pressure in order to see results. Studies consistently find that the most successful salespeople feel happy, supported and positively reinforced. The best approach is to establish a culture where high goals are clearly articulated and meeting them is expected. Your job from there is making your team feel they have the capacity to achieve those goals.

It can be tempting to make excuses for reps who are underperforming, but holding them accountable for meeting their quota goals is better for them too, in the long run. Instead of going easier on reps who struggle, work with them to figure out what they need to do to meet their goals and outline a plan of attack.

Be a Leader Who Inspires High Performance

Sales is definitely a field where managers need to lead by example. Your reps might be accountable to you in terms of turning results around, but you have a responsibility to help support them in achieving their goal. Sales managers are often the best resource that reps have for developing strategy and good business habits. If your team is chronically underperforming, it's possible they're getting the wrong cues from you.

In a recent survey that looked at the variances between top performing and underperforming reps, underperforming reps were more likely to value product knowledge and industry expertise in their sales leaders, while top performers ranked practical experience and sales intuition higher. These results say a couple things. First, no two reps are the same, so it is critical as a sales leader to understand the unique needs of your reps and how you can support them. Second, newer and lower performing reps are more likely to lack confidence in the product they are selling and the industry they are selling into, so be sure to provide ongoing training to help build their confidence in these areas.

And finally, don't forget to invest in your own continued education. It goes without saying that staying current on the latest sales best practices as well as news and articles relevant to your industry make you a better knowledge source for your team and a better sales professional in general.

Set Up Processes to Support Success

In studying the difference between high performing reps and underperforming reps, one of the most striking gaps between the two groups was in how they viewed organizational sales processes. Overwhelmingly, high performing sales reps reported their systems as monitored, strictly enforced and automated, while underperformers did not.

If your reps are underperforming, a more stringent standardized sales process might be the key to helping them improve. Study your highest performers to see which types of approaches work best at each step of the sales cycle and develop an "optimal sales process" for the whole team to follow. If possible, leverage software to help reps implement an appropriate communication cadence with each lead, prompt them with coaching tips during the sales cycle, automate some of the routine tasks and monitor to make improvements over time.

Managing a successful sales team is a delicate art that requires patience, effort and constant reevaluation. But so is sales. If you're good at one, chances are you'll find a way to be successful at the other as well. Good luck!

Published on: Jul 22, 2015