A Sales Manager’s Guide for Underperforming Sales Teams


It is 8.30 in the morning. You walk into your office alone as your team must work from home, coffee in hand. You wish you could hear the chattering and bustle of your team. You enter the room and look around.

Phones are not ringing, and fingertips are not dancing across the keyboards. You long to hear the excitement in the voices of your team members. You miss the energy that was electrifying.

You think, do we have an underperforming sales team or what is going on? Then the mood shifts.

Someone calls you on MS Teams, when you answer you see one of your team spinning around in their chair, accordingly she winks and says, “That’s $5,000 before noon, Boss.” Normally the cheering in the office would be truly equal that of a crowd at an AFL final.

You quickly get your mojo, even manage a smile and say, “this is going to be a good day, I can feel it in my waters”.

*Beep beep beep* 

Then finally comes your rude awakening. The sound of your alarm every morning is brutal. In fact you dream of a pre COVID sales team that’s crushing their quotas on a daily basis and a team culture that’s both supportive and competitive.

However that is not the case. They are struggling every day. They are also not closing deals. Similarly, they do not even seem to know how to qualify leads in this environment, truth be told… nor do you. Revenue is down and quite frankly – you are in trouble.

The good news? Your dream is not far off.


Firstly, start from the beginning: Where did things go wrong? Yes, you can “blame” COVID and no one would flinch if you did. Many sales managers tend to have the kind of reflexive thinking that ends up making the problem worse. Why? They never figured out what caused all these issues in the first place. Let’s take a look at how you can get there.

TURN YOUR UNDERPERFORMING SALES TEAM AROUND contact the KONA Group | 1300 611 288 | info@kona.com.au


Often when things go wrong, we seek to blame rather than to solve. Have you ever had a conversation with a child, and they kept asking you “Why?” Regardless of your response, their next question was always “Why?” It is likely that you ended the conversation with a firm, and for the child very unsatisfying, “because.”

Well, guess what? While this is an excellent way for a child to drive their parents crazy, it’s also the same approach that turned Toyota into a $500 billion company. The company pioneered a problem-solving methodology for an underperforming sales issue, known as the 5 Whys Model. Let us take a look.


The 5 Whys Model has been praised by the start-up community as the quickest way to identify the root cause of a problem. We are going to take a look at how it works, the limitations to the model and what you can do to improve it.

So how does it work? You simply begin with a statement of the problem, that is,  “I have an underperforming sales team.” Next, you ask “Why?” and you continue to ask “Why?” in response to each statement until you have arrived at what’s actually causing the problem. Here is what the conversation could look like.

TURN YOUR UNDERPERFORMING SALES TEAM AROUND contact the KONA Group | 1300 611 288 | info@kona.com.au

Sales Manager: I have an underperforming sales team.

You: Why is your team underperforming?

Sales Manager: Nobody seems to be giving their best.

You: Why are they not giving it their best effort?

Sales Manager: They’re not personally invested in their success. They say they want to come into an office, do the day-to-day work, and leave at 5 p.m. sharp.

You: Why are they not personally invested?

Sales Manager: I think it is because we only reward the top sales rep, and everyone sees the top position as out of their reach. Only Glenn, the top guy, is killing it and the rest are not hitting target as they cant travel.

You: Why do they think the top position is out of their reach?

Sales Manager: Because Glenn has been the top rep ever since he started and they’ve pretty much given up on trying to even compete with him.

You: Why have they given up on trying to compete with him?

Sales Manager: Well, he is better than everyone by a long shot and still is.

Aha! In this situation, you have discovered – in less than two minutes – that your reps are not motivated to perform as well as your top performer. Voila – the reason for your underperforming sales team is now known.


While the 5 Whys approach can be a powerful problem-solving technique, it comes with limitations.

  1. Single cause issue. It assumes that there is only one cause behind the effect.
  2. Deductive thinking. Often, problem solving does not take place where the problem occurred. This leads to the discussion not being grounded in what actually happened.
  3. Confirmation bias. The person asking the questions will jump to conclusions because they’ve “seen this happen before”.

Here are four simple ways to improve your use of the 5 Whys Model and turn your underperforming sales team around:

  • Use a timeline. Identify the events that detail how the problem occurred, outside of COVID.
  • “Go and See.” Observe what is actually happening, rather than make assumptions as to what might be happening.
  • Gather data. Demonstrate that the answer to any of the whys is plausible.
  • Ask again. For each of the causes your sales reps come up with, ask them another five whys.


Despite its limitations, using the 5 Whys Model offers you a great way to explore the potential issue at hand and opens up the lines of communication. It will assist you in challenging your assumptions and identify the areas in which the issue lies. And once you have done this, you can start looking at solutions to the problem.

Next, let us take a look at the three most common causes of an underperforming sales team and how you and your sales team can get out of a rut.


Good sales managers ask themselves this question constantly when faced with an underperforming sales team. But it is not just about deals closed or leads qualified – it is about your team working together. It is about your sales culture. To illustrate this, let us look at an example.

The LA SWAT team used to be a volunteer task force within the LAPD that took on the most dangerous missions. These volunteers were skilled at combat, and many of them had unique experiences, such as the Vietnam War. But because they were not a cohesive team, the early SWAT teams suffered from sky-high mortality rates.

Members of the SWAT team face life and death situations every day. For them, having the right people is not just important. It is the difference between waking up the next day and knowing that your teammates will too.

Today, the SWAT team no longer consists of volunteers. Each candidate has to go through a six-day selection process during which they need to meet mental as well as physical criteria.


One of the most challenging tests is called “Hogan’s Alley.” This is a mock street scene where candidates are confronted with surprise situations in which they need to make life or death decisions. This includes whether or not to shoot a suspect or deciding whether a person is a friend or an enemy. During these tests, candidates need to demonstrate that they can think clearly and make a decision while they are exhausted, and even physically hurt.

While this is an extreme example, it is an approach to hiring that can be applied to any team. In order to not just survive, but to thrive as a business, you need to make sure you have the right people onboard.

You don’t want just good sales reps, you want sales reps who are cultural fits to work for your company. Plan and map out your desired skill sets and behaviour traits and use them as a guide in your hiring process. You’ll find that your existing employees fall into three camps.

TURN YOUR UNDERPERFORMING SALES TEAM AROUND contact the KONA Group | 1300 611 288 | info@kona.com.au


They are not just your money makers – they are the future of your company. Incentivise them to stick around. Put them in leadership positions, get them talking to your most important prospects and help them reach their career goals.


These are people who are great sales reps, but they are in the wrong place. Maybe they do not believe in your product, or they are better suited selling to a different type of customer.


The killer instinct does not come naturally to the majority of people. This is something that cannot be taught. No amount of intellect or positive attitude can make up for it. Cut your losses quickly by letting go of sales reps that are either in the wrong business or the wrong career as soon as possible.

While firing people is never easy, you are doing both them and yourself a disservice by keeping them around. If you have mapped them and maximised the key skills and they still do not perform, then you need to be a strong leader.

TURN YOUR UNDERPERFORMING SALES TEAM AROUND contact the KONA Group | 1300 611 288 | info@kona.com.au


The tech community loves to say that culture is something that happens “organically.” As XPLANE founder Dave Gray points out, this doesn’t mean we should just sit back and wait for it to happen. It will not as HOPE IS NOT A SALES STRATEGY!

As a sales manager, it is your job to keep a finger on the pulse of the culture and provide support.

Create a road map for your sales culture using mapping techniques.

Below are the key elements to focus on.

Outcomes. These are the objectives that you want your culture to achieve. It can be that your staff loves coming into work or that all your employees perform at their best.

Behaviours. Look at how individual behaviours influence the team and their ability to achieve your desired outcome. Reward encouragement and teamwork, but reprimand behaviours that bring down morale. If there is a toxic person on the team, get rid of him or her ASAP.

Enablers and Blockers. Check to see whether you have tools and people who make the job easier and more efficient, or if you have tools and people who inhibit people from doing their jobs well.

TURN YOUR UNDERPERFORMING SALES TEAM AROUND contact the KONA Group | 1300 611 288 | info@kona.com.au


Firstly – hustle. That is what great salespeople are all about. And no salesperson is going to hustle when the compensation is not worth the work they put in.

But compensation is not just about the money. It’s about how you value a rep’s hard work and incentivise them to do better.

However, one of the most common causes of an unmotivated sales team is a complex compensation plan. Harvard Business School’s Dr. Doug J. Chung spent half a lifetime researching motivation and sales compensation plans. And the result? Well, it does not take a Harvard degree to grasp where things can go wrong. Chung found that there were three main factors to consider when designing your compensation plan.


  1. Salary v Compensation. This depends on the reliability of your industry’s sales cycle. If you are in a seasonal sales business, you can’t reward reps for blind luck. If sales do not fluctuate based on these outside factors, compensation should be directly tied to performance.
  2. Timing. The influence timing has on reps directly correlates to how naturally motivated they are. Similar to great students, great reps just need a year-end bonus to motivate them, but middle-road and low performers need more frequent benchmarks to keep them on track.
  3. Ratcheting. Many companies increase sales quotas of top performers year-to-year to get them to strive higher and higher. Chung’s studies indicated that this is actually detrimental to morale. This means that top performers are penalised for succeeding rather than rewarded. An alternative is to give over-achievement bonuses, where yearly benchmarks stay the same, but hitting an even loftier goal is rewarded with more.

It is simple: When salespeople do not know what they’re getting for the work they put in, they’re going to be less motivated. Structure and tailor your compensation plan in a way so that it incentivises each type of sales rep on your team to improve and get better –one plan does not fit all.


Sales teams do not become great overnight. They become great because they work at it continuously. This is why your role as the sales manager is crucial. It is your job to help your sales team succeed. It begins and ends with you.


Swedish economist Tobias Fredberg found a fascinating pattern by examining how dozens of CEOs spoke in interview transcripts. CEOs who had successfully turned a company around shared the same way of speaking. They personally took the blame for problems—using the words “I” and “me”—and passed the credit to the team for successes—using the words “us” and “we”.

As the sales manager, you are responsible for your team. When stuff goes wrong, it is up to you to step up to the plate and be accountable for your own actions. That is what being a good leader means—and that’s what will inspire autonomy and leadership from within your team. The benefits are huge.

TURN YOUR UNDERPERFORMING SALES TEAM AROUND contact the KONA Group | 1300 611 288 | info@kona.com.au


  • Ownership over problems. If you assume that every problem is yours to either fix or delegate, then nothing will ever fall through the cracks. Establishing clear ownership over responsibilities and starting from the ground up is how you empower your team to succeed.
  • No cost to morale. Blaming members of the team and taking credit for successes will make team members feel under-appreciated. They will feel like you are picking on them and taking their hard-earned glory.
  • Transparency. If you take it upon yourself to know the going-ons of the team, your sales reps will feel more comfortable telling you about potential stumbling blocks they are encountering. Otherwise, you will be unaware of an issue until it spirals out of control and blows up in your face.

When your team is doing well in the day-to-day, you can step back and watch everyone succeed. But at pivotal times, you need to personally bring on change and see your vision through.


Most people are natural sceptics. If you claim that something will work, they will need to see it to believe it. Instead of telling them, show them. Get into the weeds and start making cold calls, drafting emails, and closing deals with your team. Inspire them and set an example.

  • Mentor your reps. Give your sales reps someone to look up to. If your employees enter into a mentor-mentee relationship, they’ll be eager to learn and improve. They’re also more likely to stick around, as they’ll see their position as a learning opportunity.
  • Diagnose flaws in your systems. You might find a problem with a sales script, or an issue with how the team is finding leads. You’re not always this close to the action—take advantage of it.


Often, as soon as an entire team agrees that there is an issue, you’ll see a shift in focus. Your salespeople will start questioning roles, processes and the direction. If it seems chaotic for a while—let it happen. This is a good thing.

It is always challenging to face a problem when you don’t know exactly what the problem is. It will take work both from you and your sales reps to align and bring your team back on a good path.

Remember to be patient. Things will not change overnight. The very first thing you try to turn things around is likely to fail, and that is okay. Keep trying until you have the culture, the goals and the vision that will help your salespeople crush it.

Soon enough, you will be walking down that hallway again and enter a room full of energy and excitement. Your salespeople will be closing deals again and there will be no alarm to wake you up.

Except for the sound of a sale, of course!

To roll-out this sales guide and turn your team’s performance around, contact KONA 1300 611 288 | info@kona.com.au for a confidential conversation today.