How to Have Difficult Management Conversations with Salespeople

abacus qualityWouldn’t it be great to have a simple template to work through with regards to effectively disciplining a member of your team – something you knew would cover all the bases and help you move things forward positively?

It would have definitely helped me back when I got my first sales management job – there were far too many evenings when the frustrations of my working day ended up coming all the way home with me.

One or two people on my team always seemed to be making my life so much harder than it needed to be – as opposed to making my life easier, which I thought was clearly spelled out in the job spec.

So I would stop off and have a beer on the way home and tell all my friends about them.

Then I’d walk through the front door and be grumpier than I should have been with my kids – and later I would become distant and withdrawn around my wife as I quietly fumed about the day that I’d just had – letting it replay over and over through the night, wondering how I might have handled it better, been stronger, taken a more managerial stance.

The irony was that I was getting cross with my children for acting like kids (which kids really should be allowed to do), when I should have been venting my frustration towards a small group (in their twenties, thirties and forties) who were all acting like they were the eight-year-olds.

But – if I’m honest – I found the thought of professionally disciplining people quite daunting – scary even.

I’m not the kind that goes out looking for confrontation – and I certainly didn’t choose to go into management because of some deep psychopathic need to control and belittle other people.

Management was just the next step up my career ladder, the natural thing to do, a promotion, a new improved job title, better money – and maybe a chance to share my experience with others so they could get ahead too.

But after a few very long months I was at my wits end – and so I went to see my boss to get his take on it all (and probably also to have a good old moan).

His advice was brilliantly simple – he said;

“Do you know what your problem is Chris? When members of your team are in the wrong – you go home and worry about them. Do yourself a favour and turn that around. If a member of your team is in the wrong from now on – make sure they go home and worry about you instead!”

OK then – that seemed easy enough – I’ll just help them to recognise the potential consequences of their actions while stamping my managerial foot a bit.

But, how do you do that professionally?

Back then, I didn’t even know where to start, so I began consulting management books and business websites for the best way to effectively deal with underperforming members of a team.

What I was really looking for was some kind of one-sheet checklist, an easy-to-follow template, something that would give me the confidence to hold a formal meeting, bring up all the issues that were bothering me, and then move positively forward and deliver the results that my boss wanted to see.

For all my efforts, I couldn’t find anything I felt I could count on to achieve what I wanted.

But the good news – for all you managers who find yourself in a similar boat – is that I’ve created an acronym to do just that A.B.A.C.U.S.

(An acronym you can count on called ABACUS- did you see what I did there?)

Actually, one of the most interesting pieces of information I picked up from all that reading and research was regarding the origins of the word discipline.

It turns out, the word discipline comes directly from the Latin word for training (disciplina) – which can also be translated as instruction, teaching, education, science and knowledge. It’s where the word disciple comes from too.

So before you dive head long into disciplining someone – ask yourself this;

Are you trying to help them see the error of their ways or do you want to punish them for doing bad things?

Step back and have a think about what you’re really trying to achieve right from the start.

If you want them out of the company – sacked, gone, bye-bye – then offering them an olive branch of step-by-step improvement to get them back on board and save their skin – might simply be a waste of your time – while also giving them a false sense of hope for a ticket on a ship that’s already sailed.

If that is the case, the process below can still be used – but make sure you understand the actual conversation you’re having right from the beginning and then no one is fooling themselves about what’s going on.

On the other hand, if you’ve simply got to a point where their actions aren’t acceptable and you want to clear the air – or make sure they understand what happens next if they don’t point themselves back in the right direction – then A.B.A.C.U.S will work perfectly for you.

A.B.A.C.U.S stands for

  • Acceptable
  • Benchmark
  • Affect
  • Change
  • Underline
  • Support


Politely and professionally make sure that the individual understands what is viewed as Acceptable (with regards to behaviour, results, work ethic etc.) within your company and remind them of what they are personally accountable for and where their focus is supposed to be on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

Point out exactly what’s expected of someone who holds their position and does their job.


Benchmark what you covered during your explanation of what is acceptable against their current performance.

If the target was ten and they have achieved six, put the two figures side by side.

For instance, with a sales person, you could do this by placing the target (agreed upon at the beginning of the year) alongside their sales figures for the same period.

Simply describing the problem can sometimes feel like a personal attack – but when you substantiate your concerns factually (never emotionally) with information of “what is” and “what should be” sitting side by side, you can talk about how you both intend to move forward and how you got there in the first place.


Explain the impact their actions (or inaction) are having on others around them. Let them know how their current choices are affecting;

  • The rest of the team
  • Other internal departments
  • External customers
  • You
  • Your Boss and
  • The company as a whole.

Be mindful of their attitude towards you and the problems raised at this point. Have a think about whether you are witnessing the character traits you would expect from a colleague that you wish to be associated with going forward.


Specify exactly what it is that needs to change – not just with regards to their actions, but also in reference to realigning and correcting the current perceptions from all those affected.

Damage has been done – perceptions have been formed – you can’t make the pain from a slap in the face go away by simply saying sorry and then vowing not to slap someone again.

Also make sure that there’s a clear, realistic time-line to follow, so that both of you can measure whether real change has actually taken place in a timely manner.

If the change that needs to be seen cannot be measured with numbers – ensure that you spell it out in a single paragraph – in words that you can both understand and agree on.


Now underline those expectations by pointing out exactly what will happen next regarding official disciplinary procedures if those changes don’t take place as agreed.

You may need to involve HR or get some legal advice before the meeting to make sure you can effectively deliver this point without getting yourself into any trouble later.


Finish off by supporting them emotionally – let them know you’re on their side for as long as they are on yours.

Do not make this part about how sorry you are or the trouble you’ve had to go through to get to this point – make it all about them and how you want to see them get back on track.

Most of all take pride in running a great team and being choosy about who you allow in and who is allowed to stay – and then let that drive your commitment for excellence with its ranks.

Your team – like all exclusive clubs – should not be open to just anyone.

Members of exclusive clubs have to go through a testing vetting process and – if they’re lucky enough to get accepted – need to follow specific rules or their membership is revoked.

So remember this:

Clubs with an elite membership are tough to join and have a waiting list of people desperate to get in.

Clubs that just let everyone do whatever they want, whenever they like – eventually find themselves full of undesirables and on their way to being closed down.


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