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By Dorothy Leeds

Pharm Rep Magazine, November 2003

The performance appraisal is one of the sales manager’s best tools for motivating people, but it is seldom, if ever, exploited to is full potential. As typically handled, performance appraisals can be a turn-off. Yet almost all companies demand a review of each employee at least once a year. Such reviews may range from formal rating sheets where managers are asked to grade pharmaceutical reps on different skills, to informal bull sessions.

Many companies have combinations of review styles. According to Robert Reichman, Director of Skills Training at Novartis Pharmaceuticals, early in the year Novartis managers give a formal appraisal of the pervious year’s performance. This time is also used to establish objectives for the new year. Managers and reps have a mid-year discussion, and a performance review at the end of the year. Less formal appraisals continue throughout the year, as the manager does a write-up of every field contact.

Almost everyone believes that performance appraisals are necessary – and useful – when handled well. However, several factors often get in the way of their success:

  • Managers don’t develop standards, so sales reps don’t know what standards they are supposed to meet.
  • Nobody likes to criticize others, so managers are reluctant to discuss flaws with their reps.
  • Reviews are often based on particular situations, and not on year-long performance. John Scott, Vice President, Organization Development, Tyco Healthcare, feels that problems can be caused when managers don’t keep records of performance throughout the entire year. “It’s important for managers to collect data properly,” he says.

Value of Performance Appraisals

What is the purpose of performance appraisals? A performance appraisal is usually a systemized, company-wide process by which a company rates people objectively, grants promotions and raises when due, and sets new objectives for the future. Such a review gives upper management a sense of what’s happening with employees at all levels. The appraiser/manager’s task is to learn how a rep has performed in his job during the year. Then the appraiser is supposed to match his perception of the individual’s performance with the rep’s own perception. Together, the manager/appraiser and the rep are supposed to reach a consensus and plan for the coming year.

During a job appraisal a manager helps his people see how their objectives fit in with those of the division and the rest of the organization. The result is usually a written document that is passed on to human resources and upper management.

Performance appraisal lets you develop each person on your team to full potential. The overall goal is to get each person to a higher level each year – or every six months – until ultimately they’re working at their peak.

Perhaps most important, a regular review system forces a dialogue between manager and staff. The performance appraisal gives managers an overview – as though on a panoramic screen – of how each person is coming along. Managers get to know their reps better and to establish themselves as thoughtful and interested leaders. Performance appraisals also let people sort out problems and prevent a buildup of aggravations and disappointments.

These are only a few of the benefits of a good performance appraisal. And yet these goals are seldom even touched upon in a typical performance appraisal. John Scott of Tyco Healthcare says that to be best used to get top performance from a sales rep, performance appraisals need to be “…a part of the overall management process, including goal setting, coaching, and appraisal and review.”

Knowing how to ask the right questions helps you make any appraisal review fair and on target, and also softens the foreboding edge. Using questions as a guide gives both parties the opportunity to approach the situation objectively. Managers who ask smart questions get the most from performance appraisals, and can also eliminate tension by getting the rep to be his or her own appraiser.

How Smart Questions Make Appraisals Productive

I may be biased, but my years as a management consultant have shown me that questions are among the most valuable tools a manager possesses. Smart Questions can turn a performance appraisal into a prime motivational instrument. Questions help to clarify your thinking and also serve to clarify your rep’s thinking. When people know they will be asked questions, they usually come to the meeting prepared to illustrate their past performance.

Consider these other benefits:

  • By asking questions, you talk less and therefore obtain more information.
  • You can lead the discussion without appearing to do so (because the other person will be doing most of the talking).
  • Questions put responsibility on the other person (if a sales rep protests, “You give me too many things to do at once,” you can say, “Can you give me a specific example?”).
  • Using questions keeps you both from becoming defensive. If the rep puts you on the spot with a question, you can always ask for clarification before jumping to conclusions. “Before I answer that, can you tell me more about why you’re asking?” Or, “That’s a good question. What’s the reason behind it?”)
  • Questions encourage you both to be more objective, as opposed to getting caught up in personal value judgments. Instead of “You have a lousy attitude” or “You don’t seem to care,” ask, “How do you think your doctors feel when you don’t keep your appointment?” Or, “The last five times I’ve asked you to present at our sales meeting, you refused. Can you tell me why?”
  • Accusations are a dead end: “You’re making the same mistakes in every sales call. You just don’t listen.” On the other hand, questions lead somewhere: “What is a workable solution to this?” or “What could you to do signpost the fact that you are not listening so you’ll be more aware?”
  • Questions let you deal with a person’s behavior – what they’ve done and what they’re going to do – not with the person himself.

The Smart Questions Performance Appraisal

The biggest trap appraisers fall into is “lecture mode,” where they monopolize the entire conversation. It’s tempting to lecture, because you feel you have to defend any criticism as well as justify any praise. But if you ask four or five good questions, you’ll accomplish much more than if you lecture for a full hour. Before the session, keep this message in mind: “I’m not going to talk too much. I am going to ask questions.”

When you handle job appraisals the Smart Questions way, your managerial role will begin to shift. Gradually you become less of an intimidating authority figure and more of a consultant.

If a rep is unresponsive or vague, be persistent. Keep asking. Rephrase the question and ask it again until he or she gets the gist of what you’re looking for and does give a response. Remember, you don’t have to accept the first answer you receive. Keep turning the questions back and keep probing.

Don’t be too predictable with your questions. Mix them up. Look upon the appraisal as a real opportunity to develop your questioning skills as well as to improve the rep’s attitude and productivity.


The normal procedure during an appraisal is to start with all the plusses, then zap the rep with all the negative data you’ve been filing away. Years of observing such interviews reveal that it’s preferable to integrate the good with the bad throughout the interview.

Careful selection of opening questions is important because it establishes the tone of the meeting. Here are some smart openings:

  • “Is there any special place you would like to start this discussion?” (You’re giving the individual the option to bring up something that’s been weighing on his mind and get it out in the open.)
  • “How would you like this appraisal to work for you?”
  • “What information would you like to have you don’t have now?”
  • “Of the objectives we agreed to last time, which is the one you’d like to start with?”

Exploring Questions

  • “How well is your improvement plan going?”
  • “How could it be better?”
  • “Tell me how you feel about what you’ve accomplished and what still needs to be done?”
  • “One of your objectives was to improve communication with your colleagues. What specific things have you done, and what results have you achieved?”

As long as the rep feels that he is not under fire and doesn’t have to defend himself, he will undoubtedly be critical and objective and give you an accurate assessment of his performance.

You’ve eased the way by letting people evaluate themselves; that’s why questions work so well. If they say they’ve done a good job, it’s good for them to say so, and you can confirm it. If they criticize themselves, you can be supportive while they examine how they could have done better.

Setting Goals

The one final move that lets you exploit the performance appraisal to its fullest potential is asking the rep what she hopes to accomplish during the next interval. First, this allows the rep to act as her own boss and to set her own goals. Second, it encourages self-motivation. Third, new ideas bubble up to the top because you’re talking about more than one task or issue. Appraisals also force managers to consider what they expect their people to accomplish next and to learn how they intend to go about it.

This is the time to help the employee ask herself, “What can I do this coming year that will make a noticeable difference – not only for my sales team but for the company?”

When an employee states his or her goals, it’s your responsibility to evaluate each one. For example, as someone describes what he hopes to do in the coming months, you can guide (“Is that a little ambitious?”), suggest (“It sounds good, but how will it affect your priorities?”), or approve (“That sounds good. Is there anything I can do to help you?”).

As Harry Truman loved to say, “The buck stops here.” When a rep’s performance appraisal stops on your desk, that documents should clearly reflect whether or not he has been doing his job and also whether you, as manager, have been living up to your obligations.

Regular performance appraisals bond people together in a constructive way, moving toward appropriate and agreed-upon objectives. They are, consequently, prime motivational tools. The Smart Questions performance appraisal can become a mutually satisfying experience – the mirror that shows how well you’ve been using your managerial skills to get the most from your reps.

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