I always ask sales managers how they allocate their coaching time. Most tell me they spend it two ways:

1) Working with the reps who are struggling the most (because they need the most help)

2) Working with the reps who are doing the best (because they are working to land the biggest deals)

Sounds logical, right? But these good intentions are leading sales managers to waste their time.

To prove that point, I talk about a now-classic report in Harvard Business Review by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson. In research involving thousands of reps,” they write, “we found that coaching — even world-class coaching — has a marginal impact on either the weakest or the strongest performers in the sales organization.”

Yes, that’s right. The time you spend coaching the best and worst performers on your team isn’t paying off.

Underperformer or Misfit?

As it turns out, according to the HBR study, the lowest performers on your team aren’t “underperformers who can improve,” but more likely a poor fit for the job in the first place. All the coaching in world can’t fix that.

That doesn’t mean you should immediately fire your lowest performer. I’m sure your HR department would object to that. You need a multi-step plan of attack.

I advise starting by making sure that all of your reps — including the worst performer — clearly understand the expectations for the job. Work with the worst rep to identify specific skills or attitudes they need to improve, set a date for a follow-up review, and explain what consequences they will face.

I call this last part the “two roads” discussion: You tell the rep they are facing a fork in the road. If they change, good things will happen (and make it clear what those are). If they don’t change, then you’ll need to escalate (bringing in your manager and/or HR).

The Best Have Little Room to Improve

Dixon and Adamson write, “it would be nice to think that great coaching … makes your stars just a little more stellar. But that’s just not the case.”

As a former sales manager, I know that can come as a blow. I think many of us have a vision of creating a little dynasty of great reps who are following in our steps.

Once again, however, this doesn’t mean you should stop working with great reps altogether.

My strategy was to turn them into bell cows — positive role models who set standards of excellence for the rest of the team, and who could serve as mentors and guides.

Good Intentions that WILL Pay Off

Obviously, if working with the best and worst performers has low payoff in terms of your coaching time, you need to change your approach. Most of your coaching time — especially 1-on-1 coaching — should be spent on the middle tier of reps, the people who have some skills and who have the will to improve.

Start doing more of this work, and you’ll see the results at the end of the next quarter.