There’s an old saying that prescription without diagnosis is malpractice. I like to apply it to sales management as well as medicine.

I see this all the time when sales managers have to deal with performance issues. They leap to the conclusion that poor performance by a rep is an indicator of laziness or no motivation. But that’s just one possible cause. You have to dig a little deeper to find out what’s going on with a rep so you can make the right diagnosis and prescribe the right solution.

In my experience, performance issues usually fall into three categories, each of which requires a different path forward.

1) A lack of skill.

It could be that the rep has never learned the skills in the first place or was unable to translate classroom (or book) learning into action. So even if they were exposed to your company’s best practices, they never learned how to apply them.

The solution in this case is to make sure to your training programs are highly interactive and practical. Include one-on-one or small group teaching as needed, plus role-playing and perhaps mentoring to help the person practice applying the necessary tactics and steps.

2) A lack of confidence. 

Confidence issues can usually be traced to two sources. The first is unrealistic expectations. If a professional baseball player expected to get a base hit in every at bat, he would be disappointed all of the time because nobody comes close to batting 1.000 over the course of a season.

If you run into a rep who seems discouraged, start by asking, “What is your expectation here?” If it is unrealistic, help the rep develop a more realistic understanding of what is possible given his stage of professional development. Going forward, be sure to praise his effort as well as results until his confidence has been restored.

If the expectation is realistic, the underlying cause is often a skill issue — meaning the person is not confident in her ability to be successful with a skill and/or failed badly when trying to use some of the techniques she was taught. In that case, the best path is skill development through role plays, mentoring, etc.

3) A lack of motivation.

You will see a lack of motivation either in a new or inexperienced rep who fails to improve, or in an experienced rep who has “lost the fire.” (That is, they were good producers in the past but no longer are). Such salespeople have lost sight of their personal goals. More specifically, the link between their behaviors and their personal goals/sales results is now broken.

Your instincts tell you to be direct and to the point with these people, but if you accuse a rep of being unmotivated or say he has lost the commitment or fire, or has a lousy attitude, they will resist. And the trust bond that you have worked so hard to establish could be damaged or perhaps ruined.

What do you do instead? Switch your mindset to help mode: you want to understand what is going on with the person so you can help her get back on track. In other words, don’t jump in with advice or mandates. Talk to the rep.

Matching the prescription to the diagnosis

It’s your job to develop a range of solutions (prescriptions) to fit different types of issues your reps encounter. That’s the only way to develop fixes that last. Otherwise, you’ll keep seeing the same problems again, again, and again.

How well are you doing at diagnosing sales performance issues? Could your reps sue you for malpractice?