Understanding PIPs: What is It, and How Do You Survive It?

a month ago   •   6 min read

By Sam Saulsbury

Nobody wants to feel like they’re bad at their job. Getting a talking-to by upper management is one thing, but having your poor performance formalized in a document warning you about a future termination is another category all its own. We’re talking, of course, about performance improvement plans (PIPs), an sales term no sales professional wants to hear. But before thinking all is lost, let’s dive into what they are, why they happen, and how to survive one.

Table of contents:

What is a PIP and Why Are They Issued?

If you’re in sales, a PIP is a much-loathed term. It’s when management makes the decision to put a sales rep on a probationary period due to low sales, poor communication, or other unsatisfactory metrics. The performance improvement plan in question is a document that outlines areas needed to improve and presents benchmarks that management would like to see achieved by the employee, usually within a 30-90 day period.

Yes, PIPs are usually centered around raw sales numbers. But as you’ll see, even sales reps with fantastic output can still be put on a PIP, either fairly or unfairly. As sales drives revenue, it’s rare for a genuine PIP to be issued to a well-performing rep. But there are other factors that can drive a boss to legitimately take that step. Situations like consistently missing meetings, poor communication with other team members, or even inappropriate office conduct are all grounds for a PIP.

The good news is: PIPs are survivable. But before diving into how best to navigate those 30-90 days, we do have to talk about the elephant in the room.

The Cold, Hard Truth About PIPs

The harsh reality of PIPs is that they’re often nothing more than an instrument management uses to fire somebody with as little legal liability as possible. The efficacy of PIPs in the HR world is hotly debated, with many viewing them as nothing more than a bullying tool used by brutish bosses.

How to view your PIP is entirely dependent on the culture your workplace cultivates. For example, in a positive work environment, a PIP can be a good sign that a tough-but-fair boss sees your potential not being fully realized. It may be nothing more than a shot in the arm that management thinks you can benefit from. If you were that bad of a seller, its likely your boss would have enough grounds to fire you no matter what. Being put on a PIP can be a positive sign that you have growth potential.

On the other hand, a PIP could just be the first of many stages resulting in you receiving that dreaded pink slip. Most offices have a “three strikes and you’re out” rule when it comes to PIPs, so unfortunately, you may be in for a tough few months. There are a few signs that this may be the case that we’ll cover next.

Tips for Surviving PIPs

The best approach to weathering a PIP is to remain calm, humble, and curious. A sales rep must realize that there’s little they can do to reverse their PIP status, but may have more control than they think when it comes to what happens next. Whether a PIP is nothing more than a precursor to getting termed or an actual olive branch from management to raise your selling knowhow, using these tips will ensure you’ll emerge from your PIP period better than you entered it.

Pre-PIP

You may have already had the suspicion that a PIP was coming due to slumping sales. Maybe this came completely out of the blue and is giving you the feeling that something fishy is up. Either way, do these things before starting your PIP to set yourself up for the best possible outcome.

  • Get your hands on a physical copy of your PIP. Many incompetent bosses will simply read off some sales stats and vague benchmarks while many incompetent sales reps will sit there and listen. This is not ideal. Get a physical print out of your PIP and make sure it includes all of the relevant data about your so-called slumping sales so you can cross reference with whatever sales management system you use. It’s also good to have a copy so you have physical proof of what is being asked of you to achieve to remove your PIP status.
  • Negotiate your PIP. This is a good way to field test how legitimate your PIP is. Let’s say your boss puts you on a PIP because you achieved only 80% of quota last year and this PIP demands you achieve 130%. This can happen and it’s often just a way to fire someone. That said, you shouldn't get confrontational. Instead, calmly ask if this can be lowered. If they’re willing to budge, it’s potentially a good sign that they’re open to keeping you on board.
  • Stay professional and own your mistakes. Even if this is just a ruse by your employer to term you, you’ll do yourself no favors by lashing out. Conversely, if your boss is making legitimate claims against you, there's growth potential in taking a positive attitude. Either way, you can benefit from a PIP. Even if the PIP includes an outrageous, nonnegotiable quota, it’s still in your best interest to follow along. Sellers, even great ones, can always get better in the margins. Your next job’s OTE may thank you.  

Mid-PIP

You’ve now set sail on your PIP journey. During this time, it's important to remind yourself that as a seller, you can always get better. So no matter what the conditions are for your PIP, use this time to refine your skills and look forward.

  • Audit your process. You may be confident in your time blocking and pipeline management skills. However, there’s always ways to improve in the margins. Take a few hours out of your day in between current work to dive back into both successful and unsuccessful calls. Are there issues with your sales discovery process? Are there any lagging indicators you can sense out now that you have the benefit of hindsight? Do you need to bone up on your objection handling skills? There’s so many metrics to make note of in a sales cycle. The more fine-tuned your tracking process is, the better you’ll be able to sell.
  • Seek out a mentor. Find a colleague whose strengths are your weaknesses. Ask them if you can shadow them for a day to see them in action. Compare and contrast their work flow with yours. It might just be that you weren’t paired with the right person during onboarding, or maybe you developed poor habits earlier on in your sales career that are hard to shake. Either way, seeing someone succeed in ways you don’t will be an invaluable lesson and a PIP is a great opportunity to put that in motion.
  • Work smarter not harder. Don’t burn the candle at both ends for a boss who may already be measuring your desk for a new hire. That’s not to say don’t hustle, but if your slumping sales are concerning your boss, working 14 hour days while returning only marginal conversion increases will do nothing to assuage their fears.
  • Wait them out. On the off chance that it doesn't work out, it’s definitely good to get that resume refreshed and those networking skills polished up during this time. But don’t jump ship immediately. Quitting may be exactly what they want you to do. For example, maybe your company offers a severance package. Maybe the overall underperformance of your sales team reverses your fortune. If the work environment is toxic and you can float yourself until you find a new job, by all means, plan for a way out. But if you can hang on for a few months while the PIP works itself out, you may be surprised by the outcome.

Post-PIP

If you beat your PIP, congrats! You’re now a better seller than you were before and have a great horror story for fellow sales reps. However, if you don’t, there’s no reason to have a pity party. Maybe your PIP was designed for you to fail, or maybe your sales skills simply need to improve more. Either way, you’re in a better position to actually succeed in sales than you were before.

If you were struggling with quota and overcame it, you’ve now learned valuable lessons you can carry with you for life. If your managers were tyrants hell-bent on cracking down and culling the herd, you’re now free to go looking for a new sales job pursue other avenues where your skills and assets can actually be appreciated.

PIPs, for better or worse, are probably here to stay in the sales world. But as we’ve laid out, they’re not always a death sentence. Great salespeople turn lemons into lemonade and then sell that lemonade. Use this positive approach if you ever have to hear those three dreaded letters, and good luck out there.

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