Compliment ‘sandwiches’: Not what you should be feeding your reps
  • sales
  • Blog post

Compliment ‘sandwiches’: Not what you should be feeding your reps

If you’re an experienced sales manager, you’ve probably heard that “compliment sandwiches” — nuggets of negative feedback slipped between two slices of positive feedback — aren’t an effective way to give your reps constructive criticism when they need it.

So you might be surprised to learn that it’s still one of the most widely used ways that managers deliver negative feedback — at least according to a survey of 1,800 organizational leaders conducted by Mark Murphy, head honcho at the leadership consultancy Leadership IQ.

Murphy asked the folks responding to his survey how they most often delivered constructive criticism to their subordinates. And fully 51% said they made such feedback easier to hear, typically with a compliment sandwich. (Among other responses, 31% said they simply gave their people the facts about their performance, without any emotional edge, while 14% said they took people to task in a tough manner. Another 3% said they gave feedback only when people asked for it.)

Too soft
But, well, what IS wrong with the sandwich technique? Surely when you start by telling your rep that she’s a great, persistent prospector, and finish by telling her that she’s super smart, those compliments will soften the impact of telling her in the middle that she’s not closing enough sales.

Yes, indeed, it does soften the impact. But probably more than you want.

The problem is that people tend to listen up hardest at the beginning and end of any little talk you may give, and tune out in the middle. It’s a psychological phenomenon known as the “serial position effect.” So when you dole out a compliment sandwich, your rep hears that he’s great at task X, and also great at Task Z — not that he really, really needs to get better at Task Y, so much so that his employment may be jeopardized if he doesn’t.

Best of both worlds
So what’s the solution? Do you just have to feed it to ’em straight, without any concern for their feelings, or whether they’re going to get their back up and become defensive?

Murphy says there’s a middle way. He suggests you use what he calls a “softening statement,” which lets reps know the news you’ve got isn’t good, but also that you’re delivering it because you care about them.

Let’s go back to Gina, who isn’t closing sales. You might say: “I need to talk to you about something — closing — that you absolutely need to improve on. In fact, if you don’t, it’s going to hurt your career here. But I really think you can be a better closer and I want you to be. Let’s look at some numbers first…”

See how that works? You’ve done all you can to make sure Gina listens to you without getting defensive, while at the same time coming across unambiguously with the criticism you need to transmit.

So maybe try the technique next time you have to tell a rep to pull up his/her socks. But whatever you do, don’t give the compliment sandwich a place on your managerial menu.

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