Note: This Steve W. Martin Sales Research Article Originally Appeared in the Harvard Business Review
What separates high-performing salespeople who exceed their quota from underperformers who miss their quotas by more than 25 percent? I recently conducted a research project involving nearly 800 salespeople and sales leaders to better answer this question. In addition, I have had the privilege to interview well over one thousand top salespeople who sell for some of the world’s best companies. The information from these two sources provides interesting insights about the attributes of high-performing top salespeople compared to their lesser successful counterparts.
Verbal acuity can be thought of as a communication level where the meaning, nature, and importance of the words spoken by the salesperson are personally understood by the customer. For a salesperson to establish credibility it requires that messages be conveyed at the recipient’s communication level, not too far below the level of the words that the customer uses. On average, high-performing salespeople communicate between the eleventh and thirteenth grade level when scored by the Flesch-Kincaid test as opposed to the eighth and ninth grade level for underperforming salespeople.
Achievement Oriented Personality
Eighty-four percent of the top performers tested scored very high in achievement orientation. They are fixated on achieving goals and continuously measure their performance in comparison to their goals. Another interesting statistic is that over 85 percent of top salespeople played an individual or team sport in high school. As a result, they are well-equipped to function in competitive environments where self-discipline is a necessity. For example, 52 percent of high- performing salespeople indicated they were power users who take full advantage of their company’s CRM technology and internal systems compared to only 31 percent of underperforming salespeople.
Situational dominance is a personal interaction strategy by which the customer accepts the salesperson’s recommendations and follows his advice. While dominance is commonly associated with brute force, this is not the case in sales. It’s simply how people judge others. People are continually sensing whether their position is superior to yours, relatively equal, or inferior in some way. In turn, this impacts what they say during conversations and how they behave.
A relaxed dominant salesperson speaks freely and guides the conversation as he confidently shares his knowledge and opinions with the customer. An anxious submissive salesperson is forced into reactive behavior and his tendency is to operate under the direction of the customer, never being in control of the account. Situational dominance test scores of high-performing salespeople averaged 20 percent higher than underperforming salespeople.
Over 90 percent of high-performing and underperforming salespeople described themselves as optimists. However, upon further review nearly two-thirds of high-performing salespeople actually exhibit pessimistic personality tendencies. I theorize the explanation for this dichotomy is that salespeople always have to maintain a positive attitude and pleasant demeanor while in front of customers. However, inward pessimism drives a salesperson to question the viability of the deal and credibility of the buyer. Therefore, top salespeople are more naturally driven to ask the customer tougher qualifying questions and are more likely to seek out meetings with senior level decision makers who ultimately decide which vendor will be selected.
Sales Management Impact
Does a salesperson’s manager play a determining factor in achieving success? Study participants were asked, “Outside of setting my quota, my sales manager plays a key role in determining whether or not I make quota?” Surprisingly, the response from high and underperformers was identical. Forty-six percent agreed with the statement and 54 percent were neutral or disagreed with it. Moreover, sixty-nine percent of high-performing salespeople rated their sales manager as excellent or above average compared to 49 percent of underperforming salespeople indicating there is a correlation.
Study participants were also asked to rank the different attributes of great sales managers. In order of priority the top three factors for high-performing salespeople were leadership and management skills, practical experience and sales intuition, and communication and coaching skills. The top three factors for underperforming salespeople were industry expertise and product knowledge, communication and coaching skills, and fights for the team. These results reveal how high and underperforming salespeople utilize their managers differently. Underperformers tend to use their managers to make up for the product and industry knowledge they lack.
Both high-performing and underperforming salespeople are in contact with their sales managers at about the same frequency. For example, 51 percent of high-performing salespeople and 55 percent of underperforming salespeople are in contact with their sales manager all the time during the day. Twenty-eight percent of high-performing salespeople and 20 percent of underperforming are in contact with their manager frequently during the week while 15 percent of high-performing and 17 percent of underperformers talk to their managers once or twice a week. However, the conversations sales leaders have with top salespeople are quite different than those with underperformers. They are collaborative strategizing sessions about prospective deals while the conversations with underperformers consist of directional instructions and validating whether or not daily duties are being carried out.
Sales Organization Influence
The research suggests that sales organization morale influences individual sales success. Fifty three percent of high-performing sales rated their sales organization’s morale as being higher than most sales organizations. In comparison, only 37 percent of underperforming salespeople rated morale higher than most companies.
Sales organization accountability also influences individual quota achievement. Thirty-nine percent of high-performing salespeople strongly agreed that salespeople at their company are measured against their quota and held accountable compared to only 23 percent of underperforming salespeople. In comparison, 36 percent of underperforming salespeople either disagreed or were neutral about whether salespeople at their company were measured and held accountable compared to 21 percent of high-performing salespeople.
Finally, the study results indicate that individual sales success is not dependent upon the growth rate of the company the salesperson works for. The percentage of high-performing salespeople was consistent to the percentage of underperforming salespeople across high growth companies (over 20 percent annual growth), slower growth companies (5 percent to 20 percent growth rate), companies with flat revenues, and even companies with decreasing revenues. When taken into account with all the research above, sales performance is more likely dependent on the attributes of the individual and sales environment characteristics over company-related influences.