How to Beat the 80/20 Rule in Sales Performance -- Part 1

Business executives and sales managers frequently bemoan "80/20" performance on their sales teams, where approximately 80 percent of sales are produced by approximately 20 percent of salespeople. Why do salespeople perform so differently? What is it about top sales performers that enables them to achieve such vastly superior results?

Certainly there are some sales skills that anyone can learn. For example, it is easy to learn how to ask reflective questions. These questions begin with the words "who", "what", "when", "where", "why" and "how", and tend to encourage more detailed answers than questions that can be answered with a "yes" or "no".

You can learn how to ask reflective questions by participating in a simple role play. In this role play, every time you ask me a "yes/no" question, I'll answer "No". Getting stonewalled with a bunch of "no's" will break you of the yes/no questioning habit pretty quickly!

Other sales skills are tougher to learn. A good example is teaching salespeople how to ask questions and "follow the thread" in the answers. To explain this concept, let's use another role play. If you ask me a reflective question, I'll respond with answers that contain some "pain points". If you recognize the pain points and drill down into them by asking additional questions, I'll eventually agree to engage in a sales cycle.

Do you know what my experience has been with the "follow the thread" role play? Some salespeople learn this skill easily. Others struggle, but they eventually master it. However, some just never get it, no matter how hard they try!

Why can some salespeople learn this critical skill, but others can't?

Reason #1

In their book, Now, Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton report that great managers and average managers have different expectations for their employees. According to Buckingham and Clifton, average managers assume that "each person can learn to be competent in almost anything", while great managers assume that "each person's talents are enduring and unique".

Most sales books and training programs seem to take the "average manager" point of view. In other words, they seem to assume that anyone can learn how to sell. Their unspoken promise is that all you have to do is invest enough time, effort, and money to learn the skills they teach. If you make the investments, you will learn the skills and succeed in sales.

Unfortunately, there are countless examples of sales books and training courses not producing the desired improvement in sales performance. Think about some salespeople you know personally. How many of them are struggling to make their quotas? Why are they struggling?

  • Is it the state of the economy? (If other salespeople on the same sales team are making their numbers, blaming the economy won't earn much sympathy.)

  • Is it because they don't work hard enough?

  • Is it because they don't have enough product knowledge?

  • Do they need to work harder on their selling skills?

  • Do they need more coaching from their manager?
What if the "great manager" point of view is correct? What if everyone cannot become proficient in sales? What if success in sales requires a unique set of talents?

Reason #2

Herb Greenberg, Harold Weinstein and Patrick Sweeney report this very conclusion in their book, How to Hire and Develop Your Next Top Performer. After correlating hundreds of thousands of assessments that were performed over several decades with actual sales performance measurements, they reached these startling conclusions:

  • "55% of the people earning their living in sales should be doing something else"; and

  • "Another 20% to 25% have what it takes to sell, but they should be selling something else"
Wow! Those are some sobering statistics! They indicate that more than half of all salespeople are NEVER going to make it in sales. Another quarter have some chance of accomplishing sales success, but only if they find the right job selling the right kind of product or service.

How can you identify whether salespeople have the talents required to succeed in your company's sales job? That question will be answered in Part 2 of this article.

Copyright 2005 -- Alan Rigg

Sales performance expert Alan Rigg is the author of How to Beat the 80/20 Rule in Selling: Why Most Salespeople Don't Perform and What to Do About It. To learn more about his book and sign up for more FREE sales and sales management tips, visit http://www.8020performance.com.

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