Beware the Golden Handcuffs

The best are driving over half your revenues. Do you want more of them?

As we comb through the data of the 2018 Sales Talent Study, one of the more alarming statistics was the vulnerability sales organizations have when it comes to their top performers.

For years, our data has shown that the top 20% of a sales team contributes over half (54% in the recent World-Class Sales Practices Study) of the revenues. Yet, even with such a high reliance on such a small group of people, less than one-third of sales organizations conduct assessments to build a firm, and measurable, handle on what makes their best so successful.

The result is that many organizations live in fear of losing their best performers. And, many sales managers feel like their top salespeople have them in “golden handcuffs.” How many times have you heard a sales leader say that, “You don’t coach or manage a top performer, you just get out of their way”?

The result is little change in performance across the sales team and only roughly half of sellers making their goals.

A frequent solution to this problem is to interview sales leaders, figure out why the best are successful, build a competency model and then try to train your incumbent sales force to be like the top performers or at least begin to hire to the profile of a top performer.

This approach can suffer from some significant pitfalls:

  • Your “best” may not be the best. Most organizations measure success using lagging indicators. And top performers are usually identified by revenue plan attainment. However, making the number may not necessarily mean the seller is the “best.” They may be very good at farming an existing territory that a previous seller acquired. They may have a preferential account list due to tenure, background or just pure luck. Be sure to consider a range of indicators, e.g., consistent performance, strong conversion, high win rates, positive customer feedback, and positive internal feedback.
  • Your sales leaders don’t know why top sellers are the best. Good sales leaders will certainly have a good gut feel on best practices, i.e., what the best are doing that others are not. And it is critical to share those best practices across the company. But, they aren’t organizational psychologists. They won’t be able to tell you the underlying attributes that separate top performers from others. Many times what ends up in a competency model (e.g., product knowledge) isn’t what is actually differentiating the high and low performers. And what might be described as “competitiveness” may actually be “ambition” and have different motivators. Sales leaders’ perspectives are critical. But they aren’t a replacement for a data-science oriented approach.
  • What is best today may not be best tomorrow. Buyers, industries, products are all changing rapidly. Sellers who may have broad success selling products may struggle with a SaaS model. Those who excelled when a product was first to market may struggle when differentiation is challenged by lower cost options. Market factors may be driving the organization to adopt a vertical versus a geographic territory based model. When considering the best, think about the future, not just what leads to being best today.
  • Training is part, but not all, of the answer. A data-derived model is going to include a range of skills, knowledge and attributes. Some of those competencies can be trained. Others can be enhanced through development (e.g., if a salesperson is wired to be good at negotiations, you can enhance that talent by providing them with training and a negotiations process). Still others are primarily hiring issues. For example, if a salesperson is not inherently inclined to be curious, you may be able to teach them how to be aware of possible blind spots, but you won’t change their makeup. Consider what goes into your onboarding program, what is included in ongoing development and what is a hiring must-have.
  • You may not want more salespeople who are like your best. Due to years of the golden handcuff syndrome, you may find that while your top performers are important to your organization, you can’t really accommodate a greater proportion of them. They may be prone to working outside of the system, creating legal risk, innovating hard to fulfill solutions, or requiring large amounts of support resources. This may be an acceptable trade-off for the return with selected accounts. But you should strongly consider how replicable that model is.


Questions for you:

  • Are my “top” performers, my “best” performers?
  • Why are the best so successful?
  • What are the best practices I can replicate?
  • What competencies are present in the best, and not present in lower performers?
  • Do I really want more people like my top performers?


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