Category Archives: Sales coaching and mentorship

One Sales Interview Question We Can Live Without

I often disagree with opinions that I read online. No biggy. Much rarer is when I read business advice so wrongheaded, so ill-conceived, and so dangerous that my forehead collides with my keyboard.

“awfjsoefivfdljkmdvfl;jkvxcljkvxcljk;m,..,m.” You can quote me.

That happened recently when a colleague shared an article on LinkedIn from Inc. Magazine titled, Recruiters Share Can’t-Miss Interview Questions to Disarm Candidates. A banal topic, but the word disarm piqued my curiosity. I had to read on.

At the top of the article appeared a paragraph, For sales positions. More curiosity. But that character string flew onto my screen when I got to the last sentence – a true zinger! Actually, the whole paragraph is just wrong:

“We interview candidates for both our internal company and for clients throughout the US. If someone is interviewing for a sales position, we’ve found that this question provides a lot of insight: What is the most expensive item you’ve ever purchased? The rationale behind it is that salespeople typically stop producing when they are ‘comfortable’ with their income, so this question provides insight into what may be ‘enough’ for them. For example, if I said that the most expensive thing I’ve ever purchased is a pair of $50 shoes, I may potentially not strive to make as much money as someone who answers, ‘I splurged and purchased a $500 pair of shoes because I knew that wearing them would be my motivation to make even more’.” 

Do top producers make a lot in order to spend a lot? Or, do they spend a lot, and therefore, they’re uber-motivated to make a lot? Either way, the notion that proclivities for acquiring expensive things predicts sales success is absurd, and perpetuates a horrible stereotype about salespeople.

At best, the recruiter’s question is misguided. At worst, it’s patently discriminatory. People who grew up with limited means are less inclined to make self-indulgent purchases than those who grew up wealthy. What about people send a chunk of their monthly income to family in their home country? What about solo-breadwinner parents who save every month to provide a college education for their children? My bet is that you’ll find them shopping at Target for footwear, not Neiman-Marcus. This recruiter wouldn’t understand their motivation or hunger for income because her myopia doesn’t allow her to. Not good, when your raison d’être is discovering the talent in others.

I don’t buy her rationale. I know top-producing salespeople whose penury makes Jack Benny look like a spendthrift. And I’ve met others who couldn’t sell their way out of a wet paper bag. But that idiosyncrasy didn’t prevent them from repeatedly hurling themselves into consumption traps. “His n’ her jet skis? Sure! I’m in!” So fawning over a candidate whose appeal comes from the fact that he swaggers in wearing a pair of $800 Santoni Darian Cap Toe Oxfords seems short sighted. Probe a little further beyond his conspicuous consumption, and you just might learn that he’s been paying the minimum on his credit card balance for the last 25 months, and lives with his parents.

Maybe for the purveyor of this advice, the best evidence of potential motivation shouldn’t be the candidate’s shoes, but his physical behavior. For that, I’d suggest she seek someone who chugs a bottle of Maalox daily, and chain smokes. Now there’s someone outwardly nervous! About what? Making money? Why not. The clothes add another data point to the desired fact pattern, thereby affirming the logic. It’s a vicious circle of self-congratulation.

But is that aggressive, stressed image really what companies want? Is that the face vendors want to project to customers? And, more ominously, what does an employee’s insatiable drive for disposable income portend for the safety of organizations, customers, employees, and other stakeholders? The questions are not intended to be facetious or hypothetical. I see the aftermath whenever I read about sales scams and betrayals of customer trust.

If you seek the One Best Question to ask sales candidates in 2019 – and there really isn’t a single question – I suggest ditching “what’s your most expensive purchase” for “when do you plan to retire?” If the candidate is 30-ish and says “not one minute past 40,” hire that candidate immediately! I don’t care whether he or she wears $4.99 flip-flops, and drove to the interview in a Hyundai Elantra. Or rode a bike.  F-I-R-E: it’s the new expensive wardrobe.

Online, you can find loads of more useful questions to ask sales candidates. In practice, however, I don’t believe sales interview questions need to differ much from those you’d ask a non-sales executive. The best guide I found comes from Harvard Business Review (7 Rules for Job Interview Questions that Result in Great Hires, by John Sullivan, February 10, 2016).

  1. Avoid easy-to-practice questions
  2. Be wary of [answers to] historical questions
  3. Assess their ability to solve a problem
  4. Evaluate whether they’re forward-looking
  5. Assess a candidate’s ability to learn, adapt and innovate
  6. Avoid duplication [by asking for information that’s already on a candidate’s resume]
  7. Allocate time for selling [your organization to the candidate]

I’d also ask the candidate to talk about resilience. Salespeople experience frequent setbacks. So, in addition to learning how goals were over-achieved, find out about responses and reactions to failure.

For many interviewers, the last rule represents an often-missed opportunity. Not only does it help reveal whether your organization matches what the candidate wants, but it offers the interviewer a reciprocal chance to convince the right candidate to join. And if the candidate isn’t right, he or she could share that information with a friend or colleague who is.

Hiring Sales Talent? Seek These Three Essential Skills

As a strategist, I look for performance gaps. They are often concealed within operating statistics, and can require sleuthing to flush out.  For me, an adrenaline rush comes from finding a subtle gem and elevating it to the conference room white board. “Strategic priorities for this quarter . . .” By now, you can tell that I don’t attract large crowds at parties.

I like big gaps because sometimes, they can be fixed cheaply, offering a satisfying bang for the buck. “Your problem, Carolyn, is right here, hiding in plain sight.” My clients return a hearty thank you, consistently followed by “we can address this without changing the budget!” Indeed.

Competency misalignments crop up regularly. To achieve revenue targets, sales organizations need one set of skills, but when the specifications get to Human Resources, things have already gotten lost in translation. Odd scenarios unfold. Even when job seekers have excellent sales skills, the company passes them up because the candidate didn’t satisfy HR’s check boxes.  Or, the candidate presents strong sales competencies, but the interviewer doesn’t know how to recognize them. Without dazzling a hiring manager, could a sales candidate be the next Billy Mays ? Or more commonly today, could sales talent knock at a company’s door without tripping a resume algorithm’s cold, hard decision boxes? Absa-tively. It happens every day.

Here’s an example from a posting I found today for a software sales representative. (I purposely omitted the company’s name):

1) Minimum 5+ years of successful software sales experience
2) Experience in consultative selling
3) Experience in lead role of a team-selling environment
4) Ability to uncover and identify new business opportunities
5) Excellent communication, organizational and interpersonal skills

To assist a candidate’s self-selection for applying, this company gives five low-level requirements. Millions of people have experience doing things. I have experience golfing, but I’m not a good golfer. That doesn’t stop me from checking the Experience box. Does successful mean the candidate achieved quota every year, or just sold something a handful of times? Only Ability to uncover and identify new business opportunities affords the interviewer an opportunity to ask for meaningful demonstrations of skill, along with assessing how the candidate approaches these two challenges. And none of these items are concerned with past client outcomes. That’s pretty typical. It’s all about revenue, and not whether there was a satisfied buyer who paid for the product or service.

And executives wonder why their customers are perpetually dissatisfied with their buying experiences, and express disdain over their interactions with salespeople.

Toiling over sales hiring specifications is a fool’s errand, with little value other than keeping HR staff busy writing requirements. Excellent communication, organizational, and interpersonal skills are table stakes for any sales candidate. For anyone lacking these skills, who would have the temerity to apply?

My proposal is to dump all the picayune sales rep “must have’s”, and focus on discovering three self-reinforcing skills in sales candidates:

  1. Gain rapport and trust. B2B, B2C, high-tech, low-tech, or no-tech – every salesperson must be able to establish rapport with a prospect and gain trust, or nothing else can happen.
  2. Qualify opportunities. A salesperson able to qualify opportunities throughout the buying process has a much stronger chance of making quota than one who doesn’t. What about a person who has marginal qualification skills, but makes goal anyway? I attribute that to a quota that was to low to begin with – or to luck.
  3. Guide buying transactions through completion – and beyond. In an earlier time, I’d say solid closer. Now, I grumble at that expression, because as a customer, I don’t like being closed. A salesperson can only be effective when he or she knows how to guide prospects to outcomes that are mutually beneficial for buyer and seller. Long term, the sale doesn’t matter if the buyer doesn’t benefit.

That’s it: three must have’s. The rest – years of experience, industry knowledge, team selling, consultative selling, what have you – is simply icing on the cake. These skills depend in part on innate abilities, and they require constant attention to hone and perfect. Include them in every hiring requisition. And challenge job candidates to back up their claims of competency with past examples, and to provide explanations about how they have developed these skills. This will help you find right talent. The rest can be taught on the job.

Sales Lesson #1: Don’t “Get” Your Customers to Do Anything!

Every so often, an article with a title like How to Get Any Customer to Take Action Immediately, burbles into my newsfeed. There are infinite variants. No matter what you want your customers and prospects to do, you can count on finding a putative method for making it happen. But for all the how-to’s devoted to getting customers to do things, it’s easy to forget that the goal, of course, is helping them succeed, and not twisting their arms – figuratively or otherwise.

If you ask top producing sales reps – those who truly serve customers – how they get their customers to buy, they’d probably be confused by the question. Instead, they’d reveal that they don’t get their customers to do anything. What produces their excellent results is their ability to guide their customers, and ultimately help them achieve good outcomes. Guiding versus Getting: these are fundamentally different approaches, with little in common. Guiding assumes prospects can be trusted, Getting assumes they cannot. Guiding sees prospects as partners, Getting sees them as objects. Guiding views prospects as capable decision makers, Getting views them as inept. Guiding relies on inquiry and collaboration, Getting relies on telling and insistence. In countless interviews I’ve held with successful sales professionals, I’ve learned they embrace Guiding in every customer interaction, and eschew Getting.

“How to get your prospect to [fill in the blank]!” What regularly emerges are manipulative high-pressure sales tactics that break customer rapport and erode trust. Instead of improving sales outcomes and buying experiences, the resulting behaviors and activities undermine them.

The top producers I’ve worked with have figured out a better way, and honed their skills accordingly. They begin with a natural curiosity, and connect it to a sincere desire to understand customer problems, limitations, issues, concerns, performance gaps, and strategic challenges. They uncover the intensity of motivation to change the situation, and learn the mechanisms their customers have developed for investing in solutions. And if customers lack the mechanisms, top producers guide them to create a path forward. From there, they harness the power of the customer’s will to change. The energy might be low, or altogether absent, which is why reps, often goaded by their managers, turn to Getting. My question to them: how’s that working for you? . . .

The best salespeople know that attempting to force customer action can become a distraction. It can also backfire. As one rep, Denise, explained it to me, “I don’t push the monthly specials the way management wants me to. They don’t work, and it’s not the way my customers buy . . . When I talk on the phone, there’s no sales urgency to my voice.” The year I interviewed her, she was her company’s top producer out of over 50 reps. Though her immediate boss wasn’t clear about the reasons for her success, her statement provides much of the answer: Denise guides her customers. She doesn’t get them to do anything.

Do Salespeople Lie More Than Other Professionals?

 

Compared to other professions, are salespeople disproportionately prone to lying? To reveal the answer, I searched online for most dishonest professions, and was rewarded with several surveys. One study conducted in 2014 listed the top 10 least honest (the number following indicates the percentage of survey respondents who believed the profession trustworthy):

Lobbyists – 6%
Members of Congress – 8%
Car salespeople – 9%
State office holders – 14%
Advertising practitioners – 14%
TV reporters – 20%
Lawyers – 20%
Newspaper reporters – 21%
Business executives – 22%
Local office holders – 23%

Go us! Of the top 10 most dishonest professions, biz-developers hold only three slots – lobbyists, car salespeople, and advertising practitioners. Still, as marketing/sales professionals, we’re over-the-top touchy about our honesty image.

Earlier this month, a writer on LinkedIn asked whether it’s acceptable for salespeople to lie. He felt that lying seems the new normal in selling, and he invited others to weigh in. Some opinions were as malleable as a steel girder:

  • “My answer is short and simple – no.”
  • “A person is either honest or a liar. The Truth is not conditional. Half-truths are lies.”
  • “Never acceptable. Persuasion is a positively reinforced message through fact and data driven decisions.”
  • “just don’t do it.”

These thoughts outline an archetype: the impeccably honest salesperson who never lies, never distorts, and never withholds facts and information. Unfortunately, that archetype represents an impossibly high bar. Try any of them out on a newbie rep. Chances are, he or she will flunk day one on the job. Same for days two and three – assuming they get that far. And experienced reps will just roll their eyes. “Get a grip, pal!”

“Just don’t do it.” If only things were that simple. For hundreds of years, the meaning of honesty has been debated by legal scholars, judged in courts, and mulled by philosophers. Honesty is difficult to define. One reason we often pad the word with adjectives: pure honesty, partial honesty, brutal honesty, radical honesty, morally honest, and mostly honest. The same for truth and lies. Few would argue that white lies aren’t acceptable, or that honest facts aren’t used for fabricating illusion.

One person’s bald-faced lie is someone else’s minor distortion. Should things be any different in selling? Is there something magical or different about sales that invites draconian edicts like these? Emphatically, no. Lying appears the “new normal” in selling because by these standards, lying is . . . pretty normal. And it’s hardly new.

The advocates of “no lying” need to abandon their idealized interpretations of truth purity because they are divorced from selling reality. A major reason is that the default rhetoric of marketing and sales tends toward certainty – especially for describing outcomes and results. We favor concrete terms like definitely, will, guaranteed, and proven. No rep wins the boss’s approval by adopting mealier – but more honest – terms like probably, possibly, could, and might. I challenge anyone to find a Chief Sales Officer willing to trade off persuasive power for a sworn commitment to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

“Never acceptable.” If marketers followed pure honesty to the letter, the first thing on the chopping block would be storytelling. I have yet to read one sales story that hasn’t been factually creative, at best. The second thing to go would be “case studies,” since they are never as objective as the name implies.

Admonishing salespeople to “never lie,” only creates dissonance and goal conflict. Managers manufacture failure by insisting their reps behave “100% honestly,” while holding a hatchet over their necks as motivation to achieve goal. Inevitably, the rep must choose. And sadly, saying “I got fired for doing the right thing for my customer” doesn’t merit an invitation for a second job interview. Sales Culture Training 101: “No matter what, make quota.” Message, received.

That’s not the only problem. When “never lie” absolutism exists, ethical risks lurk nearby. Absolutism crushes debate and discussion. And when it comes to honesty and ethical behavior toward customers, nuanced conversations are sorely needed. The problem with these LinkedIn comments is that there’s no room for interpretation.

At its most atavistic, selling is persuasion. And persuasion requires distortion. Distortion of fact, distortion of meaning, distortion of reality and urgency. Over beer, we can hold a simpatico conversation to parse the differences between distortion and lies. We can exchange information about what we allow ourselves to do and say when representing our companies, and the honesty lines we refuse to cross. We can talk about the influence of David Hume and Diogenes. One thing is certain: neither our honesty interpretations nor our ethical boundaries will be identical.

According to these absolutists, distortion and lying are equivalent. My recommendation: don’t follow their advice. If you want your customer to take action – say, for example, to buy from you and not from your competitor – you must make sure they believe that it’s fully in their interest to do so, and that ordering now is a priority. You can’t do that without tweaking reality to promote your point of view.

For salespeople, balancing honesty and persuasion means walking a hair-thin line. Same for ego and empathy. All are needed for success, but they collide and clunk against one another. “It’s a miracle anyone can do this job,” Philip Broughton wrote in his book, The Art of the Sale. No joke.

I am not a proponent of lying as a sales tactic. I am not advocating deceit and misrepresentation as a business practice. And I am not saying that anything goes as long as it results in revenue. Far from it. I am saying that marketers and salespeople should strive for honesty and high ethical standards in their professional conduct. I am also saying that to be effective, salespeople need a rational basis for ethical consideration, and “never lie” undermines that goal. We need salespeople who are strong critical thinkers, not sycophantic believers.

A personal confession: I have made sales lies. Repeatedly. Here are three:

1. “I can’t offer you a lower price.” Lie. Prices are quite easy for vendors to massage, and rarely – if ever – is it impossible to offer a lower price, as “can’t” connotes. Customers know it. Everyone knows it.

What’s more truthful? How about, 1) “it’s not convenient for me reduce my price,” or 2) “if I allow you to buy at the lower price, my profit margins will erode, and our CFO will get angry with me,” or 3) “I get higher commission selling at list price, and I need the income this quarter.”

2. “Buying my company’s product is the best use of your resources right now.” Lie. I’ve never been 100% sure when using superlatives, yet I still use them. Besides, with this lie, I have rarely had full visibility into every project a company is considering anyway. So I’m not being fully honest when making the claim.

What’s more truthful? 1) “based on my analysis of the numbers you provided me, you should probably meet your expected financial return,” 2) “My competitor’s product does pretty much the same thing, so you can’t go wrong choosing either one of us,” 3) “I understand why you want to implement my proposal now, but based on what I have seen, you’d be much better off solving [name of project that my company doesn’t provide a product for].”

3. “Our machines have highest performance rating in the industry.” Lie, by omission. But still a lie. Is highest performance rating based on MTBF (mean time between failures)? Longevity of components? Quality of output? All of these? And where was the benchmarking performed? – In house? Through an objective third-party? And there’s that superlative problem again: highest.

What’s more truthful? 1) “We have the highest performance rating in one category.” 2) “We performed the benchmarking in-house.” 3) “Our in-house test results always look better than what you will achieve in the field.”

I harbor no remorse for committing any of these. But if you’re into “never lie,” try some of the more truthful statements with your customers, and let me know the results.

I want to head off a concern right now. You might already be thinking, “These are trivial lies. They are not the kind that get anyone into trouble.” Fair point. But then I’d urge you to identify what type of lies really get your dander up. Lies like telling customers, “We have offices in 28 states,” when those “offices” are actually indirect employees working virtually from their homes? Or, my favorite, “Our software has over 48 installs,” when two-thirds of them are dormant beta accounts that have made no commitment to purchase? Smile, wink. These statements are kinda, sorta true, and because of that, they stink around the edges. I don’t like them. Mostly, I get annoyed with the CMO’s explanation, which often begins, “Well, technically . . .”

Maybe we need a new taxonomy for marketing lies. Here’s what I propose:

Class I lies: run-of-the-mill marketing fluff, flamboyant writing, and expected braggadocio. The claims prospects are already jaded to. “Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum.” Or “We’re the industry leader!” There’s really no foul for broadcasting any of this stuff. If any prospect bases a purchase decision solely on such claims, well, shame on them.

Class II lies: deeper, more egregious transgressions. Stuff that generates fines, lawsuits, and bitterly negative Yelp reviews. Example: “Our brain games help users achieve full potential in every aspect of life,” which got Lumosity fined by the FTC. The FTC asserted there was no scientific proof to substantiate that claim, along with others Lumosity made.

Class III lies: I call these BHAL’s (Big Hairy Audacious Lies), because of their potential to directly and significantly influence a customer’s buying decision. Lies that obscure the true cost of procurement or operations. Lies that patently overstate the capability of a product, or promise a result that can never be delivered. The Fyre Festival debacle resulted from a series of Class III lies.

If your business objective is to instill ethics and integrity in your biz-dev organization, don’t fret over Class I lies. Just keep your eye on them to make sure they don’t become more serious. Propagating Class II and Class III lies, on the other hand, substantially increase business and stakeholder risks, and they must be carefully managed. Here are some important practices:

  1. Recognize that honesty and truth are subject to interpretation, and there’s often ambiguity in selling situations.
  2. Model ethical, honest behavior from the top echelons of the company. Executives who are not vocal proponents, or who are not rigorous about their own honest conduct cannot expect any different from employees.
  3. Encourage internal discussions among staff about what they encounter in sales and marketing situations, and how they make choices.
  4. Offer guidelines to staff when rules don’t fit. Avoid vague requests like “don’t be too salesy,” or “don’t over-promise.” Instead, ask your staff to think about what’s ethical in selling, and to always consider, “what is the right thing to do?”
  5. Don’t penalize honesty by creating conflict. It happens more than companies realize. If Wells Fargo taught us anything, it’s that a salesperson should never have to decide between being honest with customers, or keeping his or her job.
  6. Provide clarity for what’s restricted by documenting them in writing, and reviewing them routinely with your staff. The Class III lies that significantly influence customer decisions, that directly contradict product specifications or contract terms, that inflate or falsify an employee’s credentials. The restrictions should also include what can – and cannot – be said about competitors, performance benchmarking data, pricing commitments, and other financial disclosures.

P. T. Barnum, one of the greatest salespeople who ever lived, was adamantly against fraudulent selling, but he recognized the subtle nuances about honesty and lying:

“An honest man who arrests public attention will be called a “humbug,”‘ but he is not a swindler or an impostor. If, however, after attracting crowds of customers by his unique displays, a man foolishly fails to give them a full equivalent for their money, they never patronize him a second time, but they very properly denounce him as a swindler, a cheat, an impostor; they do not, however, call him a ‘humbug.’ He fails, not because he advertises his wares in an [outrageous] manner, but because, after attracting crowds of patrons, he stupidly and wickedly cheats them.”

As Broughton observed, “There is evidently a line here somewhere between humbug and deception, between Barnumesque hype and outright lies, between reading your customers to give them what they need and exploiting their weakness to your own advantage.”

I hope the “never lie” proponents figure that out.

Should Companies Stop Worshiping Sales Rock Stars?

“Can you find us a sales rep? And not just any rep. We want a rock star!” An ordinary request for something truly extraordinary. I hear it often. Lately, I began to wonder, what does this honorific mean?

I searched online for sales rock star, and received a deluge of results. 23,800 of them, if you’re into numbers.

How to Find Your Next Sales Rockstar

Be an Inside Sales Rockstar

How to Be a Sales Call Rockstar

And, From Sales Rookie to Enterprise Sales Rockstar.

I found a YouTube video, How to be a phone sales Rockstar. It’s over 90 minutes long, with 1,276 views. Oddly, just one Like.

I dove further into the results by clicking on random links. Many were for job opportunities like this:

“Business Development Sales Rockstar Jobs in Connecticut.” The position stipulates “Other Must Have’s: Ability to sit for extended periods of time at a desk, in meetings, etc. . .” Oh, baby! How many candidates applied?

There’s a definitive book on the topic, Sales ROCKSTAR: How Top Producers Perform by Jeff Krantz. You can find it on Amazon, which offers an expectedly salesy blurb:

“This book was written for those who want to become ultra Top Producers in the profession of selling. It has been developed for those who desire the lifestyle that only a successful sales career can afford.”

Questions for the copywriter: Is it necessary to modify top producers with ultra? And which lifestyle are you referring to? The retirement you’re planning while burning out as a micro-managed, bag-carrying road warrior, shackled by a thin thread of job security?

I even discovered yet another usurpation of the Keep Calm mantra: Keep Calm and be a Sales Rockstar.

This was getting weird. The last straw was an article, The Seven Absolute Must Have’s to Become a B2B Sales Rockstar. The title leaves no room for dissent. Had the writer been interested, I would have questioned why honesty, ethical integrity, humility, and empathy don’t appear on his list of essentials.

About 45 minutes into my rock star investigation, my head hit the keyboard. I was appalled by what I read, and felt no closer to an answer. The most consistent idea I gleaned about sales rock stars was that they achieve high ratios of revenue compared to goal. Lots of unanswered questions remained. How difficult were the goals? Were they impossibly high, or ridiculously low? Are rock stars better at exploiting serendipity? Are they more immune to black swan calamities? How long do rock stars remain rock stars? Forever? Or like many professionals, is their performance subject to ups and downs?

For rock stars, there’s lots of admiration for their revenue outcomes, but what about their customer outcomes? Do rock stars have happier, more loyal customers than non-rock stars? Do rock stars nurture more profitable customers than others? No answers.

Finally, there’s the question of fairness. For sales reps, does a rock star label mean landing a peachier territory than reps whose abilities have not been similarly anointed? Does it gain them more opportunities for professional development? More autonomy and independence? A speaker slot at Achiever’s Club? Does being considered a rock star become a self-fulfilling prophesy – or an unwieldy career burden, causing the bearer failure and disappointment? Hard to say.

“It’s tough to juggle the mountain of details about everyone we meet, and we need an easy way to think about them, wrote Peter Cappelli, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, in a Wall Street Journal article, Why Managers Should Stop Thinking of A, B and C Players (February 21, 2017). “Managers routinely put employees into one of three boxes: people who perform well (A Players), those who perform poorly (C players), and those who are stuck in the middle (B players). Rock Star persists in sales parlance, reflecting our adoration for all things ostentatious. Rock stars belong in Sales! A-Player banality belongs in Accounting.

“The problem is that there is precious little evidence to support the A-Player model and the basic idea beneath it. The evidence from objective measures of actual job performance for individuals shows that it varies a great deal over time, even within the same year,” Cappelli writes. Could his research explain why I have witnessed so many high-flying sales achievers who tanked at their next gig, or suffered revenue craters when territories realigned, products changed, or competition stiffened?

Before rock stars produce even one dollar of revenue, hiring managers proclaim their stratospheric hopes. “We just hired Stefan away from [competitor X]. He crushed his goal in their East region last year, and he’s a fantastic closer. Welcome aboard, Stefan. We know you’re going to just kill it!” Bro hugs from proud management follow as Stefan joins the team.

Cappelli writes that more than half of US corporations routinely segregate individuals based on such expectations. “In this system, people are singled out as A players, often after only two years’ performance, and groomed to rise higher and higher in the company. Yet the evidence shows that people are kept in those programs no matter what their actual performance is – and only 12% of companies report that their employees see the process as impartial.”

That creates a morale problem, though some sales managers argue that it shouldn’t because all reps are evaluated the same way – on revenue achievement. That sounds egalitarian, but it doesn’t guarantee a level playing field. Could rock stars, by dint of their near-deity status, be granted better opportunities? Or are they allowed slack if their performances don’t match expectations? After all, what manager wants to admit a hiring mistake? “It is easier to play along with the A-player model and assume that job performance is hard-wired. It has the drawback of being wrong and bad for business,” Cappelli says.

Requests for sales rock stars say more about a company’s position than most senior managers realize. It’s tacit admission of a hornet’s nest of marketing problems. A neon sign on a job post that tells candidates “Our products are weak. We don’t know how to deal with our competitors, and we can’t a produce a quality sales lead to save our life.” Hence, Rock Star as salvation for a smorgasbord of management inadequacies. The problem is, high-achieving sales professionals are attracted to high-potential opportunities. When those opportunities don’t materialize, their appetites for sticking it out are no stronger than an employer’s resolve to keep a struggling rep on the team.

The sales profession needs to look at itself in the mirror. Using crass terms like rock star trivializes the difficult challenges that salespeople encounter every day. It ignores a reality in every profession that performance rarely remains consistently high or consistently low. And it perpetuates a dumbed-down culture. A hypocrisy that sales managers bemoan when sales reps face the cold, cruel world of the C-Suite. “Our reps just don’t know how to talk to senior executives . . .” Ahem . . . you can help them by first expunging sophomoric language like “rock stars” and “crushing it!” from your sales communications.

In his book, The Art of the Sale, Philip Broughton wrote, “A positive view of sales and selling “holds that . . . no matter the condition of your birth, if you can sell, you can slice through any obstacles of class, status, or upbringing in a way inconceivable in more hidebound societies. Great sales[people] need no other prop to succeed. Selling well, in this view, is also a reflection of a healthy character. It means you are the sort of person people are drawn to – hardworking, clean living, and trustworthy – and you are likely to succeed at whatever you choose to do.”

I’m under no delusions that sales success means possessing saintly virtues. But characteristics that distinguish outstanding sales professionals defy assigning labels. It’s time for companies to quit worshiping meaningless, flamboyant nicknames like rock star, and instead, seek the combinations of skills, behaviors and actions that produce the right outcomes for their companies and customers.