Tag Archives: sales_development

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.

Defanged, Declawed, and Emasculated. Meet Your Next-Generation Sales Rep!

Self–loathing. It’s not the breakfast of sales sales champions, but salespeople sure receive a plentiful daily dosage:

“Telling is not selling.”

“Stop selling!”

“Shut up and listen!”

“Don’t act like a pushy salesperson.”

“Be interested, not interesting.”

On a LinkedIn discussion, one manager wondered whether it was good to use sales in a job title, given the word’s negativity. Another LinkedIn discussion asks whether the Internet is turning salespeople into dinosaurs. Recently, a tech CEO posted a widely-read blog in which he crowed about his company’s revenue successes, sans any sales force. He’s clad in spandex, astride his bicycle. Hmmm . . . .

Are you exuberant? Smack! . . . Not anymore!

Oh. I see you still have your sales mojo. Now this: your ego isn’t welcome either.

As the late comedian George Carlin said, “it’s all [prevarication], and it’s bad for you.”

Want a kinder, gentler sales rep? Bambi with a business card? Be careful what you wish for. As much as we don’t need manipulative and deceptive sales practices, we don’t need apathy. Or bland, either. It’s easy to slap a newbie rep and say “shut up and listen,” but a salesperson who can’t engage in persuasive dialog can fail as surely as one who can’t refrain from talking. Did you ever buy an expensive item from a poor communicator, or from a person who seemed disinterested? Me neither.

What can motivate one person’s exuberance can appear to another person as claws and fangs. Sales commissions create buying pressure? Eliminate them, like Best Buy. Sales pitches reek from overblown claims? Stop pitching—buyers have information power anyway. Job titles containing the word sales create buyer fear? Soften them with meeker words like Associate and Partner. Remove fangs, and improve outcomes, the reasoning goes.

Such changes are important, because for vendors, creating an environment where vendor and customer can collaborate nicely has become a valuable strategic differentiator. But they’re also emblematic of a profession in an identity crisis. We’re concerned our image isn’t good, but we aren’t sure exactly what it needs to be.

As with other thorny problems, subsidiary discussions blaze new trails. Are salespeople sufficiently humble and empathetic? How can salespeople bring “real value” to the buying process? In sales, how does one distinguish between coercion, manipulation, and persuasion? In a social-selling world, do salespeople need to excel at persuasion or facilitation – or both?

Back in 2010, Ogilvy’s World’s Greatest Salesperson Contest (in which contestants pitch prospects on buying a single brick) generated controversy as some people felt the premise drags the sales profession back to the Neanderthal, when “getting the prospect to say ‘yes’ three times” was the penultimate step to signing on the dotted line. Others found it little more than a self-serving gimmick for Ogilvy. “We thought it was time to reassert the importance of sales, honor the timeless craft of persuasion, glean wisdom from the best, and highlight the new tools and platforms which are re-shaping it for customers,” said Mat Zucker, Executive Creative Director of OgilvyOne in New York. If Ogilvy decided to continue the contest past its inaugural year of 2010, they’re keeping it a secret.

Still, given the preponderance of sales self-loathing, and draconian forecasts about the demise of the sales role, it’s nice to see the craft of sales and selling recognized in this way – even if for a fleeting moment. Attempts to de-fang salespeople will backfire. Effective buying requires persuasion: “Convince me that your product is the best one for my needs.” That requires sharing information, making a business case, building rapport, fostering trust, creating shared visions, leading change. Until persuasion becomes an unimportant selling skill, we should laud it when it’s done well.

Will the emerging social and business environment favor Bambi-like salespeople versus ancestor quota-driven predatory sales hunters? I’m not sure. But before we methodically defang and de-claw individual sales contributors, we should understand what capabilities enable salespeople to eat, and what causes them to get eaten.

Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Salespeople

It’s a hot steamy summer night in Virginia. I’m at an outdoor town fair, where the smells of cotton candy and popcorn blend with laughter, music and droning gas-powered generators, enveloping everything. I’m ten years old, and I want the giant blue stuffed hippopotamus sitting on the brightly-lit top shelf, behind the counter.

“How do you win the hippo?” I ask. “Stand up this Coke bottle,” the man tells me, pointing to a glass bottle lying on its side. “Take this fishing pole with the wooden ring at the end of the line. Get the ring around the neck, and pick the bottle straight up! One ticket gets you three tries.” He demonstrates by maneuvering the ring onto the bottle, lifting it an inch or so. I decide I’m in, and extract a single ticket from my pocket. Separating it from a small wad of drier lint, I present my ticket to the man.

Within a few seconds, I have the ring in place. I begin to raise the bottle. Ten degrees. Twenty. Intense concentration, beads of sweat. Now thirty degrees. As I elevate the bottle, the ring slides perilously up the neck. I keep trying by lowering the bottle, re-aligning the ring, then raising it again. I’m still on my first try—as long as the ring doesn’t slip off. “Must . . . use . . . quick . . . action . . ,” I think. I hold my breath, visualize the result, and with a quick wrist flick, up goes the bottle. Predictably, the ring flies off, causing a frenzied chain reaction that sends the ring spinning out of control at the end of the dangling line.

For a few harrowing seconds, the bottle totters in an awkward parabola, before settling, solidly and triumphantly, upright. Only one witness appears more shocked than me—the man running the game. “Wow! I’ve never seen that before! You’re supposed to get close, but nobody’s ever succeeded until now.”

Sorry to blow the odds, but I’ll take my hippo.

The game’s design compares to selling, where the odds of success are often unattractive and opaque. According to the 2013 Sales Performance Optimization Study, about 62% of salespeople at surveyed companies achieved quota in 2012. That’s better than in previous years, when the ratio sank into the 50th percentile. But sales achievement—or lack of it—remains a painful, festering boil for most companies. According to Jim Dickie, Managing Partner of CSO Insights, companies base their revenue planning assuming that on average, 71% of reps will make goal. We’re still well off the mark, and I don’t see anyone doing an end zone dance.

Seventy-one percent of reps expected to make goal means that companies are betting that twenty-nine percent won’t. I’m trying to think of another position in which employers have lower expectations for success. Cashier? Summer intern, maybe? Hard to fathom, but there’s a pattern: executives are not bullish on the idea that salespeople are likely to win at doing their job. In a sales risk survey I conducted with CustomerThink, nearly 25 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “Our salespeople lack the basic skills required to compete in our markets.”

So, twenty-nine percent might fail, and twenty-five percent of companies have salespeople who aren’t competent to perform the job for which they were hired. We can hold a friendly debate about whether these statistics represent correlation, causation, or whatever. But few can deny these findings present a troubling picture. Luckily, we’ve coined a nifty term, Sales Force Optimization, or SFO, to address these issues—or not, as the case might be.

SFO generates a lot of online chatter—710,000 search results just now, in fact. Yet, for the loads of sales-productivity-certainty hype, a 71%-will-achieve-quota benchmark seems lame. After all the optimization dust settles, what does that estimate suggest? Either (1) we still have much to learn, or (2) selling effectively baffles us more than we’d like to admit. Probably, it’s both.

With the quota-attainment success needle now edging into more favorable territory, you’d think that salespeople would be job hopping like crazy. But they’re not. CSO Insights found that in 2012, about 10% of sales force attrition was voluntary, while 10.6% was not. What’s unknown is how much was in between. “The heck with this Performance Improvement Plan! I quit!” OK, I’ll tick the sort of voluntary box for that one. Either way, at just under 21%, sales force churn is now at an all-time low, according to Dickie.

Maybe salespeople are sticking around because economic conditions are uncertain. Maybe they’re more loyal to their employers. Scratch that! Maybe it’s because sales compensation is trending up slightly. A good sign, but consider the fine print. CSO Insights found that thevariable compensation component is increasing also. Translation: salespeople are shouldering an increasing proportion of revenue risks, and for now, some appear to be winning. Yet, a study that Accenture conducted found that “for two years running, sales representatives receiving between one and fifteen percent variable compensation yielded the highest percentages of quota, whereas those receiving between forty-one and sixty percent delivered the lowest performance and the highest attrition rate.” Some trends defy explanation.

But there is a more ominous problem facing the sales profession, which surfaced in none other than Forbes, The Capitalist Tool: “These days salesmen are regarded as shmucks,” says Elli Sharef, co-founder of HireArt a recruiting firm serving the country’s rising tech community, adding, “I’ve noticed that people in the Millennial generation just don’t think sales is a cool job.” No need to worry about any of this unless you, or someone you love, needs a sales force in the next three to five years.

Before I forget, I should also mention the career path at Your Father’s Sales Organization. It won’t take long. Here it is: make your number, keep your job. Repeat every year—if you can. Oh, yay! In computer programming, that’s called a do-loop. If Millenials aren’t lining up to land a job in sales, can anyone blame them? Mama’s, don’t let your babies grow up to be salespeople!

In a sales leadership session I attended, the facilitator asked how many had a parent who encouraged them to go into sales. Out of 150 people in the room, about three hands went up. The year was 1993. I suspect there would be even fewer hands today, because college students have attractive choices. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “Mirroring trends in the broader economy showing that engineering and computer skills are highly sought, eight of the ten highest-earning [undergraduate] majors come from these departments.” (Good News for New Grads: Salaries Rise, January 24, 2013) A 21-year-old with a computer engineering degree now earns an average annual salary of $70,400 the day after graduation. Want to make serious coin? Buy a programmable calculator, a pocket liner, and take multi-variable calculus in high school.

Yet, despite unfavorable odds, long hours of arduous work, loneliness of the road, and bad hotel food, being in sales holds powerful appeal for many. Now if you’ll excuse me, sir or madam, it’s been mighty nice to meet your acquaintance. Much obliged. There’s a blue hippo out there, and I’m going to win it.

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