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Business Journal
When Top Performers Slump
Business Journal

When Top Performers Slump

by Mick Zangari and Benson Smith

One of the most damaging sales myths we have encountered is that "a good salesperson can sell anything." This just isn't true. Rather, what we see when we study the best salespeople is that they are in exactly the right role -- a role that perfectly matches their talents.

When that perfect "fit" is no longer present, a good sales rep can go sour. This can happen quickly when the misalignment in "fit" comes from a failure to provide the salesperson with the motivational rewards they require. This occurs all too frequently and often explains why a great rep goes into a slump.

In some respects, motivation is like an appetite. It must be fed. But it must be fed with the right food -- something savory to the person. One of our associates told us that as a kid his parents always thought he was a poor eater. "But that wasn't it at all," he told us. "I just couldn't stand the food they served." Sometimes we change the "cooking" in our companies without realizing the effect it will have on our sales force's appetite.

As we discussed in our most recent column, motivation is one of the five key areas that determine if there's a good fit between a salesperson and his job. It is often the most important characteristic you need to understand about a salesperson.

One of the striking findings of our research is that exceptional salespeople are much more motivated than their average counterparts. In fact, good salespeople are more motivated than nine out of 10 people in the general population. If they don't have that kind of drive, they are not likely to be successful at sales. And it's not unusual to find salespeople in the top one percent of the motivational curve.

Motivation is also one of the things that salespeople must bring to the job themselves. As managers, we can act in ways that will demoralize salespeople, but we cannot force them to be motivated if they're not. And we will easily frustrate ourselves trying.

But even when salespeople are exceptionally motivated, that motivational drive needs to be given a focus and direction. This is something a manager can do. In this context, "fit" comes into play. If a salesperson's job can't fulfill her motivational drive, then her performance will decline tremendously. We have seen too many cases where this happens inadvertently, and when it does, great performers can end up leaving the company. We will explain how this happens. But first, let's define what we mean by "motivational talents."

Talents that drive performance
At The Gallup Organization, we have studied talents -- recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior -- for more than 30 years and have grouped those talents into themes. These themes determine how important praise might be to us, or how driven we are to live up to our beliefs or to finish what we have started. The themes that most directly drive motivation, those that best describe the satisfaction we get from our accomplishments, are categorized as striving themes.

The stronger these patterns are in a person's make-up, the more motivated that person is to succeed. For example, someone who is more motivated than only 50% of the population would be about average in terms of their drive. Someone more motivated than 99% of the population, however, would have an enormous appetite for success.

Of course, not everyone has the same patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior. Therefore, not everyone is motivated by the same rewards. We need to understand both how strong someone's motivational drive is and what makes up that drive. What are the specific "striving themes" that drive someone to excel? What rewards must they receive to satisfy that drive? When managers understand what motivates their salespeople, they can make the right adjustments.

Let's look at the striving themes -- some of the themes we commonly find in exceptional salespeople.

Some people have a strong drive to be "significant." These are people who want to be recognized, in the truest sense of that word. They want to be heard. They want to stand out, and they want to be admired in their company and their community. They want others to see them as credible, professional, and successful. These individuals see their work as a way of life and not just a job. Success in their job equals success in their life. They don't just need praise -- they need public praise. And they need it frequently.

Kathy C. was an exceptional salesperson who was driven by Significance. She took great pride in her accomplishments, especially because she was one of the first women to succeed in her industry. Her manager spent lots of time reviewing her accomplishments with her each week. He frequently wrote about her successes in his monthly bulletins and he took her suggestions seriously.

Then the company "re-engineered" its sales force. As a result, Kathy's manager now had 11 people reporting to him instead of just seven. He no longer had time to talk on the phone with Kathy and to review her accomplishments regularly. He was often too busy to listen to her opinions or to write his bulletins extolling her successes.

Kathy was no longer getting the rewards she needed to satisfy her Significance theme. She no longer felt motivated and her performance soon began to suffer. The next year, when she missed getting into the "President's Club," she decided to leave the company and look for another job. She could not stand being just an average performer. Kathy was as motivated as ever, but her need for recognition was no longer being met. Inadvertently, the company lost a great performer.

People with strong Self-Assurance have faith in their own capabilities. They are easily able to take risks and meet new challenges; most importantly, they are able to deliver results. But Self-Assurance is more than just self-confidence. These people have confidence not only in their abilities but also in their judgment. They trust themselves to evaluate a situation, make the right decisions and then act on those decisions.

Brian was just such a salesperson. Year after year, he led the company in sales increases. But as the business climate changed, control over pricing and promotion moved out of the hands of the sales representatives and into the home office. Perhaps these changes were necessary. But Brian was no longer able to formulate his own proposals. He no longer felt able to use his own judgment to decide what the best pricing strategy would be for a particular customer. He began to feel more like a messenger than a decision-maker.

Fortunately, Brian's manager recognized what was happening. He gave Brian much more autonomy to handle his customers' needs. Not surprisingly, Brian's performance began to turn around immediately.

In our next column, we'll cover two more "striving" themes and share strategies managers can use to tailor rewards to a salesperson's motivational needs.


Benson Smith is coauthor of Discover Your Sales Strengths.
Mick Zangari is a former consultant of Gallup.

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