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Business Journal
How Fit Is Your Sales Force?
Business Journal

How Fit Is Your Sales Force?

The most important, but least understood, concept in sales management

by Mick Zangari and Benson Smith

If you want to excel at sales, you better have a talent for it. Why? Because sales is essentially a talent-based occupation.

Of course, every occupation requires talent. There are people who inherently have the aptitude for some occupations -- talents that make them particularly suited for certain jobs, and a bad match for others. Some people make better accountants than pilots, or better engineers than lawyers.

Besides aptitude, some occupations also require extensive skills, specialized knowledge, or experience in order to perform them well. It's virtually impossible for someone to intuitively know how to program a computer. When a person with a strong aptitude learns computer programming, however, we see exceptional performance. Some people have the aptitude to be good attorney -- but that aptitude must be coupled with knowledge and understanding of the law before you would trust them to argue your case in court. In other occupations, performance is heavily influenced by experience. Surgeons with the lowest complication rates, it appears, are those who have the most experience.

Some occupations, then, depend on talent or aptitude, plus considerable skills, knowledge or experience, before they can be performed at excellence. But sales is not one of those occupations.

Studies of great sales performers done by The Gallup Organization show that experience, skills, or even specialized knowledge have little relationship to excellent performance. Talent is by far the main determinant of success. Conversely, the consistent explanation we find for poor individual performance -- even within excellent sales forces -- is a lack of talent.

When we looked at the very best sales performers, however, we found many varieties of sales talent. In fact, the best performers we studied were quite dissimilar. Sales talent comes in very different packages, even within the same industry or company.

Differences in talent configurations are frequently found in talent-dominated occupations. One person's musical talent might make him a good drummer. Another person's musical talent might make her an excellent singer. And still a third person's talent might make him a composer. All three individuals have musical talent, but all three are quite different. If your band needs a great drummer, hiring a good composer won't help much.

These differences also occur in athletics. One person's athletic talent might make him a good pole vaulter, and another person's talent will make him a world class weight lifter. But how much training and experience would it take to turn a good weight lifter into a good pole vaulter? You could train him forever with little likelihood of success. A person's talents need to fit his role.

Our research shows the same phenomenon is true in sales. Sales roles are not at all similar. A good salesperson in one role does not always (or even often) make a good salesperson in another role. The best performance occurs when there is a close match between a person's sales talents and the requirements of the role they need to fill. We refer to this phenomenon as "fit."

Many sales organizations experience problems with "fit" when they introduce a new and different product line, or when they must merge two sales organizations. Another situation that can create a "fit" problem is when a sales force starts calling on a different type of customer. One more "fit" problem frequently occurs when a sales force has multiple products to sell. Usually, some of the salespeople will sell a lot of product "A" and others will concentrate their efforts on product "B." Sales managers often find themselves pulling their hair out trying to get the whole sales force to sell the complete product line.

Managers often try to solve these problems with convoluted compensation programs or extensive retraining efforts. But the real problem -- and the real solution -- lies in "fit." No matter how big the "carrot" is in front of a weight lifter, he is not likely to pole vault any higher. Nor will vaulting lessons help much. Training and compensation solutions can only solve training and compensation problems.

How should managers think about fit? Our research suggests that the traditional reliance on experience, educational background, and skill sets or competencies is grossly inadequate and often misleading. Instead, we believe the degree of "fit" can best be determined by examining the following five areas:

  • Motivation: How strong is a person's motivation, and what specifically motivates him? Can your company and the manager who supervises this salesperson satisfy this requirement?
     
  • Commitment: Can this salesperson gain commitments from customers, and is her approach appropriate for your business setting?
     
  • Relationships: What relationship patterns are the most successful with your customers? Is it more important to initiate new relationships, or maintain old ones? Do your customers place more value on trust, knowledge, availability, service, or friendship? It's tempting to say "all of them," but in every selling situation one form of relationship development generates more results than any other.
     
  • Structure: What environment and support does a salesperson require to be successful? Some salespeople need to check in with a manager every day, while others need to be left alone. Some need more structure when they start a new job. Others might need special help in managing a weakness. Does your organization provide what this salesperson needs?
     
  • Problem solving: Is each customer's problem unique? Are the solutions your company provides technical or complicated? How much will the customer need to rely on the salesperson's expertise?
     

The answers to these questions are often very different from industry to industry. What's more, they are frequently different from company to company even within the same industry. Consequently, a salesperson who does an excellent job for your competitor might not achieve the same level of success for your company. Even within the same company, "fit" can vary. One manager may provide more support to his salespeople than another, or the unique requirements of a territory can be different.

"Fit" may be one of the most important, yet least understood, concepts in sales management. Understanding "fit" can often help an organization determine whether it is a good idea to merge sales forces, or if the same sales force can sell several different product lines. A poor fit might also explain why some of a company's best performers seem to have wilted over time.

Small improvements in fit can yield big dividends, and management can address most of them. In our next columns, we will discuss the five areas of "fit," and show how great managers tailor jobs to suit their individual sales representatives.

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

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