Harvard Business Review Hit and Then Missed the Mark on Sales

Subscriber Ken Leeser pointed me to this recent Harvard Business Review article.  Their observations of 800 salespeople weren’t significantly different from Objective Management Group’s data on 1831617 salespeople.  Following is where they hit the mark:

Our data has an elite 6% and they categorized 9% as experts.

Our data has an upper 26% and they categorized an upper 37%.

Our data shows that 74% of the sales population are ineffective while their observations peg it at 63%.

They attempted to illustrate seven skill sets and map them with their top 37%.  They included (their categorizing, not mine):

  • Skills Related to Sales Success
    • Rising to the Challenge (overcoming objections)
    • Customer Interaction (listening)
    • Meeting Prep
  • Skills Not Related to Sales Success
    • Story-Telling
    • Presentation and Rapport
    • Company Presentation
    • The Sales Pitch

They said their top 9% had all 7 of these skill sets while the remaining 28% of the top group all excelled at the pitch and the presentation.  The top 37% were above average at customer interaction.

Where did all this lead?  Their conclusion was that everyone receives sales training on presentation and pitch but not on rising to the challenge and customer interaction.  They recommended that salespeople should get more training in those areas where they haven’t developed the other skills.  You don’t say…

OK, I can’t wait to share my perspective.  Here is how HBR missed the mark:

In no particular order:

  • Expanding the topics for training won’t solve the problems they identified.  The truth is that the salespeople who are being trained on presentation and pitch are probably being trained on Rising to the Challenge as well and, to a certain degree, Customer Interaction.  The training may not be very good, but they are probably getting it.  The reason the large group of salespeople on the bottom were observed to require more training is because they have hidden weaknesses that make it uncomfortable for them to use the tactics, strategies, competencies, skills and approaches they learned from the training.  Comfort Zone Rules!
  • The key skill possessed by the best salespeople was completely glossed over in their findings.  That key skill is the ability to ask a lot of good, tough, timely questions along with the ability to push back and challenge prospects’ assumptions and decisions.  To the researchers it may have simply appeared to be “interaction” but make no mistake.  Exceptional salespeople know exactly what they are doing with their questions and while the result is interaction, the skill they have mastered is asking questions.
  • The researchers came to a faulty conclusion with their claim that the last four skills are not related to sales success.  The problem is that those skills are often used without the three skills that do relate to sales success making it very difficult to succeed with the four unrelated skills alone.  But when those unrelated skills are used at the right time, and a salesperson emphasizes the three related skills, the last four are absolutely related to sales success.

In the end, a successful sales force has the right people in the right roles, a process that can be easily accomplished with a sales force evaluation.  The next requirement is a greater emphasis on efficiency and effectiveness in the sales selection process.  And only then will appropriate training make a significant difference.