Rebuttal to What Elite Salespeople Do Differently

Yesterday, the Sales & Marketing Analytics Blog ran this article on the 8 Things That the Top 1% of Sales Reps Do Differently.  Cara, the author of the article, wrote that she extracted these 8 things from a discussion on Quora, a discussion where sales leaders contributed their opinions on what they believe the top 1% of all sales reps do differently.  While the disclaimer was in the first paragraph, it is very clear to me that this discussion wasn’t based on science – not by any stretch of the imagination – it was the opinion of SaaS sales leaders – so it’s also industry specific. The article title makes it sound like science, and Cara is contributing to a Blog that has Analytics in the title.  It seems as though the article was more marketing than analytics…

First, here is their list extracted from the opinions of sales leaders:

  1. Time Management
  2. Handling Day-to-Day Stress Levels
  3. Effective Questioning
  4. Understanding of the Prospect’s Buying Process
  5. Extensive Knowledge of the Competition
  6. Willingness to Walk Away
  7. Always Learning
  8. Drive to Win

There is no question that good reps do these things, but I’m also certain that the SaaS sales leaders did these things back in the day when they sold.  Today they teach these things to their reps and observe that only 1% are able to do them.  So what is it that prevents 99% of the reps from doing this when their sales leaders tell them that it’s a formula for success in SaaS sales?

Objective Management Group (OMG) does have science to reference so I can confidently share exactly what the difference is between the top 1% and the bottom 1%, based on the evaluations, assessments and data from nearly 2 million salespeople.  Here is my comparison:

Pct of the Top 1%Finding on OMG’s Evaluation or AssessmentPct of Bottom 5%
94%Take Responsibility for their Results – They Don’t Make Excuses20%
78%No Need for Approval – They Don’t NEED their prospects to like or love them6%
59%Don’t Become Emotional – They stay in the moment10%
98%Comfortable Talking About Money2%
79%Supportive Sales Beliefs0%
76%Supportive Buying Behaviors (they don’t comparison shop, price shop or think things over)8%
95%Rejection Proof18%
100%Goal Oriented16%
95%High Money Tolerance (big amounts are not big amounts to them)35%
77%Hunting Competency31%
59%Qualifying Competency11%
66%Consultative Competency0%
45%Closing Competency8%
100%Strong Desire for Sales Success0%
99%Strong Commitment to Sales Success33%


The way to read this table is to word it like this: 94% of elite salespeople don’t make any excuses, compared to only 20% of the duds.

Did you find anything in common between the top 8 opinions and the 16 differences that science provides us with?

They had Drive on their list and we have Desire for Sales Success. It’s important to distinguish between the two because people with Drive may not be successful salespeople while people with strong desire for success in sales often are.

They also had Questioning on their list.  Asking questions – good ones and a lot of them – represent two of the attributes of the Consultative Selling competency.

You won’t find any others in common.  The science doesn’t back it up.  Yes, successful salespeople may have some or all of their 8 – but the unsuccessful salespeople have some or all of those 8 as well.

Most of the authors who make up lists like theirs are, well, making them up!  Just as the business of sales analytics is based on data and science, so should any compilation that claims to differentiate top from bottom sales performers.

This article appeared through syndication on some other sites.  On CustomerThink, an epic discussion followed this introduction and I have included more than 50 comments that appeared there. It started with this comment from Bob Thompson, who also happens to own the CustomerThink website:

I agree that the other blog post wasn’t science. But can you share more about the science behind your assessments?
For example, are the reps doing self-assessments? If so, it’s common for self-assessments to have a form of confirmation bias. Reps tending to make quota would tend to rate themselves highly on other attributes, yet these correlating attributes might not actually be ‘driving’ their performance at all.
Also, how do you decide what segment a rep is in? Based on making quota? Growing revenue? Scoring well on certain questions?
I’m not disagreeing with your list, just hoping for more details on how you developed them. I’ve read so many posts on what a top rep should do, from following processes to “challenging” prospects, that these days I have no idea what a top rep really does.
I replied with:

“Great question/request Bob,

It’s extremely challenging to explain the science in this limited amount of space so I’ll just give you a few powerful snippets.

We evaluate entire sales forces and we assess sales candidates. In either case, we combine criteria for what it takes to succeed in sales at the various difficulty levels that salespeople encounter; and we combine that with the criteria for what it takes to succeed in a specific sales role at a specific company.

Salespeople must then answer around 150 questions – only 11 are self-ratings and the self-ratings do not determine any findings or outcomes – they only serve as comparisons of how they see themselves versus how we see them.

We look at their Sales Competencies – their capability for hunting, consultative selling, qualifying, presenting, closing, managing existing accounts, farming, and posturing – these are primarily skill based competencies; and we look inside their Sales DNA – the combination of strengths and weaknesses that will either support or sabotage their ability to execute the skills they possess.

There is a top 6% of elite salespeople with sales quotients are 140 and higher.
The next tier has another 20% of salespeople that are good with sales quotients between 130 and 140; and then the most interesting thing of all – then there is a bottom 74% that are awful. There is no bell curve.

The best way to illustrate accuracy is to look at the results of the candidate assessments where we use predictive validity – the most time consuming and expensive validation available. With predictive validity there must be a correlation between assessment results and on-the-job performance.

Of the candidates who are NOT RECOMMENDED but HIRED ANYWAY (by clients that are smarter than we are) 75% of those candidates fail inside of 6 months.

Of the candidates who ARE RECOMMENDED and HIRED 92% of those candidates rise to the top of their respective sales forces within one year.

For HR Directors who understand the technical side of assessments we have a technical manual available and it explains everything in technical terms. Please email me for one of those.

For those who want to give it a test drive, we have a free trial that you can use on a candidate and it’s available here:

And for those who simply want to get a sample, those are available here:

And if one of my White Papers is more up your alley, those are available here:


Then, Matt Heinz contributed:

“Here are six attributes I believe the modern buyer demands/requires of great salespeople today:

You don’t always have good news. But even the bad news is easier to swallow when you know someone’s being straight with you. If the prospect or customer feels like they’re getting the real story, they’re more likely to work with you on the solution or next step. Transparency and trust go hand in hand.

If they ask for something, you get back to them quickly. You can’t always deliver the request or solution right away, but you can always respond quickly with an answer or timeline for resolution. Speed of service means a lot, especially with prospects and customers who want their information in real-time.

Do you stand up for your customers? Do you advocate for their needs internally and externally? Are you a champion for their objectives? Do you treat their priorities as your own? Think about some of your own vendors. There’s a difference between those who are mere vendors and those who are advocates.

Say what you mean, mean what you say. Be honest about whether that requested feature is coming soon, or not yet on the near-term product timeline. If you screwed up, admit it, make it right, and move forward. It’s amazing to me how many companies are literally afraid to be honest. But if your relationship isn’t based in honesty and trust to begin with, there’s no amount of spin or messaging strategy or tap-dancing that will save the relationship long-term.

This doesn’t mean responding to requests at 5:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Depending on what you do, that might be acceptable. But for most of us, it’s still OK to set some boundaries. That said, your availability – to answer simple questions, attend to a service request, or simply to discuss or brainstorm something – makes a big difference. Two of our clients, for example, don’t have a voicemail system in the entire organization. Your phone call is always answered by a live person, who can either track down the person you need, get you to someone else, or take a message and get you a response ASAP. There’s a big difference, of course, between leaving a voicemail somewhere and reaching a live body every time. And there’s really very little price difference in those solutions too if you think about it.

Your customers are smart, but they also stare at the same four walls every day. They want you to help them think outside of the box, bring new ideas, identify new solutions to their problems. Doesn’t mean that every idea is a winner. Sometimes bad ideas are just the spark you (or they) need to come up with the next innovation. But proactive creativity (meaning you’re doing it without the customer having to explicitly ask for it) shows that you care, shows that you’re striving to get better, and shows that you’re not OK with the status quo if your customer isn’t getting the results they need.”

I responded to Matt and said:

“These are great Matt – and as you spelled out, these are attributes that customers demand from salespeople. That’s different from what differentiates a top 1% from everyone else. Customers demand these things from all salespeople and while not all salespeople are capable of delivering on these demands, you will see these attributes distributed equally between both good and bad salespeople.

Unlike Sales DNA which is somewhat hard-wired, or sales skills which are learned, or the Will to Sell which comes from the heart, most of these customer demands are decisions. Buyers decide they are important to them, and salespeople decide whether or not they want to deliver. The only one that some might have trouble delivering even if they decide they want to, is creativity which, not everyone is capable of.”


Andy Rudin chimed in next.  He said:

“There is so much heterogeneity in selling that science notwithstanding, I don’t think it’s possible to make generalizations about successful behaviors in salespeople. The competencies that make a person effective at selling elder care services are probably not the same as those that are required for selling corporate jets. The temperament needed to sell to services to stodgy state and local government bureaucrats isn’t the same as what’s needed to sell mobile apps to milennials. There’s a near-infinite list of comparative examples, and I am sure there are extremes more polar than the ones I have cited. I don’t argue with what Dave and Matt have identified – all seem reasonably important. But for me, they’re not especially revealing in that they’re extensible to many different jobs and professions, not just salespeople.

The other factor that limits our ability to generalize is the fact that measurements that define selling effectiveness are across the map. One company’s “elite” is another company’s “meh.” I think attributions such as “elite” are compatible with professional sports, where there is more consensus and understanding about what constitutes top performance. I don’t sense anything close to that level of agreement in the selling community.

What I’d love to see requires a much wider and more challenging study. One that more clearly defines the meaning behind the variables, the specific selling environment or context, and most important, considers buyer results and opinions, not just revenue achievement, in the measurement of ‘success.'”

I responded to Andy with:


You are much smarter than me. i had to look up heterogeneity. Cool word! I must try to use it in a Blog post in the near future.

You are exactly right that success is measured differently in every company, industry, role and vertical. You are correct that one company’s great is another company’s second stringer.

Unfortunately, you are wrong about our science. The top 6% could succeed in any role, in any industry, and into any vertical. They wouldn’t want to…the compensation would be inadequate, there would be little in the way of a challenge, they would be much stronger than the sales managers to whom they would report, and they wouldn’t have any fun.

The science behind sales performance doesn’t vary, is not inconsistent and is not debatable. There simply isn’t anyone else applying science to sales performance.”


Next to comment was Michael Lowenstein who said:

“I’d suggest that the sales leaders got it right, especially zero-ing in on items 3 through 7 in the list. Hunting skills can be taught and honed, but the real expertise comes from knowing the customer’s real needs and purchase trigger points and knowing the competitive landscape and battleground.

And, even with the most assertive of hunters, they will be well-advised be even more sensitive to the individual sales situation by taking Kenny Rogers’ sage advice on #6: “Know when to hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run.” Sometimes its better to take a tactical retreat, rather than lose a strategic and trust-based customer relationship.”

My response was:

“Thanks Michael,

Hunting skills can be taught – agreed – but the Hunting Competency measured in OMG’s evaluations and assessments include the elements of Sales DNA that impact hunting – things like whether or not they are rejection proof, need to be liked, or have beliefs that would prevent them from prospecting. Those cannot be taught and sure as heck can’t be observed in an interview. So without that science, going on skills alone, which are also difficult to measure in an interview, we would hire someone who looked and acted great, but might quickly fail. Have you ever hired someone you thought was great who failed?”


Then Christine Crandall:

“Qvidian did a study that I found very enlightening and pointed to more systemic issues around performance that were not individal based. The sample size is decent and the tool was not biased towards Qvidian, except for one question.

the challenge with sales performance is everything that everyone has listed. I hesitate to lay most of the blame on sales as I believe and have seen first hand that sales teams are only as good as the CEOs that lead and the organizations that support them.

My response was:

“Thanks for bringing up systemic problems Christine. That’s certainly another major part of a sales force evaluation where we look at the impact and efficiency that a company’s sales systems, processes, strategies, and leadership is having on the sales force and its salespeople. Again, the post wasn’t about that is an important component of our complete science.”


Then Chip Bell said:

“This is a fascinating conversation. It makes me wonder about the relevance of science around a topic that seems as much intuitive art as skilled discipline. Are we trying to drive a nail with a B flat in this discussion? Selling is so dependent on the context, the prospect and the personality of the sales person. Granted there are similarities among the greats…just like there were with the artistry of Picasso, Dali and Jackson Pollock. But, walk into a museum and their paintings as different as a Ferrari and a Schwinn. I also wonder if both lists are accurate, just viewed from a different perspective. Or, is this a competition over tools of truth?

I agree with Bob that we need to learn more about the research methodology of both. But, the larger question might be this: is the scientific method a relevant application for this topic? And, if I treated each list as the gospel, what do I do with the insights as a sales manager? If a doctor diagnosis my malady as the flu, he or she might send me to the pharmacist for some drugs; a medicine man might mix some herbs and spices and achieve the exact same result. The doctor’s conclusion came through in-depth study of the science of medicine. The shaman discerned a conclusion through intuition and experimentation. So, is science the only answer to my cure or are there many routes to the same end?

Looking for the science behind the critical success factors of selling reminds me of John Steinbeck’s description of a fishing expedition in his book Sea of Cortez.

“The Mexican sierra has 17 plus 15 plus nine spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating in the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being—an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman.”

“The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from the formalin solution, count the spines and write the truth…There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed—probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.”

My response was:

Thanks Chip – you raise some good questions.

One of the problems with the original 8 things, followed by my rebuttal with another 15 or so things, is that my 15 is not complete. It doesn’t look like science because it’s only representative of 15 things which, in general, differentiate top from bottom salespeople. If you saw the number and depth of findings that we generate on salespeople – it would make your head spin. So, in many ways, the pushback I’m getting here is self-inflicted by the context for the post. The other thing relative to your comment, is that in a Blog post, everything is generic, while in the real world, whether we evaluate a sales force or assess a sales candidate, those ARE conducted in the context of their businesses, models, roles, markets, requirements and challenges.


Believing that the commenting was done, I thanked everyone with this response:

Thanks everybody.

I found all of your comments to be quite interesting. Especially where everyone is more willing to put science on trial, than art and instincts. That happens when we are fearful that the science will tell us something quite different from what we believe to be true.

For example, I always thought I was 6′ 3″ tall until one day, my height was measured (science) and I learned the truth – that I was only 5′ 6″. I was shocked because I got “knocked down” from my pedestal and could no longer act like a “big” shot.

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