More Junk Sales Science in HBR Blog

Posted by Dave Kurlan on Tue, Apr 14, 2015 @ 15:04 PM

science

What do donuts, chips, cake and ice cream have in common with some of the articles that are written and published about salespeople, sales selection and assessments? That's right, they are all junk and junk is bad for you to consume. Over the years, there has been no better source of junk science written about sales and salespeople than the reputable Harvard Business Review Blog. Recently, they put out another absurdly awful piece, this one written by sales consultant, Steve Martin. As most of these articles do, "What Separates the Strongest Salespeople from the Weakest" attempts to use personality and conditions to differentiate the two groups. This comes on the heels of another horrible article I called out in March 2015, which led to this amazing epic debate on the science of sales, sales assessments, and sales selection. This is why this latest HBR article is yet another example of junk science.The sample size of his research was 800 salespeople plus more than 1,000 interviews he has conducted. In this case, his research consists of a survey, and surveys are not a source of qualitative or quantitative data. As far as the interviews go, if each salesperson was asked identical questions, then they actually would be surveys, and if they were asked different questions, then it's not scientific! Compare his sample size to the salespeople that we have assessed at Objective Management Group (OMG).

He said the information provides interesting insights.  Insights are opinions - a far cry from the conclusions that come from science.

He identified 6 differentiators:

Verbal Acuity - Martin said that top performers were more articulate and communicated their messages more effectively - 11th and 12th grade skills versus 8th and 9th grade skills. I agree that words are important, messaging is crucial, and presenting in a way that works for the prospect is critical. But it's not about scores in English composition. It's about being concise, simple, and targeted - things that can happen only when salespeople have good listening skills. We've all seen articulate salespeople fail, and we've all seen simple-minded salespeople succeed. 11th and 12th grade communication skills are not predictive and not what should be measured. We should be measuring listening and questioning skills. Top salespeople are great listeners and ask great questions. Those two capabilities cannot only be measured, but they are the causation for verbal acuity .

Achievement Oriented Personality - Martin said that 85% exhibited this personality, which included Goal Orientation, participation in high school sports, and being power users of CRM.  These behaviors are symptomatic, not sources of causation. We all know salespeople who bury themselves in technology, played sports and are goal-oriented, but who can't sell space heaters in Alaska.  At OMG, we measure Strong Desire for Sales Success, and Strong Commitment for sales success, along with Motivation for sales success.  This is not the catchall finding of Drive, but sales-specific measures which are responsible for the behaviors that Martin observed. In the end, for findings to be useful, we must be measuring the right things!

Situational Dominance - He talks of the salesperson who is relaxed and able to guide the conversation. Maybe. But you can't measure that. What you can measure, and what is proven to accomplish the same outcome as the customer taking the salesperson's advice, are Consultative Selling Skills. Martin said test scores for situational dominance were 20% higher for top-performing salespeople, but that's not a big difference. When we look at consultative selling skills, there is a huge delta between top and bottom performers. The general population has on average 21% of the attributes of a consultative seller. The top 26% of all salespeople have more than 56% of those attributes, while the bottom 74% have fewer than 12%!

Inward Pessimism - Martin said that 2/3 of the top performers had inward pessimism. We might be in alignment on this one. We call it healthy skepticism or not being too trusting - not accepting at face value that which a prospect says. According to OMG's statistics, 86% of all salespeople are too trusting, but only 56% of the top performers have the healthy skepticism. I agree that Inward Pessimism is measurable and found in top performers, but his number is not consistent with OMG's data.  Additionally, when this finding is combined with an individual that does not need to be liked, and who has over-the-top assertiveness, we have an individual who comes across as condescending and arrogant - not someone we would want selling for us!

Sales Management Impact - I'm sorry, but sales management impact is not a differentiator between top- and bottom-performing salespeople.  If it were, a sales manager would not have both top- and bottom-performing salespeople!   Sales managers can have a tremendous impact on sales performance overall, especially when they spend half of their time coaching, and when their coaching skills are top-notch, but in most cases, the top salespeople became top salespeople independent of the sales manager.

Sales Organization Influence - Martin stated that 39% of top performers versus 23% of bottom performers were held accountable. That is not a very big difference. Of greater significance is that he said 60% of the top performers are not being held accountable, meaning that the top performers are likely to perform regardless of whether or not they are being held accountable. Being a top performer is not sales organization dependent!

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There are significant differences between top and bottom performers, but you won't find them in the HBR article or any others like them.  With rows of data, across industries with sales organizations of every size, shape and configuration, the differences reported by OMG between top and bottom sales performers can be seen in both a macro and micro view.  And our data does not come from surveys or interviews!

From a macro view, we can look at OMG's Sales Quotient. This score, between 0 and 173, weighs 4 findings that make up a salesperson's will to sell, the 5 most important Sales DNA findings, and the 6 most important Selling Competencies.  The elite 6% of sales performers have Sales Quotients of 140 and higher.  The next 20% have Sales Quotients above 129, and the remaining 74% typically underperform.

From a micro view, each finding (over 100) is sales-specific, and together, they are extremely predictive of sales success. Unlike personality and behavioral styles assessments where the names of the findings are modified to appear (marketing) as if they actually measure sales skills and behaviors, OMG actually does.

But don't take my word for this, experience it for yourself. A sales force evaluation provides you with answers to 26 difficult to answer questions about your business and the sales force that is your economic engine. OMG's award-winning sales candidate assessments will accurately identify only those salespeople who will succeed in the particular role you have identified for them.

It's important to differentiate between the best and the worst, but you need the right tools to help. Without those tools, you'll find yourself coming up with insignificant differentiators like those identified in the HBR article, or in the Epic Debate. Stay with science and you can't go wrong. Follow faulty conclusions and you'll have more hit or miss sales selection results with an emphasis on miss.

Topics: sales assessment, Dave Kurlan, harvard business review, hbr blog, sales selection, sales science, objective management group

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Best-Selling Author, Keynote Speaker and Sales Thought Leader.  Dave Kurlan's Understanding the Sales Force Blog has earned medals for the Top Sales & Marketing Blog award for eight consecutive years. This article earned a Bronze Medal for Top Sales Blog post in 2016, this one earned a Silver medal for 2017, and this article earned Silver for 2018. Read more about Dave.

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