Why Do You Think That Harvard Business Review Does This When it Comes to Sales?

Posted by Dave Kurlan on Fri, Nov 18, 2016 @ 11:11 AM


For years now, Harvard Business Review and its Blog on hbr.com have been accepting articles on sales that are usually laugh-out-loud wrong.  The information is sometimes old and outdated, usually not routed in science, and sometimes simply stupid.  While they have always published a great magazine, the information on selling regularly fails to meet our expectations.  

My issue with HBR is not one of sour grapes.  I have plenty of subscribers and followers that read my science of selling and opinion pieces.  My concern is that because it's HBR, readers accept that which is written on those pages as gospel. "It can't be wrong!"

Why do they allow these articles to see the light of day?  

There are several possible reasons for this:

  • Their editors don't know enough about selling so they lack the knowledge to say, "Sorry Charlie."
  • They typically don't accept articles from authors without a PHD after their name so that generally rules out submissions from experts like me
  • Those with a PHD after their names are often teaching in academia - a wonderful source of real world experience and data.  Most of their data comes from surveys and the real world experience often comes from industrial companies who are still in the analog age.
  • Their model is to publish work from university professors because it appears more credible.

I don't post a rebuttal every time an article like that appears, but when it flies in the face of what we know to be true I can't help myself.  

The most recent example of Harvard Business Review and sales stupidity came earlier this month when they ran an article on social selling being the solution to prevent salespeople from becoming obsolete.  I wrote this article on LinkedIn bring it to light and differentiate fact from fiction.

But this is only the most recent example.  There have been 13 other articles that I have written to correct their false information, as well as this white paper that you can download for free.

The Challenge of the Challenger Sales Model - The Facts

Harvard Business Review Blog Off Target on Sales Greatness

Harvard Business Review Blog Post Gets Salespeople Wrong

Harvard Business Review Hit and Then Missed the Mark on SalesHow Wrong is the Harvard Business Review Article on How to Hire Salespeople?

Revealing Study of Salespeople Makes News at HBR

Another HBR Article on Sales Leaves Me with Mixed Feelings

Top 10 Questions for Salespeople to Ask and Stay Away From

What Customers Expect From Your Salespeople and More

HBR or OMG - Whose Criteria Really Differentiate the Top and Bottom 10% of Salespeople?

More Junk Sales Science in HBR Blog

Now That You Have a Sales Process, Never Mind

Is SELLING an Afterthought in Today's Sales Model?

So what do you think?  Why does HBR consistently publish bad information when it comes to sales?

Topics: Dave Kurlan, harvard business review, hbr blog, sales and selling, HBR, linkedin

Has the Sales Profile of an A Player Changed Dramatically?

Posted by Dave Kurlan on Wed, Feb 03, 2016 @ 12:02 PM


Recently, a number of readers asked me to review two articles which they thought were right up my alley.  Apparently they thirst for one of my specialties - poking holes in articles that are just plain wrong about hiring salespeople.  It's not that I enjoy ripping articles apart, it's just that I don't have any tolerance for authors who either don't know what they are talking about, don't have any science backing them up, or use examples that can't be replicated across industries, markets and geographies.  Shall we dig in?

We'll begin with an article from Sales Benchmark Index which in itself is a surprise because Greg Alexander and his team typically write great articles that are usually challenge-proof. If Dan Perry were more specific, and cited the particular assessments and tools to which his theory applied, then The Myth of the Ideal Hiring Profile would be fine as is.  Instead, he used a broad brush leaving readers to believe that all assessments are outdated.  Most personality and behavioral styles assessments were never designed to be used for sales selection, but not wanting to ignore an opportunity, these mostly old social instruments were adapted by using sales-like labels for their findings.  But make no mistake; the findings are still the same age-old social findings that have no connection to business or sales and therefore, are not predictive of sales success.  Clearly, these profiles are all useless and outdated for the specific role of sales selection.  But not all assessments are outdated or adapted for sales.

That brings us to his other point; that the profile for an A player has changed dramatically in the past 12 months.  I could agree with a statement that said sales has changed dramatically in the past 8 years, but really in the last 12 months?  Here are 25 Ways it has changed...  In sales, A players (the elite 6%) have only needed to add some social selling skills and use of tools to their repertoire.  They already bring to the table the selling package required to succeed in sales in 2016 and beyond.  They build relationships, follow a milestone-centric sales process, use a consultative approach, ask the tough questions, qualify thoroughly and get business and accounts closed.  The group of salespeople that has changed the most are B players, who needed to close their skill and Sales DNA gaps.  You can suggest that C's have had the most changes to make, but the thing with C's is that what they most need to change, they actually change the least.  That's why they are C's!

Finally, if you want to use a sales assessment/selection tool that was designed for sales, is more accurate and predictive than any other assessment on the planet, is customizable for any modern sales role, and evolves as selling evolves, then you'll want to become one of the 11,000 companies that rely on Objective Management Group's (OMG) Sales Candidate Assessments.


Moving on to my favorite target, Harvard Business Review, I have to challenge Frank Cespedes again.  I last challenged Frank and HBR in November of 2015 with the very popular article, How Wrong is the Harvard Business Article on How to Hire Salespeople.  Their current collaboration, Hiring Star Salespeople Isn't the Way to Grow, was a very interesting read. The article wasn't really about hiring stars as much as it was about how to scale a SaaS business and I was in agreement with most of that.  My issue - and it's the same issue that I had with the November article - is that the authors insist that hiring salespeople should be based on their ability to complete the tasks they have identified.  

Selling is not task-oriented as much as it is milestone-oriented and that's when we are discussing sales process.  The real magic in selling is when the sales process is integrated with the sales methodology - the consultative approach required for the conversation to flow seamlessly from stage to stage and milestone to milestone.  While there are tasks involved during a sales cycle: following, calling, sending, showing, providing, sharing, explaining, etc., a salesperson's ability to execute on those tasks is dependent upon their underlying selling skills and Sales DNA.  Tasks are an oversimplification of the art and science required to be successful in selling. And whether you want to scale, grow at a moderate pace, or maintain your revenue, your salespeople - both new and veterans alike - must be able to execute consistently and effectively in their roles.  How can you determine whether sales candidates have what it takes?  Once again, I urge you to check out OMG's Sales Candidate Assessments.  How can you determine whether your existing salespeople can execute your plan and what is required to develop their capabilities?  Check out the OMG Sales Force Evaluation

Topics: Dave Kurlan, harvard business review, hiring salespeople, HBR, sales benchmark index, sales assessments, objective management group, frank cespedes, sales a players, greg alexander

Now That You Have a Sales Process, Never Mind

Posted by Dave Kurlan on Wed, Oct 16, 2013 @ 17:10 PM

dismantleIt's amazing what Harvard Business Review will print on their pages when it comes to the subject of sales.  This post marks the 6th time that I have strongly felt the need to question an article appearing on their pages.  The November 2013 issue featured an article titled Dismantling the Sales Machine.

Here's the premise:  Companies that have been rigorously enforcing sales process should stop doing so because it is resulting in longer sales cycles, decreased conversion rates, unreliable forecasts and depressed margins.  So they say.  Here are some of the many problems with their premise:

  • Their survey data is limited to 2,500 salespeople at 30 member companies.
  • It was a survey!
  • Their member companies are big companies.  Most of what happens when they sell stuff doesn't apply to small and mid-market companies.
  • As recently as April of 2013, Objective Management Group's (OMG) data on 1831615 salespeople overall, and 85,000 from the past 12 months, showed that 91% of the companies did not have a formal, structured sales process in place.  In other words, lack of sales process (typical since I entered the sales development space in 1985) has not changed at all!
  • They may have accurately identified the effects (sales cycle, conversion ratios, forecasts and margins), but missed the boat on cause.  Those are the exact same issues we have identified in the 10,000 companies whose sales forces we have evaluated - the companies where 91% did not have sales processes!

Based on my 28 years of hands-on sales consulting and training experience, along with the data we have accumulated at OMG over the past 23 years, I can report this to you:

If the executives from the 30 companies in the survey have any similarity at all with the executives I have spoken with from thousands of companies, then they only believe they have a sales process, they think their salespeople are following it and they think that sales management is holding them accountable.

The reality is they only think it.  5 Steps don't make a process.  7 steps don't make a process either.  Let me give you an example:

In 2005, I wrote Baseline Selling and it contains both the Baseline Selling sales process and the Baseline Selling sales methodology.  [The difference between sales process and sales methodology]  

All you need to know about the generic form of the Baseline Selling process is that there are 4 stages consisting of steps and milestones:

  • Reaching 1st
  • Reaching 2nd
  • Reaching 3rd
  • Running Home

To put things in context, let's use a couple of the other well-known selling brands: 

  • SPIN Selling - Most people think it's a process, but it's a methodology and SPIN, in its entirety, would fit between 1st and 2nd base in Baseline Selling.
  • Strategic Selling would fit between 2nd and 3rd base and would also be used in the on-deck circle in Baseline Selling.
  • Sandler is a methodology with some milestones that would appear in 3 of the 4 base paths.

None of the 3 are complete sales processes.

I have seen dozens of so-called corporate sales processes.  Nearly all of them would have steps that would belong between Home and 1st Base, and then between 3rd Base and Home, skipping all of the steps/milestones that must occur between 1st and 2nd, and between 2nd and 3rd.

I've seen processes that were so terribly sequenced that it was nearly impossible for salespeople to gain traction.  The point is that having a process is not the same as having an effective process and, in most cases, is no more effective than having no process at all.

The authors made a recommendation that I believe was even more flawed than their data and conclusions.  They suggest giving salespeople flexibility to use a judgment-focused, rather than process-focused approach.  Well, according to the data on 1831615 salespeople, 91% of whom were already selling by the seat of their pants (aka best judgment), we could expect them to have trouble with sales cycles, conversions, forecasting reliability and margins.  Sound familiar?

If the authors want to identify the cause of those 4 effects, they should look no further than sales management, 82% of whom aren't able to coach their weak salespeople to sell more consultatively - the other reason for the 4 effects.  Proof of their ineffective coaching can be found on page 4 of the longer than necessary article where examples of questions that used to be asked during pipeline reviews are revealed.  Those aren't sales coaching questions, those are tick marks in the CRM system!

Those same big company, weak salespeople are getting their lunches handed to them by the better trained, more motivated sales forces of smaller and mid-market companies that are getting the help they need to customize and implement formal, structured sales processes, train their sales managers to coach and train their salespeople to sell consultatively.

Surveys are fun.  They tell you what people think.  Science is better.  It tells you what is really taking place and why.  Science asks questions.  Surveys report answers, allowing survey authors to jump to conclusions that may not be applicable outside of the survey population.

What are your thoughts?  

By the way, this is World Awareness Week - a Celebration of Top Sales World - click the image below to visit.

Top Sales World - World Awareness Week

Topics: Dave Kurlan, Consultative Selling, Baseline Selling, sales management, HBR, judgement-focused selling, objective management group

Disagreement Over Sales Leadership Best Practices?

Posted by Dave Kurlan on Tue, Jul 17, 2012 @ 10:07 AM

disagreementI read this recent article from the Harvard Business Review Blog about CEO's and the need for them to get serious about Sales.  Then there was this question from Focus.com wanting to know how to deal with a negative sales rep.

The article and the question are both quite benign.  My frustration is with the comments, where both the best and worst that social media has to offer grows.  Everyone becomes Rush Limbaugh - an expert in their own opinions - and many of those opinions are flat out wrong.  It's not just with the two examples above, it's with nearly every question that gets asked on LinkedIn.com, Focus.com, Task.fm, and other sites where, in many cases, the subject matter experts are the ones initiating the questions just to call attention to themselves.  And when sales leaders initiate the questions, how do they differentiate best practices from stupid practices?  

The problem is that they can't!  If they knew the best approach, they wouldn't ask the question in the first place.  And because they don't know the best approach, they align themselves with the answer that makes them feel the most comfortable - not necessarily the answer that provides the best results.

Experts don't always agree on best practices for the sales force.  Some don't have best practice success in multiple industries/markets.  Others lack expertise in all discliplines of optimizing a sales force.  Others are one-trick ponies - their expertise is limited to a single discipline. Other experts are laid-off or retired sales & marketing executives.  To whom should you listen?  Whose Blog should you read?  Whom should you believe?  Whom should you hire to help?

There are so many sites to visit for content.  I suggest that you use those sites as a means to identify experts who make you think, consistently provide good, solid, relevant, applicable, advice, and then follow them on their own blogs.  

When it comes to Sales Leadership Best Practices, here are two opportunities which could help:

Sales & Marketing Management

I presented the 5 Sales Management Best Practices for this Sales & Marketing Management Webinar.  Click here to view/listen to the archive.

Sales Leadership TrainingIf you want something a more comprehensive than a one-hour Webinar, join me in October for my renowned Sales Leadership Intensive - two days of comprehensive, interactive, entertaining, applicable, non-stop, unforgettable leadership training.  Click here to learn more and if you would like to attend, email me directly and I'll get you special pricing.

Topics: sales culture, Dave Kurlan, sales management, sales leadership, HBR, best practices

Revealing Study of Salespeople Makes News at HBR

Posted by Dave Kurlan on Wed, Oct 05, 2011 @ 10:10 AM

Dozens of people emailed me the link to this article, which appeared on the Harvard Business Review Blog.  They couldn't wait to hear my reaction.  The HBR article accomplishes two things:

  1. It categorizes salespeople into 1 of 5 styles.
  2. It concludes that salespeople who belong to the "Challenger" style dramatically outperform relationship builders.
Frank wrote an article about relationship selling last week.
I agree with the premise but there's nothing new here.  Objective Management Group has been identifying great salespeople for 20 years and while we don't call the best ones "Challengers", we certainly know the blueprint - DNA, sales skills and sales core competencies - that the best salespeople possess.  As a matter of fact, we can put a number on it:
That's the sales quotient of the salespeople they describe in their article.  The scale goes as high as 173 but it is rare to see a score much higher than 155.  Those who depend on their relationship building skills, but don't have the supporting DNA and Consultative Skill Set to accompany it, will usually have a Sales Quotient of below 125.
I have concerns about the way the article's authors reached their conclusions because they gathered their data by having salespeople take a survey.  Surveys generally prove whatever one sets out to prove....But the bigger concern is that the Sales Executive Council Surveys are not usually comprised of companies like yours.  The 6,000 participants are from 100 companies that each generate billions of dollars in revenue.  What's wrong with that?
  • Salespeople at large companies don't face the same resistance that yours do;
  • Customers don't usually get fired for making a decision to buy from these large companies;
  • Large companies can buy business if they choose to meaning salespeople have access to resources that your salespeople don't;
  • Large companies spend millions of dollars on advertising so that their salespeople see the welcome mat everywhere they go;
  • These salespeople are paid differently than your salespeople;
  • These companies have salespeople performing in very specialized roles [read this article];
  • Objective Management Group's data on salespeople that were assessed at some of these large companies indicates that their salespeople are, on average, considerably less effective than salespeople from small and mid-size firms
My point is that the stronger salespeople at the larger companies - often assigned to a single large key account - stand out more than they would at a small to mid-size company.
It has been obvious for more than 20 years that salespeople who have the right blend of strengths to support selling along with pure sales skills will outperform relationship builders.  Somebody simply had to come along and put a name on it to make it news.

Topics: Dave Kurlan, Consultative Selling, top salespeople, Relationship Selling, sales force evaluations, HBR, sales assessments

Harvard Business Review Blog Post Gets Salespeople Wrong

Posted by Dave Kurlan on Tue, Aug 09, 2011 @ 07:08 AM

The Blog at the Harvard Business Review recently ran this article about the top seven personality traits of successful salespeople.  Thanks to Peter for sending this along to me.

Regular readers know how much I cringe when anyone attempts to suggest that personality tests are or could be predictive of sales performance.  If you haven't read it before, read this series of articles and especially this article along with its embedded links that expose the truth about using personality assessments for sales.

Back to Harvard's Blog.  Is their article any different from others I have debunked?  No!  They make the same mistakes.  They lead people to believe that if they identify someone who is modest, conscientous, achievement oriented, not very self-conscious, curious, not very gregarious and who doesn't get discouraged, they will have a top salesperson.  Surely, they can't be serious!

The biggest problem with this particular article wasn't even the personality assessment.  It was the qualification for top performers.  In most companies, the top performers are some of the weakest salespeople on the planet!  These are the people who have inherited the biggest and best accounts, who manage the sweetest territories, or who have simply rested on their laurels.  Isn't it more likely that this article simply looked at some of the common traits of an effective account manager?

Personality assessments are wonderful.  Just don't use them to determine whether a salesperson will succeed in your particular sales role!

Topics: sales assessment, Dave Kurlan, HBR, harvard, preditive of sales performance, personality assessment

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