Are Your Salespeople Stupid?

Come on, admit it.  Einstein

It’s what you think, isn’t it?

If I had a dollar for every time I heard “our salespeople lack the skills or ability to (insert any of the following: cross-sell, sell higher, sell to value, get ahead of the RFP)” I would be a very rich person.

But are selling skills really the problem?

Most B2B companies today are moving to named account coverage models where a sales team has an assigned quota for revenue produced out of a given company or organization. Responsible for selling the entire product portfolio, the expectation here is that sales people will concentrate their efforts on a handful of targeted companies and grow them from $1M to $10M accounts. When it doesn’t happen, business leaders tell me the same thing, “we just don’t have the right people” or “our sales people just don’t get it."

What’s lost in this calculus is the sheer mountain of information that sales people must manage and communicate to customers in a valuable way.

To illustrate this point, consider this example.

Assuming your company has 10 products that all can be sold by your sales force, lets try to determine how much information a salesperson must process and manage on any given account they are pursing.

  • 10 products or solution packages

(Doesn’t factor in multiple delivery options like license terms, software as a service, co-location, etc.)

  • 5 value propositions for each product

(50 total messages to manage and communicate in the customer’s context)

  • 5 different buyers involved in the decision

(250 total messages and their derivatives (50 value props X 5 different points of view from different stakeholders)

  • 10 personal and business drivers to uncover for each stakeholder

(300 different messages to manage - 5 personal + 5 business goals X 5 stakeholders = 50 stakeholder goals + 250 total messages)

  • 5 uncovering questions for each value proposition

(1300 different messages - 5 questions to prepare for each stakeholder and value proposition + 50 different stakeholder goals)

  • 4 competitors with 1 knockoff for each

(1,500 different messages - 50 different value propositions X 4 competitors + 1,250 different messages and questions + 50 different unique goals)

  • 5 collateral pieces and presentations for each product or solution set

(1,550 different elements of information - 1,500 different messages + 50 different combinations of prepared content)

In this scenario, a salesperson is asked to manage over 1,500 different forms of information for each account they are responsible for.

From one view point, selling an individual product or service could be viewed as easy, but when considering the entire breadth of the portfolio, the burden is overwhelming.

So, how much information can we expect sales people to successfully work with?

Cognitive psychologist, George Miller determined human beings are bound by the “magical number of seven” which means that people have a “channel capacity” of between 5 and 9 pieces of information or “chunks” of material they can hold in their heads and reliably communicate.

Only a handful of people have the ability to examine a complex system (like a technology sale) and abstract from that environment the optimum chucks of information and create their own model to consistently manage all of these variables to drive successful outcomes. Interestingly enough, most of the new business revenue your company generates (about 80%) will come from a small minority of your sales people (about 20%). A common attribute shared by these top performers, consciously or not, is they all have developed the ability to digest relevant information and communicate it in a way that is both clear and compelling to the customer.

It’s not that salespeople are stupid; it’s just that they are human.

Go-to-market models which place the burden of managing the multitudes of information and content on the backs of individual people are doomed to fail, regardless of the talent or skill of the sales force.

Managing complexity is not a sales person problem, but rather a company problem — one which requires an integrated effort of sales, marketing, and solutions experts to successfully solve.

The first step in any customer-centered approach is to research the steps your customers go through to solve problems (not buy things) and to identify their common decision-making patterns. By understanding the intricacies of your customer’s problem-solving behavior you can create a universal framework that can help more of your sales people successfully navigate the complexity of their customer's problem-solving process while decreasing their burden and improving their ability to communicate value.

A successful customer-centered framework should:
• codify the best practices to helping your customers solve common problems, in an authentic and genuinely helpful way.
• provide a simple and repeatable way for sales people to decode that knowledge in a way that accommodates a natural conversation and isn’t canned or routine.
• be flexibly designed to enable sales people to revise the materials and collaborate with customers in response to the contingencies that arise throughout the problem-solving process.

So before blaming the intelligence or skills of your sales force, first consider the scale of the task they face and ask if they are being sent into battle with the ability to add value throughout the entire lifecycle of your customer’s problem solving process.


Thanks for drawing my

Thanks for drawing my attention to your post with your tweet today. Couldn't agree with you more.

In my experience, whenever it appears a group of people aren't seeming terribly smart it's less a comment on how smart they are and more a comment on how poorly instrumented the work is that they're being asked to do. Asking sales people to drink information from a firehose does little for their ability to comprehend it, then re-frame it in ways that add value for buyers. It's one thing to to help sales people sense there's a lot going on around them. It's another for the info to arrive in a way that informs what they choose to do, and accelerates + amplifies the value they're able to bring to a buyer.

IMO, this is tricky stuff because it involves how people behave and the value they create from their behaviors. Two things that tend to make a difference: analytics that provide feedback on value-creation (thereby creating new user insights) plus interfaces to those analytics that encourage thinking + provoke learning amongst users.

Hope this adds some value to points you've thoughtfully made.

re: Are Your Salespeople Stupid?

Scott, you have it exactly right! Yes, in complex sales, there are many interactions between various functions of the two companies -- or perhaps more depending on the offering. However the prospect expects the salesperson to represent the company, and to speak with authority, empathy and intelligence on specific issues through out the entire buying cycle, or as you say ‘problem solving cycle’.Your math cleverly reveals the scale of the issue. This problem cannot be resolved without the company focusing a concerted effort to harness and synthesize the intelligence of the company (and other sources) and to make it available to the salesperson within a context that a human can absorb. This requires first that relevant and industry/role/issue specific information is available. (As you know >80% of marketing material isn’t used by sales.) Then this customer-centric information is provided within a context to enable sales to have the right, and as you say, natural, conversation with the prospect to support the sale moving forward.Not so easy, but essential to create the type of conversations that relationships are built upon. And it is exactly these relationships that sustain long term -- and profitable -- business relationships.