Effective Salespeople: Why Only 23%? | Business LockerRoom

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By Kelly Riggs | Sales + Leadership

Jun 20

Effective Salespeople: Why Only 23%?

by Kelly Riggs

Who accepts failure as the norm?

I’ve never known a company to accept 60% production efficiency, for example, or 75% data accuracy. In fact, in the realm of BIG numbers (think Amazon or UPS), a company can’t afford to accept even 99% as a benchmark for success!

Amazon ships approximately 1.6 million packages per day. Would they consider even 99% accuracy – a whopping 16,000 mistakes PER DAY??

This is what I want to know: Why do companies routinely accept 1-out-of-4 as the standard for the percentage of effective salespeople? As reported by Objective Management Group:

“…from evaluating and assessing more than 1,000,000 salespeople from more than 200 industries over the past 2 decades. 7% are elite, and there are 16% more who are strong. 77% are ineffective.”

Keep in mind, this is not some small, random study. With roughly 14 million people in sales of one kind or another in the U.S., 1 million data points is a HUGE sample. The REAL question, however, is who accepts 7% success? Or, best-case scenario, who accepts that about 1-in-3 salespeople will be effective?

Translate that number into other company departments:

3 of every 4 paychecks has an error

3 of every 4 products ships incorrectly

3 of every 4 budget reports is inaccurate

3 of every 4 machines is calibrated wrong

Get the idea?

Salespeople ROUTINELY fall short – in numbers that would never be accepted anywhere else in the company.

Why? Why do salespeople fail in such large numbers? And, more importantly, why is it accepted?

Interestingly enough, one of the reasons that individual mediocrity is accepted (tolerated?) is that the company’s top performers sometimes do enough to put the company somewhere near the finish line. In other words, the 23% pull the weight of the entire sales team, and rather than address the ineffective salespeople – the 77 percent – a company can avoid the conflict while (accurately) claiming they hit their numbers.

But, for just a brief moment, imagine what your company might accomplish if those numbers were reversed! It can happen, but three very specific issues must be addressed first.

3 Reasons Salespeople Underperform

Frankly, the reasons salespeople consistently underperform are not a mystery. It’s not like we’re waiting for someone to come along with a magic lamp and grant our wish to provide the answer. It’s not because your salespeople don’t ask for the order, or struggle to handle objections, or don’t manage their time well. Those failures are actually symptoms of the real problem, not the causes. The reasons most sales teams are ineffective are quite simple:

1. Lack of Personal Motivation

Way too many salespeople are hired without a set of crystal clear expectations with regard to their performance and work habits, their motivation. As in: “To be a part of this team requires a commitment to growth and development. It means that you will consistently study and learn and improve your skills. If that’s not who you are, we can’t use you.

In my experience, far too many people are hired into sales roles who are lacking in self-motivation or drive. They don’t come into the workplace wanting to be the best, to dominate in their role, to become THE recognized expert in the field. They don’t seek improvement or seek help. Instead, they lay back, waiting for the company to train them, and provide for them, and solve their performance issues.

More than any department in the company, sales is not a place for passive, wait-to-see-what-the-company-does-for-me kind of people. Success in selling is dependent first and foremost on DRIVE (or self-motivation, or passion), backed up by the willingness to work and practice and self-assess.

With all due respect, most salespeople fail because they don’t want to put in the time and effort to be successful. They want to make the money, but they don’t want to make the requisite investments. The first lesson in creating a successful sales team is simple: Find people who are driven to succeed, who live to learn, and who can be coached.

If they aren’t built that way, you are wasting your time.

2. Incomplete skills

One of the issues in this area seems to be a lack of real understanding of what selling is all about. Too many companies believe that the objective of sales is simply to push product into customers. To them, success is really all about the product, so the emphasis in training is on product and industry knowledge, with little attention given to mission-critical selling and planning skills. But when salespeople lack professional selling skills, just about the only thing they can use to defend against the competition is to give away your company’s margins.

Isn’t that adorable?

The truth is, the shortage of sales training in companies today is nothing short of abysmal. Worse, when sales training is provided, most of it is ineffective, a topic I discussed at length in a post entitled, “The Sad State of Sales Training.”

The typical problem is that most “sales” training is actually just “product” training. Since most companies view sales as little more than pushing product, that makes perfect sense, but it represents one of the major contributions to the 77% number. Selling has never been about “pushing product.” and salespeople who never learn critical selling skills – once again – have to give away margin to compete.

To create consistent sales performance, sales training must be comprehensive across mindset, process, and tactical skills. It must address, emotional intelligence, planning, sales process, presentation skills, closing skills, and more. Since very few companies check all of those boxes, it’s little wonder that three of every four salespeople are ineffective.

3. Ineffective leadership

So, find the right person, and provide comprehensive sales training. Game over.


Sadly, that’s wrong. The only training more scarce than comprehensive sales training is effective leadership training. It is a workplace rite of passage that top salespeople are rewarded with a promotion to sales management. It is also a well-worn cliché that this usually results in the loss of one of the company’s top salespeople, and the addition of a frustrated and ineffective sales manager.

Excellent decision.

From my perspective, the sales management position is easily the most critical role in the company. These individuals are responsible for taking marching orders from the Executive Team (or owner or GM) and translating them into success at the street level. They are responsible for training, coaching, and leading the company’s revenue producers. The company can have a great product, a great operations team, and a great support team, but, if the sales manager is ineffective, the entire enterprise is at risk.

No revenue. No company. Period.

Far too often, sales managers are only focused on management tasks – CRM, budgets, forecasts, reports, and the like. They lack the time and/or the expertise to teach, train, coach, develop, and encourage the sales team. Don’t doubt me – effective sales leadership can transform an entire organization, while an ineffective sales leadership can easily transform the potential of a great product into lackluster sales performance.

Oh, by the way, like salespeople, sales leaders typically receive little, if any, training.


It’s all pretty depressing, huh?

Well, it doesn’t have to be. The trick for you as an individual is to quit waiting for someone to fix the problem for you. Leave the victim mentality by the side of the road for the ineffective 77% to use. Instead, make the decision to acquire the skills you need. If you’re waiting on someone else to improve your earning potential, you will never find the success you’re capable of. Here’s what you should do instead:

  1. First, find a mentor. Make sure that person has been there, done that, AND knows how to teach and coach.
  2. Second, read every sales book you can find (or listen to the Audible version). For a list of absolutely essential sales books, Click HERE (several will surprise you).
  3. Third, stay away from anyone who is comfortable with excuses. Victims NEVER make successful salespeople.

The truth is, there’s nothing keeping you from becoming an elite salesperson except desire and discipline.

And trust me, there’s plenty of room at the top!


About the Author

Kelly Riggs is a business performance coach and founder of the Business LockerRoom. A former national Salesperson of the Year and serial entrepreneur, Kelly is a recognized thought leader in the areas of sales, management leadership, and strategic planning. He serves clients ranging from small, privately held companies to Fortune 500 firms. Kelly has written two books: “1-on-1 Management™: What Every Great Manager Knows That You Don’t” and “Quit Whining and Start SELLING! A Step-by-Step Guide to a Hall of Fame Career in Sales.”