How to Build a Sales Driven Team

Most conversations with our clients eventually turn to the topic of sales. The past couple years have been really difficult for most in our industry, but there are exceptions. Some companies have shown significant growth even in the face of the continuing economic downturn.

This past month I received the results of two different studies on salespeople that will help put everything into perspective. Maximum Potential, which is one of our assessment suppliers, reported on a study conducted by CSO Insights that examined sales performance. The data gathered in this study showed that 40% of current salespeople were rated as meeting expectations, while 49% were rated as needing improvement. The good news for some companies was that 5.7% rated their salespeople as exceeding expectations. Of course, we don’t know what the expectations were in each case, but presumably, the sales goals that were set were intended to help each business move forward and grow.

In sales, as in many other activities, the 80-20 rule applies. The general consensus is the 20% of the salespeople produce 80% of the sales. So a logical hiring goal is to clone that 20% and find the top performers who can make things happen. Another issue that surfaced is that the sales staff is not aligned with the business strategy. The staffing goal, then, has to be that we find out what makes the 20% perform as they do and devise the career planning and motivation strategy that will develop the top performers who are in alignment with that strategy.


More Data

In another study conducted by Thomas International, more than 60 organizations and 500+ elite sales performers were surveyed to identify the characteristics of extreme sales performance in North America. As part of the research, each of the top performers was also evaluated using Thomas’ proprietary instruments for measuring behavioral and mental aptitude traits. The results highlighted the critical traits that made for success in business-to-business sales roles and pointed to the key talent management strategies for recruiting, developing, motivating, and retaining top performing sales professionals.

The assessment results identified four critical characteristics that were the most common among top performers. These were:

Drive: The focus on achieving tangible, measureable results despite opposition or resistance.

Contactability: The ability to actively influence and motivate a variety of people in changing situations.

Reasoning: The mental thinking skill to make inferences, to deduce facts from information, and to draw correct conclusions.

Word Meaning: A measure of comprehension and one’s ability to express thoughts and ideas fluently.

The first two of these characteristics are behavioral personality traits. Drive is directly related to Dominance in the Thomas DISC profile system, and Contactability is directly related to Influence in the Thomas DISC profile system. In the Thomas Study, 47% of the top performers had Influence as their highest characteristic, and 28% had Dominance as their highest characteristic. Furthermore, 71% had Influence as a high characteristic, and 66% had Dominance as a high characteristic. In past studies the classic top performing salesperson was an individual with Dominance and Influence as the top characteristics.

When we did a study of top performing salespeople for NAQP, 87% of the top performers had this profile. It is also important to note that 72% of the top performers had a low Steadiness characteristic, which indicates an active, energetic pace that is focused on initiating action. The bottom line in behavioral personality is that the probability of success is significantly enhanced if Dominance and Influence are the high characteristics. The payoff comes in making that determination using the Thomas DISC Profile System before you make the hire.

Reasoning and Word Meaning, however, are mental agility competencies. The Thomas study used a General Intelligence Assessment to evaluate the top performers. Of those tested, 60% scored above average in Word Meaning, and 52% scored above average in Reasoning.

Bill and I use the Wonderlic Personnel Test (WPT) to understand these competencies. Based on 70+ years of testing millions of candidates, WPT has been validated as an accurate assessment tool for evaluating candidates for all positions. In our work with applicants, we have reached a view that the WPT is virtually a go/no-go test. If the results of the test are not high enough, it is a clear indicator that the candidate is going to be unable to understand the duties of the position and, in the sales situation, will not understand the complexity of the product, the intricacy with the customer’s needs, and the details of the transaction.


Making Sense of It All

What does it mean to you? The key outcome of these studies is that you must align your talent management strategies with these four key traits by:

• Aligning your employment brand and your recruitment

message with these traits

• Assessing these traits for all candidates

• Developing these traits for existing staff

• Aligning your retention strategy with these traits

If your business is going to recover from this economic slow down, a strong sales effort will be absolutely essential. Your overall company strategy has to focus on making that happen and your talent management strategy has to be focused on bringing in the people who can do it.

Be proactive. If you hold off until the recovery is really underway, you will be left in the dust. Now is the time to establish a recruitment process that will eliminate the poor performers that you have today and replace them with the top performers who will bring you success.

It is important that you clearly identify the four key traits. You need to use the tools that can do that. While you may think you can interview your way to success, studies have shown that the average interviewer is less than 30% successful in evaluating these characteristics by interview alone. It is also a truism that most firings are the result of a failure in behavior and not a lack of skills.

In my next article, I will explore these studies further to examine where sales leaders and sales performers differ on finding, developing, and retaining top performers and how to design a motivational program that addresses the right issues. After all, once you find and hire the top performers, you don’t want to have a poor retention strategy that chases them to your competitor.


Debra Thompson is president of TG & Associates. Her latest book, co-authored with Bill Greif, “No More Rotten Eggs–A Dozen Steps to Grade AA Talent Management”, has been published by McGraw-Hill and is available through bookstores everywhere or at Contact Debra or Bill at for information on the assessment tools that they provide.