Great Sales People are Born, but Great Sales Forces are Made

Even the best natural sellers need a strategy, a defined
role and processes to enable their success. By Andris Zoltners, PK Sinha & Sally Lorimer


In sales, where charisma and extroversion can be advantages, some people attribute success more to inborn personality traits than to skills that can be coached or taught. Yet the fact that companies in the US alone spend more than $20 billion annually (by conservative estimates) to train sales people on products, selling skills, and territory management, demonstrates the widespread belief that you can help ‘make’ sales people great.

Most sales leaders would agree that sales people who possess certain innate personality characteristics, such as curiosity, empathy, and drive, are more likely to be successful. (Consider the saying: “Although you can teach a turkey to climb a tree, it’s much easier to hire a squirrel.”) But there’s a big difference between individual success in sales and success across an entire sales force. Whatever the born/made balance for a single sales person, great sales forces are made.

Even if you believe that most great sales people are born, a first step in ‘making’ a great sales force is finding, hiring, and retaining the natural sellers. But talent on its own is not enough. Even the best natural sellers need a strategy around target products and markets and a defined role, along with systems and processes to enable their success and align their efforts around common goals of customer and company success.

Related: A Needs Analysis Strategy For Recruiting Sales Candidates

Great sales forces are made by bringing excellence to all of the following:

1. Strategy

The first element in making a great sales force is defining a sales strategy which specifies who sales people should sell to, what products/services they should offer, and what sales process they should use (i.e. what series of steps with customers, including the specific sales activities, milestones, roles, and enablers for each step). 

Without a company-defined sales strategy and process, good sales people will develop their own local strategies for which customers and products/services to focus on, and their own processes for selling.

Without benefit of a broader perspective, it is questionable whether these independently developed local strategies and processes will combine to align aggregate sales effort with overall strategic priorities. Without a company-defined sales strategy, even the best sales people may gravitate toward easy work (e.g. calling on friends and family) over hard work (e.g. selling complex products against competition).

2. Organisation

The second constituent in making a great sales force is providing clarity about sales force roles and responsibilities in an effective and efficient organisational structure. 

Without such clarity, there may be confusion about which channel (e.g. direct sales, selling partners, inside sales, e-channels) or sales role (e.g. generalist, specialist, key account manager) is best suited for different customers or sales activities.

Sales people may not know who to contact in other company departments to get customer questions answered. An inefficient and ineffective structure and deployment of the sales team may compromise customer coverage, leading to lost opportunities and wasted sales effort.

At the same time, the size of the sales force may be inadequate, leading to insufficient customer coverage (if there are too few sales people) or excessive cost (if there are too many).

Related: Don’t Turn Your Sales Team Loose Without A Strategy

3. Talent


The third component in making a great sales force focuses on talent – having and executing defined approaches for acquiring talent (e.g. recruiting profiles, target candidate pools, evaluation processes and programmes for attracting top job candidates), developing sales force competencies (e.g. training and coaching programmes focused on markets, products, customers and sales processes), and retaining good sales people and managers at every career stage (e.g. programmes for energising people and reinforcing a sales culture that breeds success).

Without sustained focus on acquiring talent, the best sales people are unlikely to join the sales force in the first place. And without continual attention to developing and retaining people, those who do join may become disengaged due to a lack of opportunities, success, learning, and growth, or a dysfunctional culture.

4. Execution

The best strategy, structure and talent can fail in execution. For effective execution, great sales forces are made by taking steps to ensure sales effort is of high quantity and quality, and allocated to the right products, markets, and selling tasks.

This requires using tools such as sales compensation, recognition programmes and goal-setting to motivate sales people to perform the right sales activities. It requires directing and managing sales people using the right metrics, operating cadence and performance management process. And it requires a strong first-line sales management team.

Without sustained focus on motivating and directing sales people, sales roles may get polluted by urgent sales activities (e.g. responding to service requests) that take time away from more important tasks (e.g. approaching difficult but important prospects). Sales force performance can veer off course quickly.

5. Support

For sustained success, great sales forces are made by having strong sales operations capability and a network of internal and external resources that possess expertise in areas such as sales planning, forecasting, compensation administration and territory design.

There are processes for accomplishing this work efficiently and effectively, along with the right data and technology for enabling processes and creating insights for enhancing performance. Without a good support structure, a lack of discipline in sales operations can lead to inefficiency and lost opportunity.

Related: Do You Really Understand How Your Business Customers Buy?

6. Improvement & Adaptation

Creating excellence in all of these areas is no easy task. Bringing quality and alignment to the many moving pieces that combine to create a successful sales force system can appear daunting. There are no silver bullets. The best sales forces are made by having systematic processes for prioritising the areas needing upgrades and making continuous improvements, and by transforming themselves if needed to align with new strategies or market shifts.

© 2016 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.