Allow me to start with two brief stories. In the early 2000s, I conducted what I call a Top Producer Analysis. I studied the top, middle, and bottom reps in a sales force to identify the differentiating behaviors that separated the top performers from the rest. When I started, as usual, I asked the regional sales leaders to provide a list of sellers to include in the study and to put them into tiers: top producers (first quintile), average producers (third quintile), and bottom producers (fifth quintile).
What happened next provided material for stories that I’ve been telling for years. (Names have been changed to protect the innocent, as they say.)
Case Study: Matt in Toledo was Great on Paper
One of the reps from the Central Region in the top producer tier was Matt from Toledo. Matt’s production levels were 40 percent above average, which impressed the new sales leader in his region. He wanted me to include Matt in the study. I took a deeper look at Matt’s territory and his performance. It turned out that Matt took over his territory about six months ago from an account executive named Sandy, who left the company. When Sandy left, her territory was performing at about 120 percent above average. Matt, who currently seemed to be a “top producer” (and who was, on paper, clearly above average), was slowly tanking Sandy’s old territory. Fast-forward six months, Matt was fired for non-performance.
Can you imagine how flawed my study would have been if I included Matt as a seller to emulate, shared his selling approach as a best practice, and incorporated his recommendations into future training? Fortunately, I didn’t include Matt in the study.
Case Study: Laura in Nashville was a Dark Horse
Laura was our first employee in the Nashville market, opening a new territory for the company. She had only been with the company for four months when I started the analysis. Her overall performance was considered subpar (about 30 percent under average), but everyone recognized that she was growing a new territory. Laura was not identified as a top producer by her regional VP, but when I noticed her as a New Performer (a category I always examine), her growth trajectory was a proverbial hockey stick (far beyond what you’d expect for starting from scratch). So, I included her in the study. Fast-forward six months, Laura was in the top quintile of account executives. She was definitely worth emulating and trying to hire others like her.
Circumstantial Top Producers & Hidden Performers
The above stories illustrate that production alone or being a top producer at “a moment in time” (a snapshot of history) does not always indicate that a rep is a top performer, or someone worth studying to, emulate and hire others like them. Sometimes, people are “circumstantial top producers.” In other cases, those with top-performer capabilities are obscured by their current situation.
A top performer in a horrible territory will outperform an average performer placed in the same territory, but even a top performer is limited by circumstances or outside forces. Interestingly, the Objective Management Group‘s research shows that those top performers will not blame those factors and will accept responsibility and accountability for their performance despite those outside influences. (See Sales Core Competency 20 on this page.) While this is admirable and a trait to look for when recruiting, it doesn’t mean that economic forces, global pandemics, inferior product capabilities, or poor service delivery don’t have an impact.
The factors that can contribute to someone being a “Circumstantial Top Producer”
- Inherited a great-producing territory (like Matt did)
- Spent many years in the industry or at the company
- Are an industry expert or influencer
- Inherited top-producing orphan accounts as others left the company
- Built deep relationships and trust with customers over many years
- Possess a “larger than life” charismatic personality
- The company provides outstanding internal support for reps and a great customer experience (they make it easy to buy)
- A truly “hot,” innovative product that sells itself for now (product-led growth)
- Have one or more huge accounts that make their number
- Receive an inordinate number of leads or the best leads
- Their manager consistently swoops in to close strategic or large deals
These are the factors that can obscure a “Hidden Performer”
- A territory with limited potential for what they sell or no large account potential
- A company that establishes “peanut-butter spread” quotas (same goals for everyone) in a geographic-based territory structure, rather than setting quotas by account/territory potential
- A small-minded manager who is threatened by them and derails rather than supports
- A selfish manager who also carries a sales quota, who steps in to take over or “save” key opportunities, whether or not they required “saving”
- A relatively new performer who is ramping well but still an underperformer on average
- Someone who has changed industries and is learning the industry, company, complex products, and customers all at once
- A rep who counts on inside support or overlay services to achieve their quota
- A rep who has a poor-performing partner or team that hinders their performance
These are just some examples, but over my 36 years in the sales profession, I have seen every one of these and more.
This may be obvious but it’s worth stating, for clarity. Not all top performers are hidden. There are plenty of exposed, exalted top performers who are as recognized as their circumstantial top producer counterparts. What’s less obvious is the recognition of the circumstantial top producers and hidden performers.
How to Capitalize on Knowing the Difference
So, other than becoming a Pyrrhonian Skeptic, what do you do with this new-found insight about the difference between top producers and true top performers?
Recognize the Situation for What it is
The first step is awareness. And, kidding aside, applying some level of healthy skepticism to what reports or raw numbers (like production or revenue alone) are telling you, is helpful.
Recognize and acknowledge, without encouraging excuse-making or responsibility-abdicating behaviors, that there are circumstances that can influence performance, in both directions.
Look for the factors or circumstances that indicate whether someone is a circumstantial top producer or hidden performer.
Ask yourself whether the producer/performer in question is one you would truly want to hire more reps like. Is this someone to replicate or clone, put into a new territory to build it from the ground up, or to whom you’d assign your top five clients to grow them and deepen your relationship? If the answer is yes, great. If the answer is no, and they are a circumstantial top producer but not a true top performer, take the win! Enjoy the revenue. Just recognize the situation for what it is.
Apply the Best Practices of your Top Performers
After you’ve become aware of who your circumstantial top producers and performers are, then study your true top performers. Put them in territories and roles to maximize their talents. Assign them worthy accounts Learn from them. Invest in them. Develop them further. Assess them to better understand what makes them tick. Use what you learn to hire more like them. Capture their best practices.
While you’re at it, use what you learn to invest in your circumstantial top producers to further develop them, as well. If they have a growth mindset or can develop one, you may well turn these circumstantial top producers into true top performers.
This is how you “move the middle,” or improve performance across your sales force, by moving performers up a quintile, or shifting the performance bell curve to the right.
In addition to recognizing and studying your true top performers, you can adjust and refine the following these things.
- Measurement systems to expose and highlight the performance you truly want to replicate
- Reward/recognition programs to incentivize the same performance and behaviors that led to it
- Hiring systems to find new hires like your true top performers and training systems to teach the best practices you captured across your sales force
- Sales manager development to train, enable, engage, and empower your front-line sales managers to coach to the right behaviors
- Territory optimization practices, account assignment practices, and goal/quota-setting practices, to remove as much circumstantial performance as possible and equalize the playing field
The potential for performance improvement in these areas is significant. All of which is made possible by clearly understanding the difference between a top producer and a top performer. It’s worth the effort to see what it could do for your business.
We’d be happy to help you on your journey to improving your overall sales force. Please feel free to message me directly with any questions. Download our Sales Talent Roadmap field guide for actionable steps and tips to develop a strategy that strengthens your sales team.
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