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Thoughts on Harvard Business Reviews Salesperson Study

by Doug Davidoff | Jan 25, 2011 11:50:00 AM

In December, I shared some highlights from a study conducted by the Harvard Business Review on successful salespeople.  In it, I promised to share my thoughts, so here they are.

The study finds that only about 37% of salespeople are consistently effective.

No surprise here.  When I speak with CEOs I share the fact that 60 – 70% of salespeople in business-to-business (B2B) sales are incapable of effectively implementing the behaviors needed to sell profitably today.  I can live with HBR’s finding of 37%.  The bigger question is can businesses?

The study identified eight attributes for a salesperson – 3 of which were indicative of success.

Most studies only give attributes and don’t delineate between those that drive success and those that have no impact, so I like that.

However (and it’s a big however) I think they missed the #1 driver of sales success in higher value B2B sales – Business Acumen.  I also preferred it if they had used the prism of “command” rather than the ability to “overcome objections.”  I’m very curious to see what the impact on the study would have been had they identified business acumen as a key success driver.  My bet is it would have reduced the percentage of effective salespeople.

The study found it takes $1,760 of profit per sale to just cover the cost of failed sales meetings, assuming that the meetings cost, on average, $160.

In my experience, they’re way underestimating the cost of a failed sales meeting, and as such the amount of new profit is also way too low.  They’re clearly not accounting for any indirect or opportunity costs either.

Other thoughts:

The biggest oversight is that there was no mention of the importance of an effective sales process on a salesperson’s success.  In my experience, an average salesperson in a superior process will destroy a very good salesperson in an average process (IBM proved that!).  Small and mid-market companies need to invest in developing such sales process as the likelihood and cost of finding a salesperson who can be successful without one is both too low and too expensive.

The HBR study clearly demonstrates just how difficult it is to build a successful sales team in today's world.  Now it's up to business to do something about it.