“Can you find us a sales rep? And not just any rep. We want a rock star!” An ordinary request for something truly extraordinary. I hear it often. Lately, I began to wonder, what does this honorific mean?
I searched online for sales rock star, and received a deluge of results. 23,800 of them, if you’re into numbers.
I found a YouTube video, How to be a phone sales Rockstar. It’s over 90 minutes long, with 1,276 views. Oddly, just one Like.
I dove further into the results by clicking on random links. Many were for job opportunities like this:
“Business Development Sales Rockstar Jobs in Connecticut.” The position stipulates “Other Must Have’s: Ability to sit for extended periods of time at a desk, in meetings, etc. . .” Oh, baby! How many candidates applied?
There’s a definitive book on the topic, Sales ROCKSTAR: How Top Producers Perform by Jeff Krantz. You can find it on Amazon, which offers an expectedly salesy blurb:
Collect and act on NPS-powered customer feedback in real time to deliver amazing customer experiences at every brand touchpoint. By closing the customer feedback loop with NPS, you will grow revenue, retain more customers, and evolve your business in the process. Try it free.
“This book was written for those who want to become ultra Top Producers in the profession of selling. It has been developed for those who desire the lifestyle that only a successful sales career can afford.”
Questions for the copywriter: Is it necessary to modify top producers with ultra? And which lifestyle are you referring to? The retirement you’re planning while burning out as a micro-managed, bag-carrying road warrior, shackled by a thin thread of job security?
I even discovered yet another usurpation of the Keep Calm mantra: Keep Calm and be a Sales Rockstar.
This was getting weird. The last straw was an article, The Seven Absolute Must Have’s to Become a B2B Sales Rockstar. The title leaves no room for dissent. Had the writer been interested, I would have questioned why honesty, ethical integrity, humility, and empathy don’t appear on his list of essentials.
About 45 minutes into my rock star investigation, my head hit the keyboard. I was appalled by what I read, and felt no closer to an answer. The most consistent idea I gleaned about sales rock stars was that they achieve high ratios of revenue compared to goal. Lots of unanswered questions remained. How difficult were the goals? Were they impossibly high, or ridiculously low? Are rock stars better at exploiting serendipity? Are they more immune to black swan calamities? How long do rock stars remain rock stars? Forever? Or like many professionals, is their performance subject to ups and downs?
For rock stars, there’s lots of admiration for their revenue outcomes, but what about their customer outcomes? Do rock stars have happier, more loyal customers than non-rock stars? Do rock stars nurture more profitable customers than others? No answers.
Finally, there’s the question of fairness. For sales reps, does a rock star label mean landing a peachier territory than reps whose abilities have not been similarly anointed? Does it gain them more opportunities for professional development? More autonomy and independence? A speaker slot at Achiever’s Club? Does being considered a rock star become a self-fulfilling prophesy – or an unwieldy career burden, causing the bearer failure and disappointment? Hard to say.
“It’s tough to juggle the mountain of details about everyone we meet, and we need an easy way to think about them, wrote Peter Cappelli, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, in a Wall Street Journal article, Why Managers Should Stop Thinking of A, B and C Players (February 21, 2017). “Managers routinely put employees into one of three boxes: people who perform well (A Players), those who perform poorly (C players), and those who are stuck in the middle (B players). Rock Star persists in sales parlance, reflecting our adoration for all things ostentatious. Rock stars belong in Sales! A-Player banality belongs in Accounting.
“The problem is that there is precious little evidence to support the A-Player model and the basic idea beneath it. The evidence from objective measures of actual job performance for individuals shows that it varies a great deal over time, even within the same year,” Cappelli writes. Could his research explain why I have witnessed so many high-flying sales achievers who tanked at their next gig, or suffered revenue craters when territories realigned, products changed, or competition stiffened?
Before rock stars produce even one dollar of revenue, hiring managers proclaim their stratospheric hopes. “We just hired Stefan away from [competitor X]. He crushed his goal in their East region last year, and he’s a fantastic closer. Welcome aboard, Stefan. We know you’re going to just kill it!” Bro hugs from proud management follow as Stefan joins the team.
Cappelli writes that more than half of US corporations routinely segregate individuals based on such expectations. “In this system, people are singled out as A players, often after only two years’ performance, and groomed to rise higher and higher in the company. Yet the evidence shows that people are kept in those programs no matter what their actual performance is – and only 12% of companies report that their employees see the process as impartial.”
That creates a morale problem, though some sales managers argue that it shouldn’t because all reps are evaluated the same way – on revenue achievement. That sounds egalitarian, but it doesn’t guarantee a level playing field. Could rock stars, by dint of their near-deity status, be granted better opportunities? Or are they allowed slack if their performances don’t match expectations? After all, what manager wants to admit a hiring mistake? “It is easier to play along with the A-player model and assume that job performance is hard-wired. It has the drawback of being wrong and bad for business,” Cappelli says.
Requests for sales rock stars say more about a company’s position than most senior managers realize. It’s tacit admission of a hornet’s nest of marketing problems. A neon sign on a job post that tells candidates “Our products are weak. We don’t know how to deal with our competitors, and we can’t a produce a quality sales lead to save our life.” Hence, Rock Star as salvation for a smorgasbord of management inadequacies. The problem is, high-achieving sales professionals are attracted to high-potential opportunities. When those opportunities don’t materialize, their appetites for sticking it out are no stronger than an employer’s resolve to keep a struggling rep on the team.
The sales profession needs to look at itself in the mirror. Using crass terms like rock star trivializes the difficult challenges that salespeople encounter every day. It ignores a reality in every profession that performance rarely remains consistently high or consistently low. And it perpetuates a dumbed-down culture. A hypocrisy that sales managers bemoan when sales reps face the cold, cruel world of the C-Suite. “Our reps just don’t know how to talk to senior executives . . .” Ahem . . . you can help them by first expunging sophomoric language like “rock stars” and “crushing it!” from your sales communications.
In his book, The Art of the Sale, Philip Broughton wrote, “A positive view of sales and selling “holds that . . . no matter the condition of your birth, if you can sell, you can slice through any obstacles of class, status, or upbringing in a way inconceivable in more hidebound societies. Great sales[people] need no other prop to succeed. Selling well, in this view, is also a reflection of a healthy character. It means you are the sort of person people are drawn to – hardworking, clean living, and trustworthy – and you are likely to succeed at whatever you choose to do.”
I’m under no delusions that sales success means possessing saintly virtues. But characteristics that distinguish outstanding sales professionals defy assigning labels. It’s time for companies to quit worshiping meaningless, flamboyant nicknames like rock star, and instead, seek the combinations of skills, behaviors and actions that produce the right outcomes for their companies and customers.