Are Your Salespeople Stupid?


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Come on, admit it.

It’s what you think, isn’t it?

If I had a dollar for every time I heard “our salespeople lack the skills or ability to (insert any of the following: cross-sell, sell higher, sell to value, get ahead of the RFP)” I would be a very rich person.

But are selling skills really the problem?

Most B2B companies today are moving to named account coverage models where a sales team has an assigned quota for revenue produced out of a given company or organization. Responsible for selling the entire product portfolio, the expectation here is that sales people will concentrate their efforts on a handful of targeted companies and grow them from $1M to $10M accounts. When it doesn’t happen, business leaders tell me the same thing, “we just don’t have the right people” or “our sales people just don’t get it”.

What’s lost in this calculus is the sheer mountain of information that sales people must manage and communicate to customers in a valuable way.

To illustrate this point, consider this example.

Assuming your company has 10 products that all can be sold by your sales force, lets try to determine how much information a salesperson must process and manage on any given account they are pursing.
[*] 10 products or solution packages (Doesn’t factor in multiple delivery options like license terms, software as a service, co-location, etc.)

[*] 5 value propositions for each product (50 total messages to manage and communicate in the customer’s context)

[*] 5 different buyers involved in the decision (250 total messages and their derivatives (50 value props X 5 different points of view from different stakeholders)

[*] 10 personal and business drivers to uncover for each stakeholder (300 different messages to manage – 5 personal + 5 business goals X 5 stakeholders = 50 stakeholder goals + 250 total messages)

[*] 5 uncovering questions for each value proposition (1300 different messages – 5 questions to prepare for each stakeholder and value proposition + 50 different stakeholder goals)

[*] 4 competitors with 1 knockoff for each (1,500 different messages -50 different value propositions X 4 competitors + 1,250 different messages and questions+ 50 different unique goals)

[*] 5 collateral pieces and presentations for each product or solution set (1,550 different elements of information – 1,500 different messages + 50 different combinations of prepared content)


In this scenario, a salesperson is asked to manage over 1,500 different forms of information for each account they are responsible for. From one view point, selling an individual product or service could be viewed as easy, but when considering the entire breadth of the portfolio, the burden is overwhelming.

So, how much information can we expect sales people to successfully work with?

Cognitive psychologist, George Miller determined human beings are bound by the “magical number of seven” which states that people have a “channel capacity” of between 5 and 9 pieces of information or “chunks” of material the can hold in their heads and reliably communicate. Only a handful of people have the ability to examine a complex system (like a B2B sale) and abstract from that environment the optimum chucks of information and create their own model to consistently manage all of these variables to drive successful outcomes. Interestingly enough, most of the new business revenue your company generates (about 80%) will come from a small minority of your sales people (about 20%). A common attribute shared by these top performers, consciously or not, is they all have developed the ability to digest relevant information and communicate it in a way that is both clear and compelling to the customer.

It’s not that salespeople are stupid; it’s just that they are human. Go-to-market models which place the burden of managing the multitudes of information and content on the backs of individual people are doomed to fail, regardless of the talent or skill of the sales force. Managing complexity is not a sales person problem, but rather a company problem – one which requires an integrated effort of sales, marketing, and solutions experts to successfully solve.

The first step in any customer-centered approach is to research the steps your customers go through to solve problems (not buy things) and to identify their common decision-making patterns. By understanding the intricacies of your customer’s problem-solving behavior you can create a universal framework that can help more of your sales people successfully navigate the complexity their customer problem-solving process while decreasing their burden and improving their ability to communicate value.

A successful customer-centered framework should:
• codify the best practices to helping your customers solve common problems, in an authentic and genuinely helpful way.
• provide a simple and repeatable way for sales people to decode that knowledge in way that accommodates a natural conversation and isn’t canned or routine.
• be flexibly designed to enable sales people to revise the materials and collaborate with customers in response to the contingencies that arise throughout the problem-solving process.

So before blaming the intelligence or skills of your sales force, first consider the scale of the task they face and ask if they are being sent into battle with the ability to add value throughout the entire lifecycle of your customer’s problem solving process.

Scott Santucci
As a principal analyst at Forrester Research, Scott Santucci has deep knowledge and hands-on experience working cross-functionally with product, marketing, and sales teams to develop innovative and effective integrated programs designed to improve the entire revenue cycle.


  1. Scott

    Very good article. You did reference this but I think that an executive may get it if: In the case of Unisys that they understood that having subject matter experts available to them to explain the details would improve their sales. Reasons are two: Cut down on the amount of information that a sale exec. would need to digest and the subject matter expert is more believable by the client because of who they are not so much because of what they know. You know the old you can’t believe the sales rep.

    Nice to hear from you


  2. Scott – I think you’re right-on in calling attention to two important but neglected points:

    1- that selling enterprise B2B systems is a complex and potentially difficult task; to do it well requires managing a huge amount of information and it’s silly to think that most salespeople can just naturally handle the complexity of this task that gets dumped on them.

    2 – for the other 80% of salespeople to succeed they need simple (but well researched and designed) tools to manage this complexity – and its the organizations responsibility, not the individual salesperson, to supply those tools.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with the premise of your article. Corporations selling complex multimillion dollar solutions today expect that if they hire a new business developement exec (sales person) – throw him/her through 1 to 2 week campus training course and provide on-line training that they should be producing within 9 to 12 months. And if they don’t, they are out the door in 15 to 18 months. What a waste of time and money!
    In addition to how poorly we prepare our sales people today (I absolutely agree with your conclusions)- there is a unbelievable lack of ownership in mid to upper management for the poor performance as well. My belief is that every individual within the organization is responsible for helping it grow – not just the front line sales people/cannon foder.
    To be successful in today’s very complex selling enviroment is to keep your messaging as simple as possible but aligned with your potential clients language and initiatives.


  4. Scott, great article. It’s easy to forget how much detailed knowledge has become part of the B2B sales reps life. Yowza!

    That said, when I think of sales experiences I’ve had (as a customer), the most memorable (good and bad) had little to do with how much the rep knew but rather how he/she interacted with me. Reps that showed more genuine appreciation for my problems and listened before pitching, were more enjoyable to work with. And more likely to get my business.

    As the saying goes, customers “don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” I really liked your “customer-centered framework,” expecially this item: “codify the best practices to helping your customers solve common problems, in an authentic and genuinely helpful way.”

    Reps need to be more empathetic to their customers, and your article reminds us all that we could be more empathetic of the challenging job sales professional have today. Well done!

    Bob Thompson, CustomerThink Corp.
    Blog: Unconventional Wisdom

  5. Don –

    Thanks a lot for your comments.

    Considering the forum, I don’t this its appropriate for me to comment on details about Unisys. However, the topic you raise is a very interesting one and one that most companies are struggling with today. What is the optimum balance between subject-matter knowledge and feet on the street? (We’ll save the conversation about what constitutes a subject-matter expert for later – because this is a big open debate too).

    Based on your past experiences, what actions do you think a company should take to convert their Subject Matter Experts into “rock stars” so that it’s about “who they are, not what they know”. Obviously, those experts would need an identity, or a personal brand. Who should be responsible for promoting it?

    I agree with the premise that sales executives should have some well known commodity to bring in to help validate all they have said. In some companies, there are too few people with that skill set and sales efforts are held hostage to the schedules of a handful of executives. At the other extreme, I’ve seen companies with too many “subject matter experts” and this creates a very expensive sales model, and a big account management burden by sales people (image trying to get 4 different “experts” to talk at a high level where their fields intersect. It’s not easy). I’ve also seen scenarios where “rock star” subject-matter experts believe THEY are the ones with the relationships with the customer and say things which diminish the perceived power of the sales executive (power buys from power, right?) and unknowingly undermine the selling process.

    From your perspective, what would this look like? Who would help these experts become better known in their fields? What tasks would you take off of their plates to allow them more time to be “rock stars?”

    The reason I ask is that executives are worried about these kinds of tradeoffs. You and I both know they don’t factor in the realities of selling into their evaluations, so if we want things to change, we need to provide them some rationale as to how to value the work load of a particular role and evaluate the trade offs of activities that will and will not be performed.

    Scott Santucci
    BluePrint Marketing

  6. Marshall – thanks for your comments. I am glad you like the piece.

    It’s very refreshing to read about your perspective. Your right – a B2B selling environment behaves much more like a biological ecosystem rather than a schematic that operates to specification.

    Today, far too many go-to-market models have their legacy underpinning in product centric behavior. As an example, I know of many companies who have made strong commitments to Wall Street that they will be converting their business models to be more customer centric or account based. However, their marketing groups still have “product marketing” functions and their corporate P&L’s are still grouped by capability.

    In reality, most actions by companies to be “customer-centric” are really incremental improvements on an inwardly focused design point. It is completely unrealistic to expect an individual sales person or service representative to overcome all of the back office neglect of the customers perspective. Targeted account programs, customer management software, executive selling skill courses – these are all just “lipstick on a pig” without some way to make sure all of the client facing efforts are coordinated and rationalized with actually adding value!!

    Wow, I sure got out my soapbox there, didn’t I?

    Scott Santucci

  7. Bill – wow. What great comments. I think you’re focusing in on one of the most poorly understood issues facing B2B businesses – what is value and how you communicate it. From my point of view, “keep it simple” is only an ingredient. How this very straightforward directive gets manifested in a corporation creates huge problems.

    Today, most of the responsibility to develop the content which ultimately fuels the valuable conversations you have with your customers is on the backs of marketing professionals. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of them interpret “keep it simple” as being – create one-pagers. Little critical thought is given to what content should be developed – let alone how to structure or design information so that it can be easily understood and transmitted.

    As a result, you are left with a mountain of materials that are so sanitized, they sound just like what you competitors say, and offer you no real insight (if you can find them in the first place, but that another issue entirely).

    The real issue here is that content should not be designed to be easy for marketing to use, or simple for sales to use – but rater SIMPLE FOR THE CUSTOMER TO UNDERSTAND.

    Mark Twain once said, “If I had more time, I would have written you a longer letter”. The point here is that making things simple for customers is not an easy endeavor. Creating the right value communications model requires an accurate customer model; a process which cuts across sales, marketing, and solutions; and a well thought out information architecture to allow sales people to make complex concepts simple for customers.

  8. Bob –

    As always, you have a real knack to isolate some key points.

    Personally, I think the CRM community would be a lot better off if we were to organize our points of view into business models. CRM is a very different animal from a B2C company like Starbucks than it is for a B2B company like IBM. The “Customer” is different, the “Relationship” is different, and the “Management” is different. Considering my expertise is in B2B, I think there are also two distinct categories of B2B selling as well. These two are:

    1) The corporate commodity – something where the customer has the same or more information about the product, service or solution as the vendor, but there are business reasons to have a point of contact with a given company. Consider Nabisco. They have sales teams who work with grocery chains. Everyone knows what a Nutter Butter tastes like and how to eat one. However, sales people do provide value in working out shipping terms, setting up displays, etc.

    2) Solving a problem –a customer has a particular problem where the vendors have more knowledge than they do. In this case, the successful sales person takes on a more consultative role and actually helps the customer figure why they are having a problem and share best practices as to how to solve that issue. A good example would be selling a CRM system. People with sales forces rarely have the opportunity to think deeply about all of the little things (and if they do, don’t have the data points from other accounts like a vendor does) that go into making their sales teams more effective. In this case, the vendor has a lot more knowledge than their customers do.

    My point here is that we cannot necessarily use our experiences of working with a sales person as a barometer for what should be expected from our sales people.

    At the end of the day, of course you are right – it really is about how they sales person engages with you. But, the real question is – “why are you engaging with a sales person in the first place?”

    If you are in B2B scenario one (you know as much or more as the vendor) then a sales person who is trying to help diagnose your current state, is really going to waste your time and “piss you off”.

    Conversely, if you know something is wrong in your organization and just can’t put your finger on what it is, or how to fix it – a sales person who shares details about their approach is going to be equally off-putting.

    I believe that the role of a sales person is an integral part of an overall CRM strategy, and one that is rarely looked at from the point of view of the customer. There is a reason most corporations today are aggressively pursing procurement strategies that reduce the access their executives have to vendor sales people. In most cases, these companies have concluded that dealing with sales people provides THEM with no value. B2B vendors need to really understand the value that their customers perceive from both their capabilities and their go-to-market model if they want to develop the right strategies to combat commoditization pressures.

    Scott Santucci

  9. I’ve read with great interest the article and comments on this topic. If management believes this is true, then the adage “Every boss deserves the salespeople they have!” applies.

    As some have stated, it may not be the salepeople that are stupid, it may be that the environment, the materials, lack of training, the over expectations, etc. are what might be causing management to believe that their salespeople are stupid. I’ve known some management consultants that call this “Anti-Harry Truman Syndrom” i.e. the buck doesn’t stop at my desk.

    Many years ago, one of my clients divided his sales and sales support staff into 4 categories. He did this because he understood not all salespeople are good at all four categories of selling his firm’s services. The sales departments he set up were:
    * Selling new products/services to new customers,
    * Selling old products/srevices to new customers,
    * Selling new products/services to old customers,
    * Selling old products/services to old customers.

    His theory, and it worked at least for his firm, was that some salespeople wanted the challenge of opening accounts with new products/services — often types of businesses their old products/services did not fit. (My client, along with my help I might add, developed different sales materials and programs, as needed, for each category.)

    On the other hand, he realized some salespeople were, really, just re-order-takers and salespeople working in the other three categories were not good at it because they didn’t like to do it. It may be, now that computers and programs such as CRM are available, the latter category may not need actual on-the-spot salespeople calling on customers as these sales can be handled by inside sales or by automation via a web site.

    Going back to the beginning, if it is thought that one’s salespeople are stupid, every boss desererves the salespeople they have.

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador Of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected]
    Awarded the 1992 Murray Award for Marketing Excellence
    Member, PNW Sales & Marketing Group
    Member, Institute of Management Consultants
    Member, International Speakers Network

  10. Scott, Alan

    This is a REALLY GREAT discussion that gets to the heart of the “fog of CRM”

    Oracle’s internal use of the relational database in 1989 to support telemarketing and telesales created a vision of CRM that Siebel Systems eventually took to the marketplace with Siebel Systems and spent $Millions to promote the CRM concept and Siebel Systems as the primary market share owner thru advertising and conferences and PR.

    What was invented then “augmented” the ability of each Oracle sales person to sell better. Kind of a de-stupidification or to put it more politically correctly Selling Intelligently.

    Training was INTEGRAL to the success of the Oracle selling machine that created Oracle’s dominance in Relational databases.

    The Oracle Product managers were scheduled into give training and discuss products with the telesales and telemarketing reps on a very regular basis, as I recall, it was weekly contact.

    The MOST knowledgeable people about the products in the company were the telesales reps because they knew the product design features AND they knew how customers were using them and what they needed.

    Shift the discussion so we focus on what can we do to



    and what human and tool systems we need to be able to do keep improving our capabiltities to deliver value in each of these areas.

    PS Good thinking 99!

    Mei Lin Fung
    Blog: Professionals Earn Customer Trust


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