Harvard Business Review Hit and Then Missed the Mark on Sales


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HBRSubscriber Ken Lesser pointed me to this recent Harvard Business Review article. Their observations of 800 salespeople weren’t significantly different from Objective Management Group’s data on 500,000 salespeople. Following is where they hit the mark:

Our data has an elite 6% and they categorized 9% as experts.

Our data has an upper 26% and they categorized an upper 37%.

Our data shows that 74% of the sales population are ineffective while their observations peg it at 63%.

They attempted to illustrate seven skill sets and map them with their top 37%. They included (their categorizing, not mine):

  • Skills Related to Sales Success
    • Rising to the Challenge (overcoming objections)
    • Customer Interaction (listening)
    • Meeting Prep
  • Skills Not Related to Sales Success
    • Story-Telling
    • Presentation and Rapport
    • Company Presentation
    • The Sales Pitch

They said their top 9% had all 7 of these skill sets while the remaining 30% of the top group all excelled at the pitch and the presentation. The top 30% were above average at customer interaction.

Where did all this lead? Their conclusion was that everyone receives sales training on presentation and pitch but not on rising to the challenge and customer interaction.

OK, I can’t wait to share my perspective. Here is how HBR missed the mark:

In no particular order:

  • Expanding the topics for training won’t solve the problem they identified. The truth is that the salespeople who are being trained on presentation and pitch are probably being trained on Rising to the Challenge and to a certain degree, Customer Interaction. The training may not be very good, but they are probably getting it. The reason the large group of salespeople on the bottom were observed to require more training is because they had weaknesses that make it uncomfortable for them to use the tactics, strategies, competencies, skills and approaches they learned in the training.
  • The key skill possessed by the best salespeople was completely glossed over in their report. That key skill is the ability to ask lots of good, tough, timely questions along with the ability to push back and challenge assumptions and decisions. To the researchers it may have simply appeared to be “interaction” but make no mistake. Exceptional salespeople know exactly what they are doing with their questions and while the result is interaction, the skill they have mastered is asking questions.
  • They came to a faulty conclusion with their claim that the last four skills they identified are not related to sales success. The reality is that those skills are often used without the three skills that they did relate to sales success making it very difficult to succeed with those four skills alone. But when those unrelated skills are used at the right time, and the salesperson emphasizes first three skills, the last four certainly are related to success.

It all comes back to having the right people in the right roles and that process can be accomplished with a sales force evaluation, and then greater emphasis on efficiency and effectiveness in the sales selection process.


It seems that the Harvard researchers made the very common mistake of confusing correlation with causality. They did not realize that are both the results and the skills are related to the same thing, noamely the underlying emotional strength of the salespeople. (Co-variance for the math majors) Unless the training focuses on eliminating the weaknesses they won’t find any correlation between increased training and increased results for the study group.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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