What Your Best Salespeople Can Teach You

by Andris A. Zoltners, PK Sinha, and Sally E. Lorimer | 7:00 AM September 19, 2012

We recently blogged about the importance of knowing what characteristics (innate traits and abilities) and competencies (learned skills and knowledge) salespeople need to be successful. But how do you identify which attributes (characteristics and competencies) belong in your sales success profile?

Perhaps the best source, and one that is too frequently overlooked, comes from within your own sales force — your best salespeople. These members of your sales team are very likely to possess the characteristics and competencies that belong in the success profile. The challenge is to identify who those sales team members are, and to isolate and classify the attributes that drive their success. Then you can align your hiring and development programs accordingly.

We recommend a three-step approach — Identify, Isolate, Classify & Align — that can help drive sales success by discovering and leveraging the attributes of your best salespeople.

A few things to keep in mind as you execute each step:

Identify: You’ll need to identify a group of outstanding performers, as well as a group of average performers (rather than poor performers) to compare against. When selecting salespeople for these groups, take into account differences in territory opportunity or potential. It’s not enough to only rely on performance rankings, competency model assessments, and sales manager input. By assessing territory sales and sales growth relative to market opportunity, you can separate the impact of territory factors from the impact of a salesperson’s ability and effort on performance. Most sales leaders think that they know who their best performers are. Yet when they factor market opportunity into the equation, they sometimes discover that the success of a “star” salesperson is in fact driven largely by luck (i.e. a good territory), and not by skill and effort.

Isolate: Create a list of the attributes that salespeople use to enable their success. You can look at published lists from consultants and research-based recruiting and training organizations, and/or you can ask customers and company sales leaders, managers, and HR experts for input. Observe and gather input about the salespeople in the outstanding and average performance groups in order to evaluate them on the attributes. Then compare the results of your evaluation across the two groups to isolate the attributes that truly discriminate the best from the average performer.

Classify and Align: Your list of discriminating attributes will likely include both characteristics — inherent traits such as high energy level and intellectual capability, and competencies — learned abilities such as selling skills and product knowledge. Classify each success attribute as either a characteristic or a competency, and then align your sales hiring and development programs accordingly. You must hire for characteristics. You can buy (hire) or build (develop) competencies.

The list of success attributes will depend on the sales role. Here is an abbreviated example of characteristics and competencies for a sales force in the healthcare industry.


  • Motivated to succeed
  • Ability to work with others as a team


  • Ability to understand customer needs and decision processes
  • Call planning and preparation with consistent follow-up
  • Ability to adapt the message for each customer and focus on customer value
  • Enlisting the help of other company experts in meeting customer needs

With this information, sales leaders were able to focus sales force hiring around the characteristics, and design development programs around the competencies, significantly enhancing sales force effectiveness.