How to Increase Sales with Top Producer Research – Part 2

Best_Practices_2How to Increase Sales with Top Producer Research – Part 2

In part one of this series, I discussed the misnomer inherent in the term “best practices” and recommended “top producer practices” instead. I also pinpointed the reason for the bad reputation, since poorly executed best practices projects often fail to produce tangible results. In the projects I’ve run over the past 15 years, I’ve learned there are a few differentiating factors in making Top Producer Practices research work for you.  I ended the last post with the most common mistakes and said I’d share how to correct them, to get your “Top Producer Practices” initiative right and get the results you need.

  • Mistake 1: Studying the wrong “top reps” and therefore, cloning the wrong behaviors
  • Mistake 2: Ignoring differentiators, compared to average and low producers
  • Mistake 3: Leaving the Voice of the Customer out of the equation
  • Mistake 4: Forgetting “what to STOP doing”
  • Mistake 5: Implementing the resulting training ineffectively


Mistake 1: Studying the wrong “top reps” and therefore, cloning the wrong behaviors

This sounds obvious but it’s trickier than it seems. The key is doing your own analysis to identify the true top performers, the average producers, and those in the bottom two deciles. Then, you study all the groups, and look for patterns.

I stopped asking for leaders to identify study candidates years ago. Very often, companies just count revenue and hand you a ranking. While their “top reps” do have the most revenue, you have to look deeper, to weed out those who are top reps by circumstance. What’s that mean? It means they inherited a great territory from someone, were handed an RFP for an elephant in their region, or have been around forever and have adopted enough orphan accounts that they didn’t really earn, but that produce business for them anyway. Compare this to the rep who has a smaller revenue number, but who has built her territory from the ground up and grown it by 40% a year for three years running. Who do YOU want to study and clone?

Choosing your metric mix, determining performer categories, and analyzing what makes the top different is where the magic is. I wrote another post awhile back on sales performance analysis, which you can find right here, if you’d like to dig deeper.


Mistake 2: Ignoring differentiators, compared to average and low producers

I mentioned this already, but the key is finding the differentiating behaviors between the top performers compared to the average and low producers.

Everyone thinks to study top performers, but rarely do I see them compared to others. For example, if a top performer does a task at a certain frequency, to a certain level of mastery, that’s just a data point. If you learn that average performers do it much more often but far less well, that might mean something different than if average performers rarely do it at all. I’m relatively analytical, but I almost always engage a real statistician to analyze the results with me and to do the real geeky things that matter.

As you look at the data, sometimes things really do jump out at you. Other times, it’s less clear. By using ratings, rankings, survey data, and turning everything possible into numerical data, you can do things like the following, to find links between behaviors and results:

While there’s more here than I can write in a blog post, the bottom line is this: spend time comparing the top vs. the middle vs. the bottom, and looks for what makes a difference (patterns are best), across body of people (not just the amazing outliers). It’s far more effective than just studying the top and will likely produce the replicable, repeatable behaviors than can be taught to us mere mortals. (Acknowledging, of course, that the top 4% often do amazing things that the rest of us can’t easily pull off. Often, their behavior is just not scalable.)

You can also read more at this post or view the conference presentation embedded there.


Mistake 3: Leaving the Voice of the Customer out of the equation

The last time I did this work, my employer didn’t want me to include the Voice of the Customer. I was stunned, but couldn’t get past the roadblock. At one point, after the Board balked at the best practices approach, they hired an outside firm (happened to be ES Research) to independently review my work to help them decide if we should continue. ESR validated my approach, and then went on to add that we should insert the customer into the process. I was vindicated, but still couldn’t sell it. Go figure.

Your customers tell you amazing things if you ask, listen, dig deep, and engage in an authentic dialogue with them. Win-loss analysis is especially helpful. Asking what makes a real difference to them with their sales reps, and digging into the details, can be enlightening. At one service company, which was built on repeat business, we heard consistently from clients that a long lag between voicemails and return calls was an industry issue and perception of our reps and our competitors’ reps. We became fanatical about answering calls or returning them as quickly as possible. A year later, we learned that this made a difference in both new account acquisition and current account growth.


Mistake 4: Forgetting “what to STOP doing”

This harkens back to the previous point about differentiators, but is often more neglected than comparisons. As you figure out what average producers should continue or start doing, to perform more like a top performer, don’t forget to look for what to stop. This “avoid the worst practices” mentality can be very productive. It’s like having one foot on a gas pedal and the other on the brake, at the same time. Release the brake (stop doing what doesn’t work or hampers results), and you’ll leap forward. Very often, you can identify these practices by what the low producers do a lot of, that top producers do not. This is not always true, since as you progress through levels of performance, sometimes you need to develop new behaviors (as Marshall Goldsmith says, “What got you here won’t get you there.”) So, this one is not always clear-cut from that perspective, but even anecdotally,  top performers can usually tell you what others should just stop doing, to improve their results. I always look for this stuff, and always ask top producers about it specifically.


Mistake 5: Implementing the resulting training ineffectively

I probably can’t say this any better than I did in Dave Stein’s gracious interview with me, a few month ago. This can get detailed and complicated, too, but the real nugget is this:

  • Content: What you’re teaching should come from the hypotheses, analyses, and data-crunching that I’ve shared in this post. The content needs to be the right stuff that will produce results on the front-lines. If not, don’t bother even starting. It’s just an exercise in futility at that point.
  • Delivery: This goes all the way back to the instructional design quality and includes how the content is delivered. If you’re not creating real learning systems, with prework, blending learning, confirmed knowledge transfer and prep before vILT (virtual instructor-led training) or ILT programs, which should focus almost entirely on skill practice, feedback, and forming new behavior patterns, while in the class.
  • Transfer: Next, if you’re not purposefully orchestrating transfer, you are missing the boat. The best content, taught intelligently, is still often left on the classroom floor, without solid transfer plans. Broad and Newstrom’s classic “Before / During / After” method for all involved stakeholders, still works. But there are other ways (Fort Hill Company is doing some great work with this… Richardson is using a gamified mobile app that we call QuickCheck  and my friend Eric Blumthal does some cool stuff with spaced learned through his Q MINDshare product.

Bottomline? Get focused on transfer, learn everything you can, engage your sales managers in reinforcement and coaching, and you have a chance of getting your training used in the real world. And on managers… they need to know how to diagnose whether their reps are using what was taught, to what degree, and how to coach to close those gaps. “Imperative to success” is not too strong a phrase. Here’s another post that will provide additional detail – For Real Performance Improvement Put Sales Managers First .

Lastly, thanks to Michael Gerard (@michaelgerard) for his comment on the last post. I’ll end with his reminder that all this work can be for naught, if you don’t communicate throughout the process inside your organization and share the results. You can see his words and my reply at the bottom of the last post.

Well, that’s it for this post. Turned out a lot longer than I anticipated, but I hope it provided some real value for you. Thanks for reading, be safe out there, and by all means, let’s continue to elevate our sales profession.


Mike Kunkle
Transforming Sales Results with Clear Insight & Focused Execution

<mike at mikekunkle dotcom>


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