Benchmarking top Sales People – Realities and Pitfalls!

images-1I often hear hiring managers express the desire to ‘benchmark my top sales reps’. We’ve done this a lot of over the years and continue to do so frequently.

The thing is, when said out loud, ‘I want to identify the strengths of my top performers so I can hire more reps like them going forward’ it sounds like it should be a pretty straightforward task.

I wouldn’t suggest it is rocket science or that it can’t be done properly in a few simple steps but, in my experience, when I get down to the ‘mechanics’ of the project such as the specifics of who is a top rep, why they are a top rep and the pros and cons of managing those reps it gets a little ‘messy’. Why? Well, there are numerous potential problems and pitfalls about the process. My intent with this article is to identify them and to describe how we work around them. The bottom line is that, if done properly, you’ll have in place benchmarks, (hereafter referred to as Target Profiles) that are highly predictive of sales success, which of course means you’ll hire more A players.

Nobody is Perfect

Top sales people rarely have it all! Really good maybe, excellent in most respects perhaps, but there is always room for improvement. This is no great revelation, but my point is, that a Target Profile is meant to be the ideal to aim for when hiring.

As an example, a common situation with clients who hire hunters is that a lot of top hunters are scattered, disorganized and weak with the details. In this situation the Target Profiles keep the traits that are desirable while adding in the traits that are also desirable but lacking in your top people. Hence, the aim is to hire a hunter that is somewhat organized and at least reasonably good with the details.

Another example of this comes up when we have to ‘blend’ the traits of a couple of top performers. It sounds a bit like Dr. Frankenstein’s work but, in essence, this sometimes entails building a Target Profile that is based on one rep’s sociability and sense of urgency combined with another’s drive and work habits. In effect, we are combining the best qualities of both as the style we are aiming to hire.

Target Profiles Must Be Realistic

Target Profiles cannot be based on an unrealistic laundry list of traits. It still surprises me that many managers operate under the delusion that they can have everything wrapped up in one person. Traits are like two-edged swords, so for each strength there is often a corresponding weakness: Independent people are not good with rules, extroverts cannot be expected to be analytical, assertive self starters are hard-headed and hard to manage, sales farmers don’t make good sales hunters, and so it goes! Target Profiles must be a reflection of real combinations of trait drives since it is real people who are being measured against them.

Your Top Performers Vary

Often clients will talk about establishing a ‘benchmark’ and to do so will want to test their top performer so that we can use him or her as ‘the benchmark’. This is all well and good but the reality is that in any given sales role the top people get the job done in different ways, yet they are all successful. This is why it is important to think in terms of the plural-benchmarks and is therefore why we typically have up to three Target Profiles for each role.

Outliers and Exceptions

Despite the previous point about variability in the top performers, there are always outliers in any group of top reps. When profiling a large group, similarities and trends become very clear. What also becomes quite obvious is the identity of the outliers. When we are profiling a very small group it can be very uncomfortable for a hiring manager to accept that one of his top reps, or perhaps even his very top rep, is an anomaly relative to the type he wants to hire in the future. This is one of those situations that illustrate the benefits of having humans doing the analysis of the top performers. What I mean by this is that at we bring to the table many years of experience with benchmarking. We have likely profiled many sales positions that are identical or if not, very similar to yours. This gives us a much broader perspective on the role than that of the typical hiring managers with whom we are working.

Typical Benchmarking Process

In order to benchmark a sales role and have us build your Target Profiles your first task is to identify and test your top performers. Once again, this sounds pretty clear but your top performers might not necessarily be those that have the highest sales numbers. For example, if you are looking to hire sales hunters you may have a group of veterans whose numbers are great but who do not ‘hunt’ for one reason or another. And of course you may have a relative newcomer whose numbers may not show it yet but who by all other measures is just exactly the type you want to hire more of. So this is where your judgment is critical in deciding just who is a top performer. Prior to analyzing their test results we first look at the job description and what information you have supplied in our online Job Profile Form. It is important that we look at this information in order to see how it matches up with the top performer’s test results. If there is a big difference between what you are saying you want and the test results of the top performers then we will need to get clarification. Now let us suppose that you have tested your ten best. Putting it simply, what we measure is where, as a group, they predominantly fall on our primary trait drive scales-Assertiveness, Sociability, Patience and Dependence. Why these? Because it is from these four trait drives that we can determine their work tendencies such as prospecting, closing, response to incentives, in short, their overall sales strengths and weaknesses. So let us assume that in our hypothetical example we find the following:

  • 8 score high on Assertiveness
  • 9 score high on Sociability
  • 8 score low on Patience
  • 7 score low on Dependence

Please note that for purposes of explanation I am showing a very simple example but from this result you can conclude that your Target Profiles, and therefore the type who should be most successful for this role, are Highly Assertive, Highly Extroverted, Very Impatient and Very Independent. In short the classic sales hunter style. Going forward, job candidates who match these Target Profiles have a much higher likelihood of success.

Playing the Odds

Please note that last sentence …job candidates who match these Target Profiles have a much higher likelihood of success. Just in case you are thinking that candidates who match the profiles are guaranteed to succeed, let me take this opportunity to dispel that notion. People are very complicated creatures and, as such, there are many reasons for success or failure. Nevertheless, when you hire without using Target Profiles there are inevitably sales people who get hired who never had a chance of success in the first place. So, as this article nicely explains, the idea is to improve the odds of success by hiring sales people who are a good match. In other words, it is all about putting the odds in your favor.

Predictive of Sales Success

Is benchmarking your top sales people worth the trouble? If you are a hiring manager you certainly do not need me to advise you of the benefits of making better hiring decisions. The reason for going through the minimal effort required to benchmark your top performers is to hire more successes and fewer failures. The question is whether, at the end of the process, you are better able to predict sales success in job candidates.  If you are, then the answer is obvious!

I do hope you have found this article useful. As always I would be more than pleased to speak with you in order to learn about your sales hiring challenges. I promise to be very forthright in my comments and I am very pleased to share what I can, having worked in the sales testing field for nearly 40 years.

Author: David Pearce

David Pearce is the President of Established in 1986, is North America's #1 provider of sales personality tests. has over 1400 satisfied customers (97% re-order rate) who use our sales test to measure the suitability of sales candidates and sales employees. is customized to your unique criteria, fully automated, instantaneous, extremely accurate and very economical.

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