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What makes a successful sales rep?

A successful sales rep is "defined by the ability to do three things: teach, tailor and take control," say Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, whose new book on effective selling techniques uses extensive research to confront traditional wisdom
The Hard Worker shows up early, stays late and is always willing to put in the extra effort
Illustration: Patrick Regout

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In the early months of 2009, as the bottom fell out of the global economy, business-to-business sales leaders around the world faced an epic problem and an even deeper mystery. 

Customers had vanished overnight. Commerce had ground to a halt. Credit was scarce and cash even scarcer. For anyone in business, times were tough. But for heads of sales, they were a nightmare. Imagine having to get up every morning, rally your troops, and send them into a battle they couldn't possibly win. To find business where none could be found. It's one thing to sell to reluctant, even nervous customers. It's another thing altogether to sell to no one at all. 

Yet therein lay the mystery. Staring directly into the teeth of the toughest sales environment in decades — if not ever — a small but uniquely gifted number of sales reps were selling. In fact, they were selling a lot. While others struggled to close even the smallest of deals, these individuals were bringing in the kind of business most reps could only dream of even in an up economy. Were they lucky? Were they just born with it? And, most important, how could you possibly capture that magic, bottle it, and export it to everyone else? For many companies, their very survival depended on the answer.

It was into this environment that CEB — a US research and advisory service — launched what would become one of the most important studies of sales rep productivity in decades. It set out to identify what exactly set this very special group of sales reps apart. 

CEB surveyed hundreds of frontline sales managers across 90 companies around the world, asking those managers to assess three reps each from their teams — two average performers and one star performer — along 44 different attributes. It asked managers to assess attitudes, including the degree to which their reps seek to resolve customer issues and their willingness to risk disapproval. It asked about skills and behaviours, like the reps' level of business acumen and needs-diagnosis ability. It looked at activities, like reps' tendency to follow the sales process and thoroughly evaluate opportunities. And, finally, it asked about reps' knowledge of their customers' industry as well as their own companies' products.

In terms of demographics, the study covered a wide range of selling models, from hunters to farmers, field reps to inside sales reps, key account managers to broad-based account reps, as well as both direct sellers and indirect sellers. And there was a very practical means of measuring actual performance, namely each individual rep's performance against goal. Taken together the work gave a very robust, data-driven snapshot of rep performance to answer the question, "Of all the things a sales rep could do well, which ones actually matter most for sales performance?" 

So what did the survey find? At the highest level, the story revolves around three key findings, each representing a radical departure from how most sales executives think about how to drive sales success. 

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Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson

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