Jim Collins’ bestselling book “Good to Great” has been a roadmap followed by many companies striving for greatness. It’s also a nice reminder about not settling for just “good.” I’ve been re-reading it lately, as I sometimes do, and couldn’t help thinking about the many parallels between the book’s central research and a sales organization.

The book analyzes what “great” companies did differently from very good or nearly great companies. A great company was defined as one that had a transition point and from there achieved cumulative growth of at least 3x the market for 15 years. Jim Collins makes a strong point that it does no good to simply compare what those great companies all have in common, it’s what they do or have that the good companies don’t that matters most.

Applying It to Sales

This principle is applicable to sales organizations too, so I pondered some similar questions. What differentiates the best sales teams from the less great? What differentiates the best salespeople from the worst? (Rather than compare to just the good ones, I believe it is most illustrative if we contrast the extremes.)

What I found is that there are some measurable stats that transcend most any type of selling and then there are others that are unique to an individual industry or company due to the way they sell, their unique customer base, their products etc. So, it first makes sense to review those universal traits that are clear differentiators.

Universal Traits

Since I’m using the best and worst to best illustrate the point, let’s look at traits of the top 10% and bottom 10% of sellers in a database of over 600,000 people. This means we are comparing 60,000 of the best salespeople in our database to 60,000 of the worst.

  • Commitment (to continuous growth and change) – 100% vs 26%
  • Selling Value Proficiency – 90% vs 0%
  • Qualifying Proficiency – 82% vs 0%
  • Comfortable Discussing Money – 83% vs 2%
  • Will to Sell (interpreted as grit, drive, stick-to-it ability) – 100% vs 12%
  • Sales Technology Proficiency – 68% vs 7%
  • Reaching Decision Makers – 84% vs 18% (and this trait has shown a 331% greater success rate among those that are proficient)
  • Following a Repeatable Sales Process – 80% vs 11%

These are pretty compelling data points that can be applied on a universal basis, so this is a great place to start the analysis. But you might be saying, “Yeah, but my industry’s unique,” or, “We are different.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. I have heard that again and again and again. And you are right. Your industry is unique, and your company is different, but the principles still apply.

However, if you really want to drill it down further, and you should. And we do too. Of the 234 seller traits we can measure (with the help of OMG’s database), there are likely some that are differentiators beyond the traits listed above for your unique situation.

Unique Traits

Below is a picture of what one such company’s unique differentiators actually are. I have masked all the specific details but wanted to show the sanitized chart to illustrate the point. It usually only takes a small sample size to determine what matters as in the case here with data on only six of a team of 150 salespeople.

You can measure the elements that impact effectiveness and they aren’t just personality traits or deep-seeded behaviors. It’s fairly obvious why some are top performers and others are struggling, even without the specific measured traits labeled.

To give you a taste of what this chart encompassed, here are a few of the elements measured:

  • Hunting Proficiency
  • Selling Value
  • Asks Great Questions
  • Reaching Decision Makers is a Milestone in the Sales Process
  • Business Minded

Similar Findings

When we do this type of sales team analysis it nearly always looks something like the chart above. There are usually 7 to 25 true traits that differentiate the top from the bottom. Some are global traits such as Selling Value (which we know is a differentiator for most all companies). And some are nuanced such as Business Minded.

When a sales team’s chart does not look like the one above it is because of another incredibly important factor – Sales Management Effectiveness. The sales manager has an enormous impact on a sales team’s effectiveness both good and bad. And when we can’t differentiate the elements of the top producers from the bottom it is because of the sales manager…100% of the time.

Top Producer Attributes

Let’s also be very clear about what a top producer is. A top producer is NOT the person who has been there 25 years and has the largest clients. A top producer is NOT the person that gets everything handed to them by the owner. No, a top producer is one who produces the most value for the company. They do it by generating the most revenue over and over again through expansion of existing clients and attainment of new ones – in the same manner that all the salespeople on the team are expected to generate new business.

If you know Jim Collins’ work, then you will appreciate the simplicity of our analysis. This kind of research supports the ability to truly identify what will differentiate a great sales team from a good or average one. It will also enable leaders to identify the traits specific to their industry and company.