How to Motivate the Middle: Learning from Top Sales Performers to Boost Overall Output

February 16, 2016

Every sales organization is made up of a wide mix of salespeople at varying levels of performance, and can quickly tell you who their top performers are. The problem is that other than saying “they close a lot of business,” it’s difficult to clearly articulate what makes them so successful.

Even more maddening is that if you directly ask those top performers what makes them successful, they generally have no clear answer. If you do ask, you’ll get a response similar to something like this: “I really don’t think I’m doing anything all that unique or special. I just want to hit my number, and figure out how to get it done.” Here’s the thing though — top performers just intuitively know where to spend their time and how to focus on what matters. They don’t even know they’re doing it because it just comes naturally to them and they don’t understand why everyone else doesn’t do the same.

Top performers can just sense if they have enough late stage opportunities to hit their quota, how many early stage opportunities they need to line up for next month, how often they need to be meeting with clients face-to-face, that they need to be on the phone regularly, establishing relationships with senior level buyers, and not wasting too much time with customer support issues.

While we all want to hire a full team of those top performers, it’s just not realistic because no matter what you have there will always be a small group of your sales team that are your best. It turns out that an organization’s average performing sales reps, what you could call your “B players,” are actually a company’s most valuable asset.

Don’t believe me? Then you better get familiar with the 20-60-20 theory. This concept is that if you take the total number of your salespeople, you’ll see that 20% of them are the top performers and 20% are struggling, but that other 60% are somewhere in the middle. So if you can just make that middle 60% a little bit more productive, you’ll get a much bigger lift in your sales output than trying to make your top or bottom performers a little bit better.

So what can you do to learn from those top performers to make your middle performers better? Here’s three steps you can take to start motivating the middle:

1. Help them focus on the activities that matter

When I recently asked a top performer how her sales activities differed from others, she responded that many sales reps (especially those in the middle of the pack) get caught up in being busy. They spend their time responding to emails, on endless amounts of admin work, and in writing proposals. While these are all necessities for sales reps, top performers know that the more time they spend doing these tasks, the less time they are selling and prospecting.

Modern sales leaders help team members identify what the right activities are, and it’s amazing how few actually know this intuitively. And it can be especially frustrating and confusing to first-time sales managers because they were top performers themselves who just moved into management. Middle performers want guidance and need to understand that the ways they’re spending their time aren’t yielding the results that they could. During one-on-one’s and in weekly team meetings, dive into details and consult your sales metrics to discuss activity, such as how many prospecting calls were made, how many opportunities progressed, how many deals closed. But in addition, compare those metrics with admin tasks, such as proposals created or admin emails sent. Manage the differences and help your middle performers adjust how they spend their time.

2. Incentivize the right behavior

What are your top performers doing that your middle performers aren’t? Or vise versa? If you want real change to occur, you need to incentivize the behavior that you want to see more often. Managers can’t just throw a few sales contests together, slap on badges here and there, and expect to drive overall sales performance.

To run an effective program, identify problem areas for each tier of the sales team. If a manager can measure it, they can motivate it. This is one of the grand visions of using CRM software; managers can measure their sales team’s actions throughout the entire sales process.

Take advantage of that insight, and focus on the activities that lead to sales. For example, manage team performance on things like converting leads, or making calls, having face-to-face meetings, or advancing to key sales stages. Managers should be particular about which areas they choose to motivate and careful not to reward too many things at once – the simpler the better.

3. Invest in technology

Modern sales leaders invest in their sales stack and ensure they have tools in place to assist team members. The investment in technology to make your salespeople more efficient and more effective can pay big dividends. While you may be apprehensive about pulling the trigger on another sales tool, keep in mind that the investment in technology is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount you are spending on sales team salaries. A 100 person sales team could be costing you over $10M a year. If you can just get that middle 60% to be a little more productive about how they spend their time, you’ll unlock massive amounts of revenue that will more than make up for the technology costs. And most importantly, you’ll be getting a much bigger return out of that $10M investment in all those salespeople.

Sales technology can help modern sales leaders bring together all of the components mentioned above by helping sales teams sell more by keeping salespeople focused on the activities that matter. Sales managers simply identify key sales behaviors and set daily, weekly and monthly goals to motivate reps, based on their own KPIs (discovery calls, opportunities created, lead conversions, closed deals, and so on). When performance falls out of line, managers are alerted so they can quickly course correct with real-time coaching, or further leverage the platform’s real-time, high-impact leaderboards to rapidly spike behavior and rally any team.

Motivating your middle-of-the-pack performers may seem daunting, but getting an immediate lift in productivity and focus by following the above tips will pay huge dividends. And just think how many of those small lifts over time will dramatically improve your sales culture – and your bottom line. How can you model your top sales performers to motivate the middle?

Founder & CEO

Bob Marsh is Founder and CEO of <a href=""> LevelEleven</a>, a sales engagement platform used by VP's of Sales to drive their transformation into a modern sales organization. High growth companies including HubSpot, Symantec, and Rocket Fuel use LevelEleven to keep salespeople focused on the behaviors that drive revenue, and help sales managers be modern, metrics driven coaches. Bob has more than 20-years of sales and sales management experience, and prior to founding LevelEleven in 2012, Bob spent more than a decade at ePrize which went from startup to more than 400 employees during his time there. Bob lives in metro-Detroit with his wife and three children.