In today’s highly competitive sales industry, sales organizations and managers must focus on performance. Success by the individual sales team members translates into success for the organization. Management can measure results by various metrics and key performance indicators for the sales team members and the organization. However, there are both high-performing and underperforming salespeople, just as there are high-performing and underperforming sales organizations. Management is often presented with the task of evaluating weak links in the sales team – to process and determine a path to achieve optimum performance and accelerate sales.

Recent research points toward several characteristics that distinguish high-performing and underperforming salespeople and organizations. The findings may be helpful to management and inform a strategy to evaluate and strengthen the performance of the sales team and the organization itself. Steve W. Martin, a teacher at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, recently conducted a study of almost 800 top-level sales leaders. Sales managers who sell and manage others, salespeople responsible for quotas to find insights into what distinguishes top-performing sales organizations from average and underperforming ones. And high-performing salespeople who exceed their quota from underperformers who miss their quotas by more than twenty-five percent. Martin’s research covers a number of areas of interest to sales managers, including:

  1. The structure of the sales organization and process.
  2. Individual attributes of high-performing salespeople.
  3. The sales team’s perception of interaction with managers.

The Sales Organization and Process

Higher-performing sales teams with higher annual revenue growth were held accountable and measured against quotas by management, and morale was generally higher. They also used more structured and controlled sales processes.

• Aggressive Goals and Accountability – High-performing organizations set higher quotas to expect fewer salespeople to meet them. They are more aggressive in raising year-over-year annual quotas, more consistently measure salespeople against their quotas, and are quicker to terminate salespeople for poor performance.

• Team Mentality – High-performing sales teams describe themselves as “a cohesive group of like-minded individuals” instead of “a loose collection of individuals,” indicating a more unified sales culture.

• Process Driven – The high-performing organizations had structured sales processes, described as closely monitored, strictly enforced or automated, or disciplined, with the follow-up of leads closely monitored.


Certain personal attributes distinguish high-performing salespeople, including the following:

• Verbal Acuity – Higher performers, can establish credibility with the customer through communication by the meaning, nature, and importance of words at the customer’s communication level.

• Achievement Oriented Personality – Higher performers are often competitive, self-disciplined, and goal-oriented, continuously measuring their performance. They often show higher utilization of technology and systems such as CRM or sales acceleration platforms.

• Situational Dominance – Higher performers often can guide the conversation with the customer, sharing knowledge and experience to control the interaction between them rather than being reactive.


High-performing salespeople more often hold their sales managers in high regard and rank as a manager’s most important attributes (1) leadership and management skills, (2) practical experience and sales intuition, and (3) communication and coaching skills. In contrast, underperformers rank as most important (1) industry expertise and product knowledge, (2) communication and coaching skills, and (3) fighting for the team – possibly indicating the need for supplemental industry and product knowledge or coaching.

The basic findings of the research indicate organizations that perform at higher levels employ more supervised, formal sales processes set high goals with accountability, and foster a team culture.

With sales acceleration and automation technologies, the sales industry has rapidly become more data-driven, scientific, and automated. These allow management to develop a unique, specific, and defined sales process based on the company’s historical and customer experience of what has best achieved successful outcomes. A structured sales process based on data can be much more predictable.

Sales acceleration technologies are also able to provide a wide array of metrics on an immediate, real-time basis – allowing management visibility to see and closely monitor crucial metrics and key performance indicators quickly and clearly to have the ability to be proactive; as well as to evaluate results and test alternatives. These tools can be invaluable for sales managers in assessing where and what might be the weak links in the sales team.