What High-Performing Salespeople Have That Others Don’t

Research study shows selling is a learned intellectual skill.

Professional selling is a learned intellectual skill where more knowledgeable sales personnel should be expected to be more productive due to their superior client interaction and persuasion skills. Learned largely through direct-selling experience and training, these superior skills would be expected to enable high-performing salespeople to more accurately and appropriately classify clients according to their sales potential and needs and hence better adapt their selling strategies to specific clients. In turn, these more suitably tailored messages should enhance selling effectiveness and efficiency.

Intuitively, this may make perfect sense to most distribution managers and salespeople. However, the nature of the content and structure of this salesperson working knowledge is not well understood, and important questions remain.

  • What are the specific knowledge dimensions that explain how and why higher performers are more adaptive and responsive to different clients?
  • Is there a common base of selling knowledge unique to particular performance categories? If so, how do the highest performance groups differ from the middle and lower performing groups?
  • Do higher performers have different sales call goals than lower performers?

To answer these questions, we conducted in-depth interviews with 150 salespeople from the financial services industry to identify critical sales knowledge differences among six distinct categories of sales performers from superstars to below-average performers. Specifically, we investigated the procedural knowledge that enables high performers to better recognize, analyze, interpret, evaluate and remember effective and appropriate sales strategies and tactics and how to adapt them to fit specific sales call contingencies.

Higher-Performing Sales Agents’ Knowledge Structures Aids Adaptability

Our research proposition was that the procedural knowledge (know how) of higher sales performers would be more sophisticated than that of lower-performing agents. In particular, we found the procedural knowledge of highly effective sales agents was quantitatively more elaborate, more contingent and more specifically adaptive to customer requirements than that of lower-performing agents. We also found that higher-performing salespeople have distinct knowledge that is more central to a selling context and more specifically adapted to particular customer types or selling circumstances. These results are important in that they begin to explicate the nature and benefits of acquiring “accurate” knowledge structures. Our results show why and how higher performers are better at adapting. The relative lack of flexibility in sales approaches of lower performers, for example, may be rooted in a knowledge deficit in recognizing the importance of specific situations or customer behaviors within a sales interaction. Conversely, higher performers are not only better able to recognize the centrality of particular customer types or situations in achieving a successful outcome, but they are better able to respond in a task-specific adaptability manner.

The current research also provides evidence that higher (relative to lower) performers will self-impose a greater number of goals when planning a customer interaction. This implies that higher performers perceive sales call success in more and perhaps different ways than lower performers, which may help explain why higher performers maintain a relatively high level of self-esteem.

Our findings raise a variety of training issues, especially concerning how sales agent knowledge is developed, leveraged and rewarded. Developing and leveraging deep and contextualized salesperson knowledge may be approached by employing either talent-based or systems-based models. For example, it is not the amount of sales knowledge, but rather how the knowledge is stored and indexed in memory. In particular, our study results suggest it may not be the amount of product or technical knowledge, which is what most sales training programs spend time on; rather it’s the process knowledge of how to effectively react to customer solution needs.

Training and Development

We recommend that you critically examine the amount of time spent on product knowledge vs. customer adaptability in your training programs. You may be surprised how little time is actually spent on salesperson process knowledge. When developing a sales process training program, don’t focus on teaching lower performers the techniques used by high performers over a few sessions (which we believe is doomed to fail), but rather focus on teaching pattern recognition through highly varied and contingent sales call discrimination tasks and explanations. For example, ask salespeople to provide in as much detail as possible the steps they would use to deal with certain customer situations. Compare these results across salespeople in the class to gain a better understanding of their level of understanding for how to effectively adapt.

Our study also suggests that training programs would benefit by emphasizing the importance of creative thinking in establishing a variety of intermediate and end goals prior to actual client interactions. Given that our results suggest that higher performers tend to have different goals than lower performers, one recommendation would be to provide sales situations where the end goals vary by participant. For example, one group of salespeople might have an end goal of obtaining enough information to submit a bid to purchase. Ask salespeople about the intermediate goals they would need to achieve to be successful in each scenario. Another group might have the end goal of securing a trial order from a prospect. What are the critical intermediate goals needed to be successful? Discussing the different intermediate goals your salespeople come up with would provide for an interesting discussion.

Turning to a systems-based approach in leveraging and disseminating sales force intellect, one recommendation would be to create a culture that encourages knowledge sharing and modeling. Creating a learning culture where expert salespeople voluntarily share experiences and stories is essential for leveraging the knowledge of top salespeople. For example, similar to the apprentice programs used in medicine, we recommend the use of sales teams with different levels or types of sales expertise to enhance knowledge sharing and joint learning. Such an approach could be used in hypothetical customer scenarios to work through the “problem” together.

"Customer Relationship Management"

We recommend supporting these interpersonal activities by using software programs. Programs such as Salesforce.com are useful tools to capture your higher performers’ sales processes from in-the-field successes to more controlled training environments, such as knowledge training programs. Even associations such as GAWDA could implement a sales knowledge database to share specific sales expertise among its members. The idea is that lower performers would be able to access these notes and discussions for specific ideas on how to improve.


Greater procedural (know how) and declarative (know what) selling knowledge enables the salesperson to adaptively manage a sales call toward an appropriate outcome. Gases and welding sales professionals can establish a more systematic approach to capturing and disseminating the unique knowledge base that enables higher performance.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
Dr. Thomas DeCarlo Meet the Author
Thomas E. DeCarlo, PhD is the Ben S. Weil endowed chair of industrial distribution and professor of marketing and industrial distribution at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.