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March 16, 2018

Sales Management Strategies : Are Great Salespeople Born or Made?


Are great salespeople born or made?

The topic provokes controversy.  When you really dissect it (and oh, do people dissect it), you risk winding up in a philosophical debate over whether innate qualities like charisma and confidence are more important than skills developed through deliberate practice over time.  Good luck reaching any actionable conclusions there.

Better to stick to some practical questions about the approach that top performing sales organizations take to hiring salespeople.  We surveyed over 150 sales executives and sales enablement leaders to find out.

3 Sales Management Schools of Thought

Most leaders follow one of three schools of thought when hiring salespeople:  

School #1: Hire “A” Players

You can try to train a turkey to climb a tree, but you’re probably better off hiring a squirrel.

Managers of the opinion that great salespeople are born, not made, tend to believe certain skills can’t be taught — at least not to the extent where someone without natural talent could ever keep up with true superstars.  Organizations adopting this mentality will obviously seek out “A” players from the outset. Around 15% of executives and enablement leaders we surveyed fell into this bucket.

The pros and cons of adopting a hiring and sales management strategy that reflects this school of thought:


  • Talent acquired typically boasts a lengthy track record of success so they hit the ground running.
  • These folks rely on innate skills so little to no training is required.


  • Organizations are in stiff competition with others who hire this way.  Consequently, forking up the highest salaries, benefits, and perks becomes a must in order to attract and retain salespeople.
  • Competitors constantly shop the company’s top talent, so they face heightened risk of unwanted attrition.

School #2: Develop “A” Players with training

We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence is not an act, but a habit.

People who take training seriously often go on to accomplish great feats, and organizations with a training mindset often do too.  These companies place a lot of focus on developing internal learning and development programs as well as contracting outside experts and consultants. A larger slice of folks we surveyed emphasize training as the key to high performance (around 22%).

The pros and cons of a hiring and sales management strategy that reflects this thinking:


  • Training has a positive effect on sales team culture and group performance.
  • It can also improve salespeople’s focus on things which take practice, like strategizing about a buyer’s business problems to provide insight throughout the buying process.  These efforts lead to better customer conversations and experiences, and thus better revenue performance and brand equity.
  • Sales organizations with great training programs develop their salespeople as professionals more thoroughly, which reduces the likelihood of unwanted attrition.


  • Training is expensive and tough to schedule, so executing in small doses over time usually isn’t feasible.  Most organizations are forced to rely on lengthy training over short periods, which exposes them to greater risk of oversaturating their team and producing “training fatigue.”
  • Organizations expend lots of energy constantly searching for innovative training practices in order to keep up with evolving expectations.
  • Training programs need to refresh periodically to remain effective, so a sizable budget for training is necessary.

School #3: Develop “A” Players with coaching  

Great coaching comes from an awareness that people have to arrive at their own answers.

Learning by coming to your own conclusions with the help of an experienced mentor leads to powerful results. A plurality of sales executives and enablement leaders we surveyed — a full 45% — subscribe to the idea that continuous coaching and feedback is the key to developing high-performing sales teams. Organizations adopting systems and processes that reflect this philosophy tend to emphasize coaching programs, one-on-one mentoring and frequent ride-alongs.

The pros and cons of this approach:


  • Continuous, one-on-one feedback from a coach gives sales reps a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses so they know what to focus on when pursuing a deal.
  • Coaches and mentors give the salesperson an objective viewpoint to draw from as well as an example to follow.
  • Well-developed coaching frameworks tend to give salespeople a better understanding of the organization’s selling and messaging strategy because they get more face time with company management to solve problems across many different deals.


  • Companies that rely on coaching face greater potential for low morale and poor performance if managers are bad at it–this is because of the higher likelihood they’ve hired on salespeople who need more hands-on professional development to produce results.
  • A coach with more of an autocratic style can hinder creativity when it comes to strategizing about deals — and a lot of the personality traits needed to become a successful manager are linked with those that predispose someone to autocratic tendencies.
  • Great coaches can be tough to find.  Organizations wind up expending lots of energy searching for people with the right balance of soft skills, aptitude for quickly gaining product and industry knowledge, and propensity for bigger picture thinking.

The Great Equalizer for Sales Management Strategy

Whichever approach suits you, there’s one metric any organization can use to objectively measure selling skills and improve performance across teams comprised of both naturally gifted sales hires, as well as those who’ve had to work for it:

Sales competency.

Regardless of the category that a salesperson falls into, systematically analyzing the skills and knowledge required to perform each different activity throughout the sales process gives organizations the means to cut through the noise.  This type of sales learning breaks down the sales process into discrete competencies (like territory management, prospect development, negotiation, etc.) and then drills down into each one to zero in on the precise mix of knowledge and skill needed to improve it.  The use of competency-based learning is a growing trend in the world of education — and sales training and performance management practitioners are beginning to take note.

There’s a plethora of resources on competency-based learning, but if you’re interested in more of a high-level look at how high-performing sales teams are adopting this innovative practice, read our blog post on  Competency Based Learning: Improving Sales Training Through Pedagogical Practices.

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