When I talk about “performance levers,” people often tilt their head to one side, like my dog does, and ask what I’m talking about. Yet, my work on performance levers has yielded some of the largest improvements in sales results in my 24 years in the performance improvement profession.
So what’s a performance lever? Glad you asked.
“Performance Levers are critical competencies, knowledge, skills, behaviors, and conditions which must be present for ethical, sustained, high levels of performance to occur.”
This is a systems approach to sales. It’s also a way to focus on what really drives results. Re-read the definition above, and think about the 20% of what sales reps do that produce 80% of their results. That 20% of their activity contains the real levers.
Most of those terms in the above definition are well understood, but for clarity, let’s define and layer “Conditions” on top of the 20/80 behaviors you envisioned above. “Conditions” includes (but may not be limited to) things such as culture/working environment, compensation, processes, policies, procedures, technology support, performance management practices, analytics, and reporting. Put the right people with the right competencies, knowledge, skills, and behaviors into an organization with the right conditions, and it’s “Fire, meet gasoline!”
Said another way, if you envision a race car with an 8-cylinder engine that’s only firing on 4 cylinders, which also has a problem with its drive train, and then race it on an uneven gravel road, you can quickly see how performance is dragged down by elements of a system that are out of alignment or not functioning properly. It’s no different within organizations, or with people.
Technically, there are multiple tiers of performance levers. There are Company/Organization Levers, Function/Department Levers, Position Levers, and Task Levers (within each Position). The goal is to get them all in alignment, but where you start may depend on what you’re responsible for and the buy-in you can garner from the top leaders in your organization. If you’re in Sales, Sales Training, Sales Enablement, Sales Operations, or a similar sales-support function, you may need to start at the Position and Task Levers for the Sales roles.
Aligning Position/Task Performance Levers for Sales
I typically align Position and Task Performance Levers by doing these six things:
- Performer Analysis
- Sales and Sales Manager Selection
- Performance Lever Identification
- Top Producer Practices Capture
- Sales & Sales Manager Training
- Other Performance Lever Alignment
This topic could be a book instead of a blog post, so I’ll offer a few high-level details on each item, and provide some resource links for those interested in learning more.
1. Performer Analysis
- Identify top, average & low producing sales reps (in various buckets/slices).
- Identify top, average & low producing sales managers.
- Review analytics and assess performance via discussion and surveys.
- Analyze sales data to create a weighted scoring system across multiple metrics/products.
- Carefully screen both reps and managers in the “top” category, to ensure you are selecting only those who have earned the designation, as opposed to those who have enjoyed success by circumstance (inherited a large account or territory, for example).
- Note: Of the top 20% of performers, I focus on how to hire more reps like the top 4% (top 20% of the top 20%) and find ways to replicate the behaviors of the remaining 16%. This is a broad generalization, but I find it to be effective. It’s often hard to replicate the behaviors of the very top 4%, but you certainly do want to hire more like them, if you can.
- Provides a mix of performers to study in various ways, to determine true differentiating factors, especially between the top and middle (see Top Producer Practices Capture).
2. Sales and Sales Manager Selection
Implement a proven selection system that includes:
- Psychometric assessments (can measure things like competencies, cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence, personality [Big Five Factor], behavioral traits, occupational interests and more). I favor approaches that are based on a profile that models your top producers. Select a highly-validated assessment and use it as recommended.
- Behavioral interviewing (with calibration across interviewers). Can also consider Top-Grading.
- Reference and background checks.
- Most psychometric assessment vendors now offer online assessments with clear reporting.
- Many hiring/selection vendors offer training on behavioral interviewing.
- Simulations are realistic role plays that are observed and scored. They can be very revealing and move quickly beyond the interview bravado into what the candidate actually can and can’t do well.
- The assessments, behavioral interviewing and simulations will especially help you identify competencies that are required for the role and predict job success. You can identify statistically validated patterns that predict success, based on your top performers.
- You can use the results to further develop & coach your current leaders.
- You can better identify future leaders, who are like your very best today.
3. Performance Lever Identification
- Identify the replicable knowledge, skills, behaviors or conditions that must exist for ethical, sustained, high performance to occur.
- Formulate hypotheses about what the Position and Task Levers are for frontline sales and sales management roles.
- Confirm and validate the levers through statistical analysis whenever possible.
- Through discussion, surveys, interviews, focus groups, and observation of frontline sales reps and their managers, and analysis of the resulting data.
- This will confirm where to focus your efforts capturing Top Producer Practices, which fuels training content.
4. Top Producer Practices Capture
- Document those best practices and differentiating behaviors of top performers which can be replicated and trained.
- Through discussion, interviews, focus groups and observation of the frontline sales reps and managers identified during Performer Analysis.
- To share internal best practices (top producer practices) broadly and (re)design training around them.
5. Sales & Sales Manager Training
- (Re)design sales and sales management training (using effective learning systems) around the proven practices that get results in your company.
- Ensure that your training includes the right content and produces ethical, sustainable, high performance in the real world.
- Develop courses and implement effective learning systems, incorporating what you’ve learned in this research.
- To improve training, further share top producer practices, and improve work performance of frontline sales reps and sales managers.
6. Other Performance Lever Alignment
- Review policies, practices, processes, procedures, systems, compensations, culture, and other organizational factors.
- By sharing study results with other organizational leaders and discussing how you can best support the Performance Levers and Top Producer Practices.
- If you have an OD team, get them involved.
- To align as many other organizational elements as possible to support the performance levers and best practices – to create an environment which supports sales success, as much as possible.
This Looks Like a Lot of Hard Work
It is. But it’s also smart work and yields huge benefits. Over the years, here are some outcomes of performance lever work done well and implemented with discipline:
- A $398MM sales revenue increase, a $9.96MM net profit increase and a 400% return on investment on the projects/initiatives
- Increased sales per rep by 47% through changes in territory management and sales coaching
- Increased sales results 600% over previous year while decreasing net operating expenses by 21%
- Improved average profitability per rep by 11% in 4 months
- Improved processing efficiency (order pull-through) by 16% in 6 months.
- Newly-hired and trained 4-month employees outperformed a control group of untrained 5-year employees
- Increased sales per FTE in the 3-month period after training by 2.3 per month (average revenue increase of $183K per class or $36.6MM in 12 months)
I realize this is a high-level overview of a very deep subject, but I hope this provides a helpful framework and is a start toward understanding how to work with performance levers to improve sales performance in a scientific, logical, proven way.
More on Top Producer Analysis:
More on Aligning Performance Levers:
More on Creating Effective Learning Systems:
Mike freely shares his own sales transformation methodology, speaking at conferences, conducting webinars, and writing online, and can be reached through his blog, transforming sales results, or on various social channels. Feel free to connect: