Most sales teams have a small core of high achievers and a larger group of reps whose results look a little more lackluster. That makes sense--not everyone can be a superstar. But there are things you can do to get much better results from underperformers. And doing so has the potential to make a huge impact on revenues. That's because underperformers are in the majority. Only a fifth of salespeople almost always exceed quota on the average team, which means by definition that 80 percent sometimes or often do miss their quota.

A little while ago, I decided to drill in on what were the key attributes that separate top performers from the rest. To do so I enlisted the help of sales expert, Harvard Business Review author and USC professor Steve W. Martin. Together we orchestrated a study of hundreds of salespeople from a spectrum of different organizations to see how their departments were structured, what characteristics they valued and what drove them. Ultimately, we distilled the key characteristics of top performers down to four main characteristics:

1. They Hold Themselves to Much Higher Standards

The adage that "if you want to over-achieve under-commit" simply isn't true when it comes to sales. Sales reps that consistently deliver outstanding results make high performance the default assumption. Sales reps that don't expect to meet high standards all but ensure that they won't excel. Half of over-performing representatives responded on our survey that they "strongly agree" that they are held accountable for meeting quotas and setting high goals while only 26 percent of underperforming reps said the same.

2. They're Incentivized

Money matters. It's an unsurprising concept that higher pay attracts greater talent, but it's also one that companies continually ignore. The more people are able to make by beating quota on a percentage basis, the more likely they are to beat quota. We found that companies that meet or exceed quota are 48 percent less likely to cap compensation than companies that achieve less than 50 percent of quota. Additionally, when the impact of capping compensation was analyzed for all study participants, the results suggest companies that achieved lower percentages of their revenue targets were more likely to cap compensation.

3. They believe in their companies and leadership

A decisive factor of success for sales reps was confidence: confidence in their leadership, their organization and their own expertise. High-performing sales reps consistently rank their companies more highly than their less successful peers. When asked what they valued most in a leader, great sales teams selected "experience" rather than "product and industry knowledge" (the most popular answer amongst less successful salespeople). That suggests that low-performing teams have lower confidence in their understanding of the product and industry--a huge impediment for successful selling.

4. They Have a Well-Choreographed Sales Process

Talent, confidence and aggressive goals are keys to success, but according to our study, none of them are as important as being organized. When you dig into what a top salesperson does from one opportunity to another there is a striking symmetry. Over-achievers typically have a very systematic sales process even if they are unable to clearly articulate exactly what it is. The lowest performers on the other hand do something different every time they open their CRM and on every call they make and email they send. They haven't struck a process that works. Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, high-performing reps ranked a disciplined sales process as the second most important component of a successful organization, following only lead generation and pipeline activity. Underperformers put structure near the bottom of their list.

A clear structure keeps reps accountable, leads tracked and momentum going. It's also something that anyone can implement. Unlike innate skill or strong motivation, which aren't things reps can learn, process can be taught and can improve performance immensely.

Bottom line, sales organizations could see huge gains from even a small investment in their underperforming reps. Try holding your reps to higher standards, boosting their confidence and encouraging them to adopt more discipline work practices. Tools and technology can help automate routine tasks and ensure a more streamlined and consistent sales process. Imagine the transformative impact on your company if you were to make your bottom 80 percent as effective as your top 20 percent.

Published on: May 6, 2015