Do Nice Guys Sell Less? (Jim Karrh on Marketing)

by Jim Karrh  on Monday, Mar. 19, 2012 12:00 am  

Referring to an opposing baseball team (not his sales or marketing staff, but hang with me) the legendary manager Leo Durocher famously said, "Take a look at them. They're all nice guys, but they'll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last."

The resulting phrase "nice guys finish last" has, since Durocher's original 1939 quote, been applied and misapplied to scenarios ranging from sports to dating. What about marketing and sales?

Sales reps in particular are widely viewed as the backslappers and schmoozers who use every device in the book to get prospects to like them - then buy from them. A new book, "The Challenger Sale," based on solid research from the Corporate Executive Board, casts sales rep behavior in a whole new light.

The research examined the attitudes, skills, activities and results achieved by more than 6,000 sales professionals in 90 companies. The authors set out to identify what sets the best sales reps apart from their peers, as a means to ultimately help companies raise the performance of core (average) reps closer to that of stars.

Almost every business-to-business sales rep in the world, they found, falls into one of five distinct profiles. You'll probably recognize your colleagues (and perhaps yourself) in one of them. The research shows that when you take the profiles and compare them with actual sales performance, there is one clear winner and one clear loser. What's more, many companies and their sales leaders are finding - to their surprise - that they have invested the most in the sales rep profile least likely to win.

Hard Workers, who made up 21 percent of the CEB's sample, are the self-motivated reps interested in feedback and development. They are the people who show willingness to "go the extra mile."

Lone Wolves (18 percent of the sample) are the confident "cowboys" who follow their own instincts and can be difficult for management to control. They might ignore processes and reports but produce results nonetheless.

Reactive Problem Solvers (14 percent) are reliable, customer-focused, detail-oriented salespeople. They excel at follow-up after the sale and often serve double duty as service reps.

Relationship Builders (21 percent) are generous in giving their time to help others, skilled in nurturing advocates within the customer's organization and basically get along with everyone. "Whatever you need," they tell customers, "I'm ready to make that happen."

Challengers (27 percent) love to debate issues and push their customers. They also develop deep knowledge of their customers' businesses and bring new points of view to customers' problems.

Challengers are the clear winner. Although they accounted for 27 percent of the total sample, they made up 40 percent of high performers (and only 23 percent of core, or average, performers). Lone Wolves were 25 percent of the high sales performers versus 15 percent of the core. Hard Workers and Reactive Problem Solvers were 17 percent and 12 percent of high performers respectively, although both groups had more core performers than stars.

Relationship Builders were the likable losers in the study. They accounted for only 7 percent of high performers but 26 percent of core performers.

The authors say Challenger reps succeed because they can best handle today's more complex sales model, "one that places a huge burden on both reps and customers to think and behave differently." Customers are more careful and reluctant than ever before, rewriting selling playbooks in the process. Many traditional sales techniques no longer work as well.

Being likable isn't enough for becoming a sales star these days. There's no value in being a jerk, of course, but the clear lesson from "The Challenger Sale" is that an effective salesperson needs to be an innovator, a student of her customers' businesses and a bit of a provocateur.

Which of these five profiles best describes the bulk of your team? Where are you placing your bets, in terms of investments in recruiting and training?

In a future column I'll outline the ways you can develop and replicate more Challengers in your organization.

(Jim Karrh is the founder of Karrh & Associates and director of MarketSearch, both of Little Rock. Email him at



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