Ask a small company Sales VP about his biggest fear.  You’ll hear a common response: losing my best guys.  Many small companies live by the Pareto principal. 80% of their revenue comes from the top 20% of their team.  Losing one top performer can ruin the entire year.  This is why Sales VPs list Talent as one of their biggest needs. 


If identifying top performers was easy, sales leaders wouldn’t be so worried.  But the “gut check” test is flawed. When we ask most sales leaders about common “A” Player traits, they stumble.  We hear comments like “always hits the goals” or “understands the customers”.  These are vague results. But they are not reasons why some reps outperform others. 


To identify what differentiates their top people, VPs need to conduct field observation.  Here’s how to do it. 


  1. Come up with a list of 20-25 possible key traits.  Your list should include behavioral, knowledge, and skill-based traits.  True “A” Players possess all three.
  2. Attend sales calls with top and average reps. Why average reps?  Because you need to see how your “A” Player is different.  During these sales calls resist the urge to participate.  Instead, just record which behaviors you see.  Write down a score for each observed trait.  Take notes on specific examples throughout the day.
  3. Find your common “A” Player Traits.  When you’re finished observation analyze the scores from your field rides.  If you have an egghead sales ops guy, ask him to run a regression.  If not, start adding up the “A” Player points.  Then add up the “B” Players.  How are the “A” Player skills different?  When you are finished you should have 7-10 key “A” traits.


Once you’ve identified these key traits, put together a plan to:


1)      Start Hiring the Right People.

Develop a hiring interview questionnaire.  This should include experience based interview questions around each trait.  Create a scoring guide to make sure you are consistently evaluating candidates’ answers.  If you notice particular traits are more impactful than others, weight them accordingly.

2)      Develop Your Current Staff to Match These Traits.

There may be some facets you can’t teach, like Drive and Motivation.  But many skills like Presentation Ability or Domain Expertise are learned.  Interview your current staff to determine their capabilities. Identify key gaps in your current team.  Even “A” Players have areas they can improve.


Work with HR to put together a development plan.  It should have clear assignments and goals for each desired trait.  Once a rep completes a development plan, test to ensure the behavior is learned.


Identifying your “A” Player Skillset won’t improve your talent overnight.  But it will set a solid foundation for a highly skilled team.  You’ll know what great looks like. Hiring and development won’t be a “best guess”. Acquire and build the talent you need.  Don’t be held hostage by a few all-stars.