A Salesman's Will vs. Skill

Sales Managment - What is the difference between sales skills and sales will?

Why is it that salespeople with good sales skills succeed while others fail?
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Why is it that good salespeople fail to become top performers?

2007 David Peterson

Do you have this in your organization...? Two sales reps sitting across from one another, one makes $100,000 a year and the other one makes $65,000?

To make matters worse the one that makes $65,000 is the better sales representative. The make all around better sales calls, they have some good follow-up habits, they know the product inside and out, and for the most part they accept coaching.

So why is it that they don't perform as well as the person sitting right across from them?

Don't they want to make $100,000 a year? Their resume says they made that much in the past. They know the person across from them makes that kind of money. 

Beyond all of that - they see the habits of the top performer every working day. They see the top performer, sitting in their seat, not getting up, coming to work on time, going home at a decent hour. They see their every move; they hear every pitch, yet for some reason they are destined to make $35,000 less every year. Year after year!

A lot of times when you are in this type of situation you get professional jealousy. You start hearing the age old rumblings:

  • "Jimmy is getting the good leads."
  • "Jimmy must be doing something illegal."
  • "I think Jimmy is stealing sales, I hear his pitch and he is not that good."
  • "Jimmy is taking too many inbound calls and not doing his fair share of cold calling."

Never once does the under performing rep look at themselves and say... "You know I should do what Jimmy is doing." Maybe I should model myself after him. There must be something to his work ethic and his call techniques.

As a sales manager you try your best. You let them listen to your calls and then the top performer's calls. You point out the work ethics such as remaining in your seat all day, and working while you are in your seat. You show them how to improve their own follow-up techniques.

But after all of that coaching they still make $35,000 less than the person right in front of them!

What is the problem? You know that this under performing rep has the skills. They prove it day after day. They know how to open their calls, they know how to build rapport, they know how to probe for problems, and the know how to solve those problems with your product. Finally they know how to close when the time is right.

They know, they know, they know - yet they still make $35,000 less than the sales representative sitting right across from them.

What is the solution?

This is a tough one. Ultimately you have a skill vs. will problem. They obviously have the skill to get the job done but they just don't have the will. Not having the will means that while they are at work, but they are not really working. 

What are they doing while at work?

They are emailing friends, instant messaging one another, looking at the Internet, etc. Anything but real work. I had an old boss that used to say... "What are you doing right now to produce a sale?"

You may start hearing words that prove this "will" issue during coaching. "So if I hit this minimum amount of 85% I can stay out or trouble?"

That's a skill vs. will statement. Essentially they just told you I'm going to work just hard enough to keep my job. And oh by the way... I can hit that number pretty easily.

I try to attack the skill vs. will issues in three different ways.

  1. Find out what really motivates the individual rep.

  2. Raise the floor number so that 85% is no longer acceptable.

  3. Run Sales Spiffs that can get the rep to the dollar target.

  4. Do a better job of hiring a top performer in the first place!


To me this is the hardest one to tackle, motivating an under performing rep. You have to try. Sit them down and talk to them about their goals. What do they want to do with their career? What do they want to accomplish in their own personal 1yr, 5yr, and 10yr plans.

This could take months if not longer to get the actual aspirations to come out in the open. A lot of times sales reps really do live month to month. Many times they haven't thought about the future. Many times they haven't even begun investing in a 401k program. 

As a sales manager you have to try and get them to not only share their goals but you have to lay out a plan for them.

Raise the bar:

This solution is fairly easy. You know they have the skill so just raise the floor numbers a little each month until they get comfortable with 90% instead of 85%. Eventually you will get them to 100% vs.90%.

The only problem is that the rest of the team has to be able to handle the higher numbers. Remember some of your team is already at 100% so now you are moving them to 105%. Some average reps may be doing just fine right now but if you start taking the bar up, you will start losing some of the marginal players.

By moving the floor number you may accidentally penalize an average rep that really did just have one bad month. Careful - this solution works but you have to monitor it so you don't lose a sales rep by accident.


I have always loved to run short spiffs. You can really help accelerate a compensation plan in a definite direction by focusing on one area. A spiff is a "sales performance incentive funding formula" 

It is extra money typically built into a sales expense budget to help move under performing sales categories forward. In other words if you need to sell more blue widgets then offer the reps a slightly higher commission on those or a few dollars extra per unit to get them to focus. I use it a lot of times to get the reps to make a few extra outbound calls. Make "x" calls and get "y" dollars.

Spiffs are very simple and very short ways to get the reps to make more money. 

Now if you can get your under performing rep to make more money through the use of these spiffs then a lot of times they get use to the extra cash. Once the rep gets used to the extra cash they will raise their own performance to keep at that level of income. 

I often say my main job is to get the reps paid. Once I get them to that level it is their job stay at it or exceed that dollar amount.


Every sales manager has to do a good job of hiring. I have two questions I ask every sales applicant:

  1. Are you goal motivated or money motivated, and why?

  2. How much money do you want to make and how much do you need to make?

I personally like goal motivated people over those that are money motivated. Question #2 will show why. With goal motivated people they understand that if you hit the goal the money will follow. Goal motivated people are always trying to get the next unit, or to make the next revenue level. They are never content until they reach the number you gave them.

You have to be careful of money motivated people. The reason is you need to know question #2. There is a big difference between how much money a person wants to make and how much they need to make. 

As an example if I was to say next year I want to make $150,000 the interviewer would have a big smile and probably start telling me how I could do that with this job offer. However if I was to say that I need to make $65,000 the interviewer would probably say that is doable in this job while he's thinking that you would fit nicely in his budget.

The real problem with the $65,000 is that once the rep hits that income they are comfortable. They don't need to make $150,000. They need to make $65,000.

So how much money do you think they are going to make next year? 

They are going to make right around $65,000. No exceptions. This question works every time. Ask the applicant how much money do they need to make and that is how much they will make. 

There really is very few differences between two people with equal sales skills. If you have someone consistently making $35,000 less than the person right in front of them then you probably have a will vs. skill problem. In this case it's not the skill. Don't waste your coaching time on skill issues, concentrate your time on either motivational sessions, raising the bar, or Spiffs. In the end if the salesperson is still under performing you will have to concentrate on your hiring techniques because you will need them in a few short months.


David Peterson

David Peterson

Author of: 

Been There - Done That

David Peterson's Search Engine Optimization Guide

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