Sales Leaders Say Almost Half Their Reps Can’t Sell

By Heather Baldwin

You could have the greatest sales plan ever conceived, but if your people don’t have the basic skills to execute it, it’s worthless. A disturbing thought, especially when a recent survey of sales vice presidents found that these executives believe their salespeople don’t have those basic skills. In fact, 53% of those surveyed said they think two out of five of their reps don’t have adequate expertise to do their jobs.

The study, which polled 159 sales vice presidents, was conducted by Pittsburgh-based Development Dimensions International (DDI), a global human resource consulting firm specializing in leadership and selection ( In addition to a lack of sales skills, the study identified several issues that severely hamper many organizations’ ability to sell.

1. Lack of sales skills and motivation to sell were listed as the top reasons sales representatives fail. While sales skills should be assessed during the hiring process, they’re either not being measured or managers are hiring despite a negative assessment, says Jeff Burwinkel, DDI’s business development manager. “A lot of people are hired on gut feel,” he explains. “Many also are hired based on their experience and track record, but without simulations and testing. Or managers do the tests, but let their personal biases override the results.” Such hiring practices are extremely detrimental to the success of a sales organization and the numbers prove it – nearly 60% of survey respondents said their reps are failing at skills that could have been assessed before a job offer was made. Burwinkel’s message: Supplement the interview with testing and sales simulations – then hire based on the results.

2. Many sales leaders can sell, but lack critical leadership skills. You’ve heard this before and you’ll hear it again: The best sales rep doesn’t always make the best sales manager. Yet organizations persist in promoting top performers to management positions and then pay the price when those top sellers don’t have the coaching, mentoring and development skills needed to be successful leaders. “During the transition from sales representative to sales manager, candidates should be assessed for their ability to lead, coach and develop others,” says Burwinkel. “Leading a sales team requires different skills and motivations. The move from sales representative to sales leader is not a small step – it is a huge leap.” He recommends organizations adopt a grow-your-own approach that identifies salespeople with strong leadership skills (coaching, mentoring and strategizing) and groom them early for sales management positions, even if they aren’t top sellers.

3. More than one-third of respondents plan to shift their sales approach over the next three years. In fact, 44% of organizations with a product-centric sales approach plan to move to a solution-centric (33%) or business-centric (11%) strategy in the near future. Such a move will present staffing challenges. Many reps either won’t want to make the switch or won’t be able to. “Managers will need to evaluate the skill sets and motivations of their current sales team to determine how many members will be able to make the switch effectively and how many they will need to replace,” says Burwinkel. To do so, first define success for the new strategy in terms of a sales rep’s knowledge, skills, motivations and personal attributes, and then determine how your current staff ranks against those success factors.

4. Even with a lack of success, organizations are hesitant to change their hiring strategy. A whopping 65% of respondents were dissatisfied with the way they select sales leaders, yet they continue using the same selection practices – namely, promoting the top seller or hiring based solely on past sales performance. With nearly 80% of sales vice presidents anticipating an increase in their sales forces over the next three years, Burwinkel points out that now is the time to take a close look at how you hire and promote. “A poor hiring strategy is damaging to a company’s bottom line,” he concludes. “The success of a company begins with the effectiveness of its hiring strategy.”