Why Do So Many Salespeople Fail?


Special thanks to Peter Fullbrook at Prosell for his contributions to this article. ProSell is a sales training company in Australia. In addition to being one of Australia’s best sales training companies, they have a unique performance guarantee. If they don’t improve your sales performance, you don’t need to pay. That’s confidence!


Sales Performance Statistics:

  • Sales teams that receive less than 2 hours a month of sales coaching only achieve 90% of their goal.
  • Sales teams that receive over 3 hours a month of sales coaching achieve 107% of their goal.
  • Without on-the-job reinforcement 87% of external sales training is lost in one month.
  • When you combine external sales training with internal coaching there is a 4x return on investment compared to training alone.
  • The sweet spot for sales coaching is between 3 to 5 hours a month.
  • 48% of sales teams don’t get at least 3 hours of sales coaching per month.

Several years ago, a friend started a company and announced that he was hiring his first salesperson. He told me a bit about the new hire’s background. And his big hopes for their seemingly inevitable success.

From what he described, I immediately thought it wasn’t going to work out. Something just seemed a bit off; but I couldn’t articulate why the situation felt wrong.

Sure enough, 6 months later he had 0 deals closed and my friend was looking for a new sales rep.

So with this anecdote in mind, it raises the question WHY so many salespeople fail? What is it about sales that makes it so hard to achieve consistent results?

Prosell has done deep research into what makes sales organizations tick. In this article Peter Fullbrook shares the main reasons salespeople don’t work out. And the simple actions you can take to ensure everything stays on track.

Let’s get started!


Hiring For Salesperson Failure

It’s tempting to look at salesperson performance as a complex beast (which it is). But in many companies the reason salespeople fail is simple. Failure is baked right into the hiring process.

In other words, some salespeople fail because they never should have been hired in the first place. For HR and sales managers this is expressed as:

  • Poor interviewing skills
  • No reference checking
  • Subjective recruitment criteria
  • Poor induction
  • No setting of expectations or standards
  • and many more besides.  

So before you look for reasons to improve a salesperson’s performance, make sure you find great salespeople to begin with!


Measure The Right Things

In any sales operation, in broad terms, we have to get two things right, quantity and quality.

Quantity: How is sales productivity? Are we doing enough of the right things? 

Quality: Are we sufficiently skilful when doing these things to win our share of the business? 

Over the past 27 years of helping organization improve sales Prosell has seen that many organisations measure quantity (activity, results). But they fail to measure quality (skills, effectiveness and customer perception).  

And as we all know, if you don’t measure something you have little chance of improving it. 

For a lot of companies, the soft stuff is the hard stuff. They lack the tools to measure soft skills.

So instead, they focus on the figures. But here’s the thing, you can’t manage a figure.

What you CAN manage are the inputs that make up the figure. But in order to do that you need to measure them.


Sales Oversight in Practice

Sales roles require a range of skills to be performed at a high level. Salespeople need to be proficient in tasks like:

  • Justifying an appointment
  • Articulating your company’s value proposition (differentiating from competition)
  • Identifying key commercial reasons for customers to buy
  • Articulate compelling proposals (either verbal or written)
  • Negotiating
  • Managing a sale to a successful conclusion
  • And many others

Yet how many sales operations ACTUALLY check whether their team is proficient in these tasks?

Salepro found that many salespeople have never had anyone check whether they can actually execute the required tasks to be successful at their job.

Sales managers justify this with platitudes like:

We recruit experience


We trust our salespeople to know what to do


We don’t want to upset the customer relationship by observing them

And so on. The end result of all this is salespeople being left alone to do things poorly. Or just avoid the more difficult things they know they should be doing.

This approach to performance is almost unique to sales. How would you feel if your doctor earned their position with virtually zero oversight? Not great! Yet many salespeople are simply left alone to fail. 

And more are failing in a tighter world economy, where better and different skills are needed.


Ineffective Sales Training

A lot of sales training amounts to a few motivational sales quotes and doesn’t actually address the challenges the salespeople face.

And in some instances, makes performance worse. Be wary of this.

If we accept that markets, customer behaviour and expectations have all changed dramatically in the last few years, then have you checked what your salespeople really need to improve?

And are you happy you have a process in place to align training and direction with current market challenges?

In a tight economy, we have to win business from the competition, rather than just get business because our customers are growing. This is the difference between a growth strategy and a market share strategy.

A market share strategy means you need to be able to beat the competition and take business from them. Which in turn means good competitive knowledge and the ability to articulate your value proposition in a compelling way. 

Has your training or support for salespeople changed to reflect this (and other market changes?)

When we talk about poor education techniques, there are two that seem to be most frequent. 

The first is the practice of putting a new person with an experienced one, so the new person can ‘learn what they need’.  

Copying someone else’s selling technique rarely works.  We all have different styles and personalities and need an environment where we are able to use these things as we learn.

The second is scripting. It’s a poor substitute for development. And let’s face it, scripts sound like a script being read. 

Have you ever bought from someone who was reading a script?

Good coaching has such a significant impact on results, because it goes a long way to resolving these key problems.

Good coaching sets clear standards of sales execution. And observes and checks those standards.


Better Sales Coaching

Sales Coaching Time

Most of us know that sales coaching is an essential ingredient to nurture successful sales reps.

Teams that don’t receive coaching underperform by a significant margin. Data from SEC Research indicates that:

  • Sales reps that get less than 2 hours a month of sales coaching average 90% of their goal.
  • Sales reps that get 2 – 3 hours a month of sales coaching average 92% of their goal.
  • But sales reps that get over 3 hours a month of sales coaching have close a higher percentage of deals and average 107% of their goal.

Sales Manager Responsibilities

What you may not know is that sales coaching is also the activity that sales managers are most likely to underperform at. 

Sales manager responsibilities typically include:

  • Customer & market knowledge
  • Rewarding individual sales performance
  • Product & service knowledge
  • Ability to gather sales resources
  • Sales experience
  • Provide direction
  • Allocate sales opportunities
  • Effective decision making
  • Innovation to improve performance
  • Sales Coaching

As you can see in the image above, a significant number of sales managers underperform in the coaching area. And it’s notably weaker than any other activity segment.

For salespeople to improve at sales, sales managers will need to up their coaching game. This is critical!


Avoid Salesperson Failure By Reinforcing Sales Training

Sales Training Retention

The evidence is very clear.

When sales managers don’t engage in active coaching, up to 87% of the time and money spent on sales training is wasted, as sales professionals revert to their old practices.

But when sales training is reinforced by sales coaching there is a 4x return on investment compared to training alone.

The point worth considering more closely is this. If sales training dissipates so quickly, is the same not true for coaching training?  

We know the figures are startlingly similar. So if you simply put managers on a coaching course and then direct them to coach, you must accept that 87% of the content of that sales coaching course will fall away in less than a month. And you are left with unskillful, poorly directed sales coaches.

It’s at least as important to coach the coaches as it is to coach the salespeople.


Who Needs Sales Coaching?

Sales Coaching Focus

It’s tempting for sales managers to focus their efforts on their lowest performing salespeople. Afterall, they’re the low hanging fruit, right?

Well… The data suggests that most sales managers spend too much time with their top performers and low performers. With minimum gains for each.

Top performers are already outperforming so coaching can only help them make marginal improvements. The extra attention appears to have a positive impact to retain top salespeople. But it doesn’t move the dial much.

And low performers are low performers for a reason. They probably should be in a different type of sales. Or out of sales altogether. It’s tempting for sales managers to spend lots of time on underperformers, but the ROI isn’t as high as you’d expect.

So much time spent on top and bottom performers means the middle 80% don’t get a lot of attention. Mostly it seems like they’re doing ok. 

But in reality, improvement in the ‘middle majority’ in terms of skills and results delivers the highest pay off to the organisation. 


How Much Sales Coaching Is Optimal?

The diagram below illustrates how much coaching is needed for each salesperson in order to optimise performance.

Optimal Sales Coaching

You can see the sweet spot for coaching is between 3 to 5 hours per month. But about 48% of sales reps don’t get that much sales training in an average month. 

That’s a problem!

The benefits of sales coaching tend to level off after 5 hours a month. Ironically, about 25% of sales reps get TOO MUCH training to be considered optimal.

Sales Coaching Hours

No Sales Coaching > Bad Sales Coaching

Sales Coaching Effectiveness

It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but In our experience, poor sales coaching is more harmful than no coaching.

Much of the ‘sales coaching’ we observe is not coaching at all, but simply feedback.

What’s worse, this feedback is usually one way and only focuses on where the salesperson needs to improve.

It tends to be subjective (‘I think you could do better’) and self-focused, (‘what I would do is…..’).  

Consider this; when was the last time you agreed with a subjective criticism of your abilities?  

If you didn’t agree, what was your reaction?

The diagram above shows the negative impact of poor quality coaching:

It shows that poor quality coaching has a significant negative impact on both attrition and performance of top salespeople.  

This is no surprise. An exit interview survey showed that the number one reason for top performers leaving a sales role was dissatisfaction with the way they were managed and developed.

Poor quality coaching, or the negative feedback we described earlier, causes the following problems;

  • It constantly reinforces that the person is not meeting management expectations
  • It shows the manager as both arrogant and unhelpful
  • It is resented
  • It doesn’t help people get better

Good coaching, on the other hand, helps a person uncover their performance capability and maximises their potential, and is both motivational and welcomed.

For coaching to be used as a tool to drive performance it needs to be consistent, skilful and measurably change the skills of others.

So Why Do So Many Salespeople Fail?

Sales is a tough profession. But as we’ve seen, we sometimes make it harder than it needs to be.

If you’re serious about building a best-in-class sales organization then here are some reminders from the research we’ve seen.

  • Hire intentionally. Not everyone is meant to be a salesperson.
  • Measure inputs (often soft skills) that drive end results.
  • Review your team’s ability to perform at every level of the sales process.
  • Get good sales training. 
  • Pair solid sales training with 3 – 5 hours a month of effective sales coaching.
  • Focus extra sales coaching hours on the ‘middle core’ instead of top and bottom performers.

That’s it! Do these things and you’ll be miles ahead of most sales organizations.

What would you add? What have you found moves the dial in your organization?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.  You can contact me on LinkedIn or send me a note on our contact page


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Matthew Murray

Matthew Murray

Matthew Murray is the Managing Director of Sales Higher. He knows any company can THRIVE with enough qualified sales leads. So he’s spent the last decade helping companies meet engaged prospects and win new deals.

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