Move the Middle—How to Get The Best Out of Your Salesforce?

In any typical sales organisation, only about 15 to 20 percent of its salespeople strive hard to reach the top and an equal number are at the bottom as low performers. What about the core and critical, yet vulnerable, 60 to 70 percent in between?

Move the Middle - How to Get The Best Out of Your Salesforce?

24 Nov 2016 by  Michael Gruber

In any typical sales organization, only about 15 to 20 percent of all its salespeople are self-motivated and strive hard to earn overachievement payouts. An equal number are at the bottom as low performers, who can be encouraged with short-term goals, social pressure, and sometimes, fear.

Then, there is a crowded—and arguably, critical—middle of about 60 to 70 percent who are core performers but vulnerable. They can easily rise up to star performance level or slide down to low performance. Yet they are the ones who receive the least attention from sales management. Why?

It starts with the star sales manager

Often, sales managers were star performers themselves. They pay the current star performers an undue amount of attention and don’t identify as well with the core performers in the middle. As a result, core performers are passed over for promotions, neglected at annual sales meetings, and incentivized poorly compared to the top group.

This lack of recognition and attention can have negative consequences. Most core performers are not happy staying in the middle of the pack, and missing out on the top organizational awards, achievements, and most of all, payouts. Studies have shown that the unease caused by nonattainment or delayed attainment of star status can cause significant mental stress and even have grave medical consequences—but ultimately has little impact on the overall performance. This is because, once identified, star performers tend to relax their efforts slightly while some low performers may push harder, causing the average to remain the same.

How to initiate change for greatest business impact?

Productivity doesn’t account for differences in territory assignment or level of support or both, and quota achievement doesn’t capture the whole job. Plus, salespeople can win or lose business without really being the best or worst employees. Very often the answer to ‘how do we move the middle’ is as simple as paying them more—but does that really work?



The truth is, the middle tends to be different than the top and bottom quartiles in terms of drive, mastery, and incentive and rewards levers. Analysis is crucial and has to go beyond the obvious numbers, as well as align with the organization’s sales efforts.

There are three initial steps to moving the middle:

1. Define the middle: What measures will be used to identify individuals who comprise the population?

2. Understand the middle: What’s different about individuals who comprize the middle compared to the top?

3. Identify layers to move the middle: What tools are available to increase performance of the middle, given their different characteristics?

With a diagnostic framework to distinguish effective and ineffective practices in the organization, HR professionals can then make informed decisions on how to design and execute variable pay plans to link pay and performance. Tests for historical performance correlated with psychological predispositions also allow organizations to predict sales performances in a given role in the future.

Sales managers also have a significant part to play in motivating the core performers in the middle, by getting the right number of people on the team so that work is distributed evenly, interacting adequately with core performers (not just star performers) to ensure they receive the support they need and recognition they deserve, and incentivizing them fairly for their performance. This way, the core of your salesforce will be driven to achieve a high performance career in your organization.

Michael Gruber

Michael Gruber joined Aon Hewitt as a Partner Consultant in MENA in 2013. He was previously with the EMEA organization of Aon Hewitt, responsible for Leadership Consulting and Talent management. With 20 years of Management and HR consulting experience, His top priority is to develop the Leadership practice at Aon Hewitt Middle East from an offering as well as a business development point of view. Michael is also an inspirational speaker on leading HR and Leadership practices, and pursues the mission “to make the world a better place to work”.

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Michael Gruber
Dubai, UAE