What Makes a Marginal Producer?

By Herbert Greenberg and Patrick Sweeney | October 22, 2012

Salespeople, broadly speaking, fall into three categories. There are those elusive few, typically the 20 percent of the firm’s salespeople, who are highly productive, who sell most of what is sold. These individuals have precisely what it takes to sell in their particular situation. They can sense the desires of a prospect, are driven by a need to persuade, and can bounce back from the rejection that is an inevitable part of their work. These top performers sell effectively and need only be managed in a way related to their key motivations and not managed in a way that would demotivate them. These are the superstars, about whom managers will say, “I just point them in the right direction.”

The truth of the matter, however, is that you should not leave them alone. You should spend most of your time with them. Let them know how important they are to your organization, how valuable they are to your future. Learn from them. Share what you learn with people who have the potential to be your next top performers. And most important, celebrate your top performers. They are what will keep you one step ahead of your competition.

At the other end of the spectrum is the bottom 20 percent, those individuals who fundamentally lack the dynamics to sell or the particular personality attributes required to sell their product or their service. In all likelihood, these people derive very little pleasure from closing a sale, or if they do, they lack the qualities needed in their specific sales situation. Since you cannot make someone want to sell or feel the gratification that a real salesperson would obtain from closing a sale successfully, it is very unlikely that much can be done to develop this group.

Occupational Motivations

Our advice is to determine the real basic occupational motivations of each of these individuals and, if possible, place them in more appropriate positions within the company. The benefit of this approach is that they do, after all, know the company and its products or services. If they have a positive attitude and fit in with your culture, and if there is an appropriate position, it is preferable to salvage the company’s investment in such individuals by placing them in more productive positions. In addition, there is a valuable morale factor if this kind of job crossover can occur. If, however, there is not an appropriate opening in the company for these misemployed salespeople, the need is clear: You have to replace members of this group as quickly as possible with appropriate and productive new hires.

Not holding onto your poor performers is something that Edilson Lopes feels very strongly about. The founder and general manager of KLA Business Education, one of Brazil’s largest training companies, told us: “Be quick in dismissing those who do not wish to work to their potential. If someone is not working out, create a clear performance plan, with clearly defined objectives. Have the timing be short but realistic and the goals measurable but attainable. Let them know that you are willing to work with them, if they put in the hard work. Then, if they don’t have the skills or desire, you are better off separating your ways. That way, when you have to let somebody go, you, and they, will know you’ve given it your all, and there was nothing else you could have done. You cannot give somebody that skill set. The best you can do is to make sure that the person you hire to replace that individual truly has the potential to succeed. That way, at the very least, you won’t be repeating your mistakes. You will have learned from the past to make your next hiring decision better.”

At some point or another, every manager looks at the math and says, “Imagine if I could get this group to produce just 5 percent more. Imagine 10 percent.” We have found that many of these individuals are capable of producing much more. What is needed is to know which specific strategy should be designed for each individual. How can you motivate him or her to produce at a higher level? How can you tap into his or her true potential? There is obviously no single solution or formula. Analyzing each person’s strengths and limitations within a group and separating the overall group into subgroups with similar dynamics is the first step in determining management’s strategies to overcome these limitations.

What we typically have found is that one group will need assistance in closing techniques. More often than not, this group can benefit greatly from coaching and training that build on their competence and their confidence. We saw this occur with one salesman who was hesitant to ask for the order because he knew the price was high. As he became more familiar with the benefits of the solution his company was providing, he recognized that the value far exceeded the price, and his ability to close improved with his confidence level.

Another group may possess adequate amounts of empathy but be extremely impatient. Such individuals could benefit from coaching and training that focuses on improving their listening skills. Another group may be lacking in the area of personal organization. Acquiring tools that will assist these individuals in time management might be all they need to function more productively.


Marginal, as we will see, turns out to be a very big word. The key factor is to determine whether an individual’s modest performance relates to his or her fundamental lack of appropriate dynamics or is limited by some particular personality factor that can be changed. We also must determine whether outside factors might be working to lower productivity in relation to the individual’s real potential.

By understanding the unique qualities of each marginal producer, a sales manager can upgrade individual performance by making simple yet targeted modifications. We have seen situations in which merely attending the right one-day planning workshop or having a manager slightly modify his or her coaching approach made all the difference in the world. Sometimes these small modifications literally can convert a salesperson skating on the edge of termination into a highly productive contributor.

The key in all these situations is gaining a clear understanding of whether the individual’s performance is marginal because he or she is basically not suited to the position, or whether there is a specific concern that can be addressed by making the right changes.

This article is an excerpt from Chapter 23 of “How to Hire and Develop Your Next Top Performer,” by Herbert Greenberg and Patrick Sweeney, 2nd edition: The Qualities That Make Salespeople Great, ©2012, McGraw-Hill Professional. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Topics Training Development

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.