Last week, I shared a snapshot of our ongoing Challenger assessment data and how Challengers in 2020, moving into 2021, are disproportionately more likely to be high performers. An individual with a different profile could still be a high performer, but the odds are stacked much higher against them.

This week, I want to take a look under the hood (so to speak) of performance generally to examine a few characteristics that have changed.

When looking at individual seller behaviors, we find it helpful to categorize them in terms of a) how well a behavior correlates with performance and then b) how common the behavior is. We’ve been examining seller behaviors (or characteristics) this way for a few years. You might remember our insight from 2019 when we found that similar types of behaviors tend to cluster together in this frame – so we named them Skills, Gifts, Graces and Chores. What we find across companies is that the greatest gains come from helping core performers exhibit those rare, high-gain behaviors, or Skills, found in the top left quadrant of the chart below.

Interestingly, in this study, we didn’t find many meaningful changes in behaviors becoming more or less common among sellers (the horizontal axis of our chart). No surprises here, almost all salespeople, through 2020, still go the extra mile for customers, are accessible, and are generous with their time. On the flip side, the things few sellers did in 2019 remain what few sellers do in 2020 and into 2021. Bringing insight is still uncommon, so is powerful communication, constructive tension and prospecting. You’ll remember in our 2020 buyer study that one of the key findings pre-COVID to post-COVID was that buyers were less (much less in fact) impressed with the average seller’s likelihood to exhibit the most important skills. As good news, sellers don’t appear to have gotten worse. As bad news, they haven’t gotten much better.

Looking at the vertical axis of our chart, little has changed in terms of what is important. That list looks similar to what it looked in 2019. Reps who can deliver insight, who are comfortable with constructive tension as exhibited through behaviors such as being able to discuss pricing or being able to pressure customers to make decisions are far more likely to be high performers. Similarly, the ability to bring home the ROI of the purchase by being able to explain to the customer what the purchase means for their business will never lose its importance. Interestingly, we did find a few behaviors that appear to have become less well correlated with success and those are attributes around discretionary effort and goal-orientation in our Gifts quadrant. On the surface, this means that success in 2020 and going into 2021 demands more than hard graft. With emerging demand all but evaporating for a few months and now slow to return, salespeople need to completely rework their plans and re-engage prospects with value propositions that address their current business needs. At the risk of oversimplifying, however hard you work, you will struggle to make a sale unless you also give your buyer reasons to continue with the engagement.

One of our sellers put this well when asked about 2020: “I focused on building trust with my clients and becoming a valued member of their team/company rather than a salesperson. Building my value more to be recognized by my clients”. That’s still a lot of work, but the focus is different.

Going back to skills, there are a few in the top left quadrant (as you can see in the chart above) whose importance appears to have increased: presentation/communication skills and product knowledge. That’s what I will cover next week.

Check out the video reviews of the Challenger Skills in 2021 series, featuring Timur Hicyilmaz, here.

Timur Hicyilmaz

Timur has been conducting research for most of his career. He was part of the team that researched many of the original concepts behind Challenger. Mostly focused on trying to better understand how commercial organizations succeed, Timur has spent time working on everything from trying to understand consumer attitudes toward energy consumption to identifying best practices for hospital operations leaders. His passion is for trying to identify strategies that are more likely to deliver a desired outcome than any others.