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Learning from High Performers – Oct 2003

New research provides insight into what differentiates high performers from the rest and how industry and individuals can profit from this.

Most of us, I believe, would feel we can learn something from high performers in the same role as ourselves. We may dispute the opinion of our manager (whether privately or publicly) about how we should improve our performance if we feel their opinion is biased. We may doubt the advice of a performance guru if their CV doesn’t appear to live up to their claims.

But somehow it is different with the high performer. When someone consistently sits year after year at the top of the sales ladder we tend to admire them for it. And when the company changes the job or the rewards system and they still come out on top again most of us would really like to know how they do it.

So when we were asked to look at improving selection and development in Pharmaceutical companies it was natural for us to include a lot of face to face interviewing with high performers themselves. One role we investigated is the role of the business developer whose job it is to pave the way for representatives to sell and open the door or keep it open for new products and services.

Getting access to decision makers and influencers with the NHS is a key issue here particularly for drug companies where past behaviour has sometimes developed a climate of hostility towards new business developers. What did the high performing pharmaceutical business developers say?

Getting access to the customer and developing relationships

One said: “The job as I see it is to create a positive environment for our sales force to operate in. I have always seen it as selling the company as well as the product. One thing I do a lot of is corporate presentations. My colleagues were quite astonished at this at first.”

“You have to build relationships first, both with the organisation and its people. The products will come into it but they will come into it at the right time. It will never be in their face. You have to build some trust. You mustn’t go in there and slap them around the face with your product. Because when you ring them up again they will think, ‘not on your Nellie. I am not having you back in here again’.”

“Some sales people will just turn up and expect the customer to see them. In the 8 years I have been doing this job I have never gone somewhere without making an appointment. If you don’t it devalues their time and yours. And if someone says to me just call in and see if I am here, I will say, I am sorry I haven’t got time to do that.”

“You have to know your customer too. I would feel I was doing a disservice to my customers if I didn’t make an effort to find out as much as I could about their environment. It is not their responsibility to train me. One rep asked me who are the board members on the PCG (Primary Care Group) and I just wrote back and said this information is freely available on the internet.”

Solving their problems will help you with yours

Another high performer said: “Many of the people in the NHS trusts and the prescribing units are too worried about their jobs to think about placing orders with me. So I facilitate training workshops on structure change to help get the organisation settled and in a position to talk with me on business.

I do one a week for all the different sectors of the market. I could have 30 people there down to 6 or 8 for a small surgery and their staff. Subjects might include facilitation skills, chairing meetings, time management and personal development plans and appraisals. I also arrange for guest speakers to talk about drugs and case studies.

The company likes the credibility and it gives me access to the customers. I never have a problem getting access to key people. They ring me and ask if I can provide a workshop or help them with some problem. If I do a workshop I ask for a donation for charity.

Sales people have to try and start walking in their customer’s shoes. It’s when they can do this that they know what the customer wants and able to give it to them”.

Another high performer developed some simple business planning software and an accompanying book to be used by GP practices for preparing and writing business plans for fund holding GPs.

Focus on your performance rather than action

High performers represent a valuable source of learning and our research shows the reason is simple enough. High performers spend more time, about twice as much, thinking about their performance and performance issues than lower performers. They set themselves specific goals in relation to performance such as the number of new customers they want to sign up in a period and then work out what actions they need to take to achieve those goals.

They also spend more time reviewing their performance. One high performer would ring the sales office each Friday to check his calculations of sales for the week. He was rarely more than a pound or two adrift. “When I start on Monday morning”, he said, “I want to know exactly where I am and what I have to do to achieve my next target.”

Even if they don’t write down their plan, which many of them do, they have it in their head. First they work out their objectives including how they will measure them. Secondly they work out the actions necessary to achieve their objectives including when they will take them. Finally they will always be in touch with where they are on the plan by reviewing it regularly. So they will know what has been completed and what hasn’t.

So what can you do to learn from high performers

Not all high performers will be happy to give away their secrets but most will give you advice if you don’t waste their time. Work out your questions in advance and telephone them or invite them to lunch. Ask them how they solve the problem that you have. For example, how do you get new customers? How do you find out what the customer wants? How to avoid the customer concentrating on price?

If you are a sales manager or director you could organise a best practise workshop inviting the top performers to discuss what works best in the most important steps in the sales process such as getting leads, making contact, influencing the sale and using the team.

In summary, what can you learn from high performers?

• Build relationships first, products come later.
• You have to demonstrate to the customer the value of moving to your company.
• Always try to look at everything from the customer’s viewpoint and not from the seller’s point of view. Try to ‘sit on their side of the table’.
• Find out what the customer wants first. A benefit is only a benefit if the customer wants it.
• When you offer a solution describe it in terms of the value from the customer’s point of view.

James Thornhill is the MD of a selection and development consultancy which has been researching the difference between high and low performers in selling in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Marketing for the last 3 years. The project launched the use of Biometric profiling to identify sales potential by analysing subtle differences in biology between humans from an hour long interview video recording. The research has created performance templates for different roles such as ‘hunters and farmers’ and for specific industries such as Pharmaceuticals. More than 75 major companies and more than 200 sales people have been involved in the research project to date.

If you would like to introduce your company to the research then click here.

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