Salespeople: A Canary in the Economic Coal Mine

Closeup image of businessman drawing graph,business strategy as conceptCloseup image of businessman drawing graph,business strategy as concept

By Ben Laker and Nicholas Read

Since 2008, sales performance was restored to a modicum of health. But the metrics are starting to backtrack again. Solving the problem requires a reboot of interdependencies across a wide gamut of sales, marketing, support, technology and compensation issues – a field rarely owned by a single executive and therefore difficult to pull off.


Findings from our recent sales research are concerning, and suggest that a decline in global sales effectiveness will trigger another downward economic cycle. 

If company policy is to stop hiring in a tough market, sales managers are bound by the same rules and told to make do with what they have or lose the headcount. This draconian policy flies in the face of every assembled statistic that shows a sales team that is pruned and replenished annually remains more competitive than those where the weeds are allowed to grow.

Those managers lucky enough to have open slots find the average time for a new salesperson to become profitable is almost eight months. This means where sales reps were given a 3-6 month probation to prove their worth, managers saw trees axed just as they were about to bear fruit.

Often the wrong person is hired into an open sales role. There are several reasons. Cronyism, lack of inspection, or being under time pressure to fill the slot rate high. Then there’s the coup of departments managing to transfer their own problem children to “try their hand at selling”, which amounts to a high-risk game of musical chairs.

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About the Author 

Dr. Ben Laker is a Partner at Transform Performance International who cofounded The Centre of High Performance, a collaboration between Oxford and Kingston University, London Business School and Duke CE senior faculty. He has worked with Apple, NASA, and the New Zealand All-Blacks among others, and has published three Harvard Business Review articles on organisational improvement. His research is described as “Phenomenal” by BBC Newsnight and “Influential” by Thinkers50.

Nicholas Read is a researcher and bestselling sales author, who was formerly Executive Director of Ernst & Young’s revenue growth advisory practice following a career in sales and management. His sales coaching methods have been deployed to more than 40 countries, helping clients win more than £20B more than forecast.



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Human Performance Index. Johnson & Johnson (Wellness &  Prevention Inc, 2010).

Building Solutions-Ready Sales Managers. (Sales Executive Council, 2005).

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.