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Bonus Focus - Becoming Great: What Gets in the Way of a Mid-Level Performer?

By Charles Brennan 

As a training professional for nearly 30 years and a veteran of more than 1,000 presentations, workshops and seminars, a question that puzzles me is, what gets in the way of mid-level performers becoming better?

Conversing with hundreds of managers, one of their key initiatives is coaching the average performer to be better, more consistent and independent. Surveys will suggest that managers are consumed by this pack of performers; thereby neglecting the top performers that can be better and the new hires with the possibility of vast potential.

This case study was designed to help with this problem. How can a manager be more effective in balancing their time and efforts in an attempt to “coach-up” the mid-level performer and allocate more time with their other performers? In addition, how can the stress and drama associated with this segment of salespeople be reduced without implication? The study sets out to determine the most common factors that get in the way of the mid-level performer becoming a top-level performer. The study also hopes to identify a series of skills, traits or understanding required for the mid-level performer to be better.


The study was conducted over a period of 18 months in 60 cities across the United States including nearly 1,000 salespeople and approximately 60 managers. The study consisted of over 10 focus groups, a series of infield observations and infield application exercises to validate our findings.The initial focus groups were conducted to determine the factors that impede the mid-level performer from becoming a top-level performer. Once the factors were identified, the process of providing answers to the discovered items was explored. As the solutions were developed, each solution was tested in actual live sales calls. The results were measured and altered to ensure peak performance of each application. In addition to the identification of the solutions, a concerted effort was placed on the development of easy to follow, plug-and-play answer templates to enable the mid-level performer to apply the skills/findings in the field with optimum performance and the best possibility of skill retention.

Throughout the process, four key findings were identified. The first key finding was the similar patterns of customer responses, introductions and comments. The second key finding was the inability of most mid-level performers to anticipate the responses and respond effectively. The third key discovery was the inability of a mid-level performer to start an effective conversation quickly and to know how to confidently continue a difficult conversation. The fourth was to know how to manage an ultra-short (elevator call) effectively and the final outcome was the hesitation that exists on how to assertively move a relationship forward once it stalled. Also, an overall observation that was somewhat unexpected was the actual amount of time the mid-level performer invests in the improvement of their skills and industry knowledge.

Executive Summary
Mid-level performers tend to need improvement in three areas:

  • The ability to anticipate the existing or prospective customers opening comments with an effective response,
  • To understand the need to engage a person at a higher level of relevant conversation and the ability to conduct a meaningful dialogue.
  • To know how to continue a difficult conversation and close.

Most sales calls that were observed occurred in an environment of divided attention. Mid-level performers lack the ability to know how to quickly gain undivided attention and minimize word count in the process. In addition, a large percentage of conversations were conducted with no apparent end/goal in mind. The question that was posed to the mid-level performer around what three conversations needed to occur to move a customer (existing or prospective) from unreceptive to receptive was left unanswered. And finally, when provided with a difficult or non-interested response, the ability to shift the conversation to interest was greatly diminished.

Once these elements were identified, our research efforts were initiated to discover solutions. A series of application sessions, pilots and test sales calls occurred to validate our findings and determine their success. Once finalized, the new skills were easily adopted and generated an average increase in performance of approximately 20 percent.


Over 60 percent of the sales calls observed and evaluated lacked complete undivided attention and interest from the customer’s point of view. Distractions and outside influences were present during the beginning of the call. Over half of the mid-level performers that were assessed lacked the ability to identify and manage this situation. A larger than expected number of sales professionals accepted the situation and proceeded with a presentation, response or ineffective question. Over 50 percent of the time, the sales professional’s word count exceeded the customer’s by more than a 4 to 1 margin. Exacerbating the condition of divided attention, the sales professional marched on with little to no awareness of the level of engagement obtained. Upon completion of the sales professional’s response, the interest level required fostering undivided attention and interest was not apparent or witnessed.

The conclusion was that more than 50 percent of the calls that were assessed created a void in the conversation and lacked the impetus to move forward with a specific task or next step to move the relationship to the next level.

Also, a level of discomfort and uncertainty was discovered throughout the process. Because most mid-level performers lack the ability to anticipate the customers next move or response, their ability to react effectively was damped. This caused an increase in ineffective conversations, responses and positive direction during the call. Approximately 30 percent of the time, mid-level sales people were unable to respond properly and the call reached a premature end.

Simplifying the Process

To assist the mid-level performer to become better, the results of the focus group and case study findings to resolve these issues had to be straightforward and clear-cut. Ironically, the process of simplifying the process was very difficult. To make something undemanding took a lot of work to craft and re-craft templates, theories and the know how to transfer the findings to the learner enabling them to replicate the skills to fix the problem. What complicated the process was the understanding that this segment of learner (mid-level) does not allot the appropriate amount of time to reach the level of proficiency and mastery.

Once a series of tested formats, skills and approaches were finalized, the task of obtaining repeated and successful execution in the field took place. Management support and understanding was one of the cornerstones for the success of our project. A residual finding during this process was the realization that a portion of the management team needed to improve upon at least one of our discovered areas to be a better coach. Therefore, the templates helped both the coach and the learner to identify, apply and critique the use of the skills in the field.

Applying the Process
The breakthrough that occurred during this process was the simple fact of always knowing what to say next. This of course is easier said than done, but the root of this comment and finding is simple to understand. Our research made it stress free for the mid–level performer to perform better.

The key realization is that when the customer (prospective/existing) opens the conversation, their opener will fall under one to four of the same opening comments. What was important to realize is that the customer is not actually interested in hearing the salesperson’s response to: “What’s new?” or “What do you have for me today?” but to realize this is the customer’s inability of knowing how to say hello. The problem is, most mid-level performers do not know how to say hello back, with impact, interest, word conversation and poise. Therefore, to make it simple, the key to a successful beginning is to know how to say hello and anticipate the few responses that the customer will most likely state.

If saying hello is a problem, the other obvious conclusion was that most mid-level performers do not know how to say “goodbye!” How do you say goodbye and keep the process moving forward balancing that delicate effort between passive and aggressive? The bookends of the knowing what to do in the call are essential. These bookends can be anticipated and prepared. No matter what happens during the call, the mid-level performer should be able to do a better job at saying hello and goodbye without hesitation and confusion.

The final element of moving the development process forward was teaching the mid-level performer how to engage a person in more meaningful dialogue. Because up to 80 percent of conversations assessed from the customer feedback lack relevance and significance, the mid-level performer needs to know how to ask a better question and continue a discussion. The mid-level performer only showed a 20 percent likelihood to demonstrate the skills to conduct a better conversation, and at least half of them could not pinpoint the actual process they applied to be more productive in their discussions.

The final findings of the case study were the need to identify a series of “talking tracks” to have more productive and insightful discussions. These talking tracks should be focused on a topic of discussion that would be most important to the customer or an “insight” around the outcome of the salesperson’s product or service. Once this is determined, the “talking track” can be crafted to include the following: appropriate transitions to hello, a series of well thought out targeted questions and the knowledge of what to do with a positive and negative response from their questions. At the end of every talking track, the need to say goodbye was included to gain closure on each conversation.

Charles Brennan is an author and principal of Brennan Sales Institute. Email Charles at



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