Everyone knows about the 80-20 rule, right? About 20% of salespeople reps are responsible for 80% of results. So if sales managers want to improve results, it’s awfully tempting to direct most of their coaching and training efforts toward that top 20. After all, their time and attention is limited. So why not put it where it will have the greatest impact?

It makes all kinds of sense. Except for a couple of things:

  1. There is no 80-20 rule. At least not when it comes to sales performance. A national study found that the top 20% of salespeople don’t bring in 80% of the sales. It’s more like 30%. That’s still more than their fair share, of course. But not that much more.
  2. No matter what you do, top salespeople aren’t going to improve much. They’re already at the top of their game. Like anyone else, they need to keep their skills fresh, and they’re always looking for ways to get an extra edge (that’s why they’re in the top). The key challenge with top performers isn’t making them better; it’s recognizing and rewarding them so they stick around.

The best return, according to research published by Maritz, a talent-development firm that focuses on sales organizations, comes from “moving the middle” – that big fat part of the bell curve that brings in the other 70% of sales. They’re also the people most likely to benefit from training, because for most of them the fundamentals are already in place. According to research by Harvard professor Thomas Delong, B-players don’t really fit the cliché of muddling, unimaginative plodders who stumble into sales despite themselves. Demographically, they’re indistinguishable from A-players. About 20% actually used to be top performers. Many others are young and inexperienced, but with the talent and attitude they need to succeed.

Collectively, developing the B-list can move the needle in a big way. You can do the math: Assume you’re a sales manager and you’ve been challenged to increase revenues by 10% across the board. If you focused only on the top 20% (which, remember, drive 30% of revenue), you’d have to increase their performance by 33% (30% x 33.3% = 10%). If you focused on the bottom 80% (who bring in the other 70% of revenue), you’d have to increase their sales by less than half as much — only 14% (70% x 14.2% = 10%).

I don’t know anyone who can coach another 33% out of their top performers. Yet Maritz’s research shows that the second strategy is doable. It found that coaching the middle can improve performance by as much as 19%. So if it were me, I’d bet on the middle.

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