We’re used to classifying sales roles (and salespeople) in terms of salary level or experience or hunter versus farmer. But none of these categories says much about the impact a single person can have on a business.
There is a much more useful way to think about a sales role and the people who should fill that role that reflects the demands of the role, rather than the “experience” or the longevity of the salesperson.
Level 1 Salesperson
Most salespeople and sales roles are at Level 1 or close to it, irrespective of experience, age or job title. They account for 85% of the “sales” population. (If you ever get the chance to screen 1000+ salespeople, you will not dispute this the number!) You can be at Level 1 with three or thirty-three years experience. The Level 1 sales role is made up mainly of order-taking (of some nature), account management (in practice, effectively customer service) and sundry administration and client “liaison”. It’s the most common type of sales role, because it suits most businesses once they reach a certain size and have good brand or name recognition and an established demand for the product or service.
Level 1 is the type of role that retains business by turning up, doing a decent job and “maintaining the relationship”. A Level 1 sales role can come with a hefty target, but the salesperson doesn’t have to put the food in the nest, the way a Level 2 or a level 3 does. There can be (new) business development work involved at Level 1, but it’s usually a comfortable % of the overall target or just happens anyway, along the way, as clients grow or new product or service options are introduced.
85% OF THE SALES POPULATION HAS NO DESIRE TO WAKE UP EVERY MORNING WITH NEW BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT AS THEIR MAIN FOCUS FOR THE DAY AHEAD. YET, MOST COMPANIES THAT NEED SENIOR NEW BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT PEOPLE, ARE UNWITTINGLY HIRING FROM THIS POOL OF SALES GENERALISTS.
Level 2 Salesperson
This is the senior level of salesperson whose primary goal and ability is to develop new business. Level 2 the classic individual contributor. There are sound reasons that only 10% of the sales population falls into the Level 2 category. They live in a world of demand and lead generation, prospecting, consultative and solution selling, business advising and evangelization, in the face of obstacles, stubborn buyers and the status quo. Their boss is the sales pipeline and they are held to account through their sales forecast and accounting-strength metrics. They need to have the presence of a CEO or senior business executive or entrepreneur and business acumen is more valuable to them and their audience, than sales acumen. Level 2 roles involve a lot of – smart – work, a lot of set-backs, small progresses and require true personal performance, in addition to having specific, identifiable sales skills and approaches.
Interestingly, many “salespeople” start out at Level 2 and move to Level 1, once they have “done the basics”. But Level 1 is in fact, a step backwards. A Level 1 role might sound more senior and could even be better paid, but Level 1 requires a lower standard of sales and personal performance and can be done by a lot more -less extraordinary – people. That’s why any advertised sales role that contains the words “account management” will on average, get three times the number of applications than roles that read as new business development or hunting. There is never a shortage of “salespeople”, just a shortage of people who can grow business.
Level 3 Salesperson
Level 3 is the scarcest level of salesperson. They account for, at most, 5% of the sales population, and in some sectors, as little as 1% of the available population.
Level 3 salespeople are the player-managers. They are sales leaders, without the big title. They are BOTH individual contributors andthey can ALSO recruit, onboard, train, coach and inspire the Level 2 people. Usually, they inspire the whole business. They are both doers and thinkers. Many CEO’s and Founders say that they need a “senior” salesperson, when in effect, they ideally want a senior performer – at Level 3 – who will do all of the following and pretty much in this sequence:
1 Reliably deliver their own monthly or quarterly target. In start-ups and early stage companies, a Level 3 salesperson is often the main source of not just sales, but cash flow. They can cover his or her own costs (e.g. 3 times salary in revenue or GP) i.e. the Level 3 salesperson is self-financing, and is effectively, part-funding the business.
2 They are originating and fine-tuning selling approaches, including developing value propositions, selecting market segments, testing approaches, (failing and recovering quickly), building better sales processes and deciding on the best tools – all, while doing the day job.
3 Critically, a Level 3 salesperson can transfer knowledge to other people, who will then follow their lead. While they might not even have a “sales manager” title they start out with the mind-set of a sales leader who is constantly looking to lift their own performance and the performance of colleagues.
4 If you are a growing or scaling business, the Level 3 salesperson will start building your sales team, having first developed a regular inflow of income themselves. In fact, they are building your sales capability every day, but you just can’t see it, because they are mentally building sales models, approaches and tactics, that eventually can be transfered to a larger group of Level 2s.
Many SME businesses falter at certain stages of growth and scaling, because they have hired Level 1 salespeople, when they really need, at a minimum, Level 2, but more likely Level 3 salespeople. In fact, they often aim too low, seeking out average-salary people and wishing them on to levels of performance that is not in their career path.
It’s the Level 3 salespeople who help the CEO, Founders and Directors, to scale a business.
There are also situations where a high-potential business definitely needs a Level 2 salesperson, but if they stretched to Level 3, they would get an even greater impact. Level 3 salespeople usually have an extraordinary capacity for both work and effectiveness in multiple areas, that is associated with high performance in many walks of life. They can get their hands dirty, do the practical and especially unattractive tasks, and at the same time, make a strategic contribution. For scaling firms, it’s the Level 3 people who lift the business to the next level, independent of product or service. That’s why they are so valuable, when you can find them.