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Skill vs. Will: When How-To Just Isn’t Enough in Sales

Chart and arrow representing sales rep's skill vs will

Discover the skill vs. will matrix and how it can be used to improve sales performance.

Although all professions require a certain balance of skill and motivation, sales in particular relies heavily on motivation. The work that goes into generating sales – making calls, researching prospects, following up, going above and beyond to close a deal, navigating rejection – can’t be achieved without a degree of drive and ambition.    

When a sales rep doesn’t have the necessary selling skills, leaders have options. They can turn to coaching or training to get the green rep up to speed. But when a rep lacks the motivation or drive to succeed, course correction becomes infinitely more difficult.

In this article, we introduce a performance management framework called the skill vs. will matrix. Then, we’re discussing why skill alone isn’t enough in sales and how you, as a sales leader, can create a more motivated sales force.

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What you’ll learn:

What is the skill vs. will matrix?

The skill vs. will matrix was developed by business leaders Paul Kersey and Ken Blanchard, and has become a popular tool for assessing employee performance. The goal of the matrix is to map a person’s skill (the core competencies required to do their job that can be learned, practiced, and developed) and their will (their willingness and motivation to do something), within a two by two grid.

The skills vs. will matrix

Where an employee lands within the four quadrants dictates the way a manager might choose to work with this person. While the skill vs. will matrix can be used across functions and industries, it’s particularly helpful in the world of sales where sales employees’ effort, drive, and perseverance can have a tangible impact on the business’s earnings.

Let’s take a look at the matrix and explore what each of the four quadrants means.

Quadrant 1: Guide – High will, low skill

An employee who lands in quadrant one has the motivation to work hard but doesn’t yet have the skills they need to do their job at a high level. This might be someone without a lot of experience or someone who hasn’t been in the role long. The best course of action to take with an employee in quadrant one is to invest in training or coaching to develop the person’s skill set.

Quadrant 2: Delegate – High will, high skill

Someone who lands in quadrant two of the skill vs. will matrix is a person who has both the motivation and the skills needed to do a good job. These are typically your high performers. The best way to manage someone in quadrant two is to delegate responsibilities; give people in this quadrant something to do and get out of their way.

Quadrant 3: Direct – Low will, low skill

Individuals who land in this category have neither the skill nor the will to do the job at a high level. Employees in this quadrant can pose a challenge to managers. The best way to handle an employee who lands in this category is to closely and actionably direct them. Give them specific instructions and tell them exactly how and when you want something done. Work to see if this person is coachable or has the capacity for increased motivation. In extreme circumstances, you might consider letting them go.

Quadrant 4: Excite – Low will, high skill

Someone with low will and high skill isn’t engaged in their work. They have the skills to be successful in their role but for one reason or another, they aren’t motivated to put in the effort. Maybe this person isn’t being challenged or maybe the work just isn’t exciting enough. Whatever the reason, as this person’s manager, it’s your job to find ways to motivate and get this person excited about their work.

How to create sales motivation when skill alone isn’t cutting it

In most sales jobs, employees who land in quadrants three and four of the skill vs. will matrix will struggle to succeed in their role long-term – unless their deficiencies are recognized and remedied quickly.  That’s where you, as a sales leader, come into the picture.

Here are some tried-and-true techniques for motivating reps when their natural “will” just isn’t cutting it.

Set S.M.A.R.T Goals

Sales goals are often closely tied to sales performance and incentive compensation. They also help you to highlight important sales behaviors and outcomes for your team. But while most sales organizations rely on goal-setting as a means of motivating their teams, some goals are more effective motivators than others.

If you’re not sure how effective your sales goals are, use the S.M.A.R.T. goal framework as your benchmark.

  • Are your goals (S)pecific enough? If the only goal you give your team is a quota, you may need to get more specific and set goals around the sales activities you want to drive – like the number of calls made per day and meetings booked.
  • Are your goals (M)easurable? Attach a number to each of your goals and make sure it’s something you can easily track.
  • Are your goals (A)ttainable? Is your team struggling to hit goals because of their performance, or are your goals unrealistic? As a leader, it can be tempting to constantly set stretch goals in an effort to motivate your team. But as a team member, feeling like you’re constantly underperforming can have the exact opposite effect.
  • Are your goals (R)elevant? Do your goals correlate with the organization’s overarching goals? Or, are your team’s goals created in a silo, separate from the organization’s goals? Without tight alignment with the rest of your organization, goals can feel meaningless to the employees tasked with achieving them. Ensure sales reps have goals relevant not only to their individual roles but also to the big-picture success of the company. 
  • Are your goals tied to a specific (T)ime period? Associate clear timelines and deadlines with all of your goals. Again, make sure that meeting these timelines is realistic and attainable but properly challenging for your sales teams. 

Create purpose

There are two types of motivators – intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivators are things that motivate from the outside. Common extrinsic motivators in sales are things like compensation, prestige, and power. The problem with extrinsic motivators is that their impact is short-lived; when someone receives the reward of an extrinsic motivator, they’re initially satisfied but revert to square one relatively quickly.

Intrinsic motivators, on the other hand, come from within oneself and relate to someone’s personal values. These are things like productivity, purpose, mastery, and autonomy. Research shows that intrinsic motivators last longer and actually do a better job at driving employee satisfaction than extrinsic motivators.

Purpose, in particular, drives our actions and impacts how we feel, both at work and at home. When employees feel like their work has meaning and a greater purpose, it positively impacts their attitude and performance.

To understand if you’re successfully creating a sense of purpose for your sales team, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does my team understand the organization’s vision and mission?
  • Do they understand how their contributions and goals impact the larger organization?
  • Do they see how daily actions help them achieve their goals?
  • Do you share the “why” behind big decisions?

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Build trust

In life, it’s hard to invest time and effort into a person or organization you don’t trust to have your best interest in mind. The same goes for your sales organization. If you haven’t prioritized building a culture of trust between sales leadership and sales reps, it’s time to start.

So, how do you foster a culture of trust on your sales team? Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix or life hack that will help build trust instantly. But, over time, if you stay true to your word, and act with transparency, your team will begin to trust you.  Here are a few of our top tips for earning the trust of your team:

  • Be transparent. Act with transparency even if it means saying the hard things. It’s never easy to discipline or call out someone’s poor performance, but doing so directly and without mincing words will help to build trust. Your team will know that you’re always shooting straight with them, without an ulterior motive or hidden agenda, even when it’s difficult.
  • Put your trust in your reps. When you don’t trust your team to do their work, you’re more likely to question their actions, micro-manage them, and apply constant pressure on them to perform. As time goes on, this pressure can cause reps to crack – which reinforces your lack of trust in them, even though your management style was the real problem. In this way, starting from a place of mistrust can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Assume the best in people. It’s easy to create stories in your head about how or why someone behaves the way they do, especially when their behavior impacts you negatively. But the reality is that no one wants to be bad at their job, and therefore there’s usually an innocent explanation for poor performance – lack of resources, misunderstanding, or miscommunication. Jumping to conclusions and acting out of frustration will prevent you from getting to the root of the problem.
  • Seek out feedback. Asking your team for feedback shows you value their input and understand you’re not perfect. This creates less of a divide between manager and team.

Having a team that trusts you only makes your coaching and direction more impactful. In fact, research shows trust in leaders is the highest-ranked factor linked to employee engagement at 77%. It’s even higher than traditional motivators like organizational culture (73%) or opportunities for career growth (66%).

Recognize good work

Sales isn’t an easy job – reps who have both the skills and motivation to be successful (according to the skill vs. will matrix above) are a rare find. So, when you do see a member of your team who has the motivation and drive to close deals, make sure you call it out.

Recognition is a huge motivator and plays a role in driving many of the other motivators we’ve already discussed. Here are some small steps you can take to make your recognition more meaningful.

  • Recognize both big and small wins. In order to reinforce the right behaviors in sales, it’s important to celebrate small wins on the path to bigger ones. Pay attention to small improvements and recognize growth on your team. Make sure your team knows you’re paying attention and recognizing those successes.
  • Recognize both publicly and privately. Human beings are all wired differently. What’s meaningful to one rep might not be as meaningful to another. That’s why it’s important to recognize your team in public and in private. For some, the public recognition will be a huge accomplishment. For others, the one-on-one feedback might hold more importance.
  • Be specific about your recognition. When praising someone for good work, be sure to give specific feedback about why their performance was exemplary. General praise can feel empty or hard to replicate. Specific praise gives your team something to reproduce or replicate later on.

Review your commission plans

In sales, compensation plays a critical role in both a salesperson’s performance and the way they feel about their work. If you’re struggling to motivate your team, take a look at your sales commission plans and ask yourself:

  • Are your plans motivating the right behaviors?
  • Is compensation tied to the most meaningful metrics?
  • Is it too easy or too hard for your reps to earn a desirable wage?

Remember, the main purpose of employment is to bring home a paycheck. If your compensation plans aren’t created with motivation in mind, you might see motivation levels start to slip. We know money isn’t everything, but it’d be disingenuous to say it isn’t an important piece of the puzzle. 

Provide access to critical information

Information is powerful if leveraged in the right ways. For sales leaders, providing your team with access to the right information at the right time will allow you to unlock new levels of motivation on your team.

Consider what types of information your team needs throughout any given day, week, or sales cycle. You might be thinking about intent data, buying signals, contact information, or behavioral events – as all of these data points are what we’d classify as important information for sales reps.

The timing with which you deliver this information is equally important as the data itself. After all, if you receive an intent signal after an organization has already decided to buy from your biggest competitor, that piece of information is no longer of use to your team.

With this in mind, we recommend partnering up with your sales enablement and RevOps teams to do the following.

  • Review your team’s notifications. What types of notifications does your team get on a normal day? If you’re not paying close attention, notifications can pile up and become distracting, eliminating their entire purpose. Save notifications for only the most important data points.
  • Build out dashboards. Poll your teams to see what information they have the hardest time accessing. Then work with the necessary parties to create new dashboards that make it easier for them to have the right information at their fingertips.
  • Consider your tech stack. Do you equip your teams with the right tools? When you introduce a new piece of technology, does it make an immediate impact or is your team confused on how and why to use it? The line between a good tech stack and a bad tech stack is thin – especially considering the sheer amount of technology available to teams today.

Leverage technology to maintain motivation

A sales rep’s motivation often increases as they get closer to winning a deal. After all, that’s often when they’re rewarded for the work they put into each sales cycle. But what if there was a way to help your reps maintain that same level of motivation throughout the entire process, from the very beginning?

You can do so by leveraging incentive compensation management technology that gives reps visibility into their upcoming earnings. When reps can see how close they are to full quota attainment and what potential commission they’ll earn for open opportunities – all in real-time – then their rewards become more tangible than hypothetical, and they’ll be that much more motivated to earn them.

Consider the skills vs. will matrix and start adjusting your enablement

Not every sales rep is going to be both exceptionally skilled and exceptionally motivated. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take measures to positively influence both. While you likely have skill-based sales training in place, don’t neglect the fact that will and motivation can also be improved. Analyze your sales enablement strategy and identify ways to not only make your reps more effective sellers but also more motivated sellers.

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