The Challenge of Overreliance on Sales Stars, and What To Do About It

31 Aug 21

Relying too much on top performers has many pitfalls. You'll get the best return on your sales coaching investment by 'moving the middle.'

Many sales organizations have become overly reliant on their top sales performers to achieve their goals. While it is convenient to say that we “hit our number” at the end of the quarter, the fact that a few top performers carried the team presents numerous challenges. Among the potential pitfalls:

  • Top performer(s) having a bad quarter.
  • Losing a top performer to the competition.
  • Making it acceptable for other members of the sales team to underperform.
  • Failing to help your team reach its full potential.

According to’s State of Sales Report (third edition), 57% of sales reps surveyed said they expect to miss their quota. While this may seem discouraging, it actually presents an opportunity for sales managers to grow and develop their teams.

In our sales management research report, 5 Hallmarks of High-Impact Sales Teams, we found that managers with the highest performing teams (i.e., teams on which 75% or more of reps achieved quota) spent significantly more time coaching than managers of lower performing teams. In fact, sales coaching was the number one reason cited by respondents for achieving higher quotas.

Sales coaching is powerful because it creates tremendous leverage and allows managers to shift from being the “chief problem solver” to empowering their sales teams to solve their own problems. Good coaching starts by creating a culture of continuous learning and development. It is a collaborative effort in which managers and their reps identify specific sales skills for improvement and create customized coaching plans focused on those skills.

Since their coaching time is limited, managers need to think through how they are going to allocate their coaching time. Unfortunately, managers often spend far too much time focused on chronic underperformers and neglect top performers. After all, the top performers are doing well on their own. Striking the right balance begins by prioritizing your middle performers.

As an example, if you manage a team of eight sales reps with two top performers, four average performers, and two consistently low performers, you can have the greatest impact on team performance by “moving the middle.” Your average performing reps have demonstrated that they have reasonably good selling skills, and even a slight improvement in their performance can have a significant impact on the team’s overall results. A good guideline is that 60% of your coaching time should be spent with your middle performers.

Your next best coaching ROI is likely to come from your top performers, to whom you should allocate about 25% of your coaching time. These “superstars” will benefit not only from your coaching, but also from your acknowledgement and appreciation of their work. You can also empower your top performers to take on increased responsibility as they further develop their skills.

Finally, you should spend up to 10% of your coaching time with your lowest performers. It is important to recognize that there may be significant skill gaps and motivational challenges that coaching of underperformers cannot address. It is essential to set clear performance expectations and to shift your focus from “coaching” to “performance management” if needed.

One additional consideration is coaching newly hired reps, who should receive considerable coaching time during their first six months to learn about your industry, your offerings, competitive positioning, and selling skills. Depending on their experience levels, you should try to leverage additional training resources to help with the onboarding and development of new reps, because skills coaching is only one aspect of their path to success.

Creating a coaching culture and taking the time to “move the middle” through sales coaching leads to higher sales. It also improves morale and reduces the risk of relying too much on your “superstars” to achieve sales goals.

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