Sellers experiencing drag are plagued by workday boredom and distraction. They procrastinate. They “go through the motions” to satisfy activity-tracking requirements. Meanwhile, progress on true priorities languishes. Essentially, drag is demotivation away from work. But it’s more than just an unpleasant experience: Drag is statistically associated with lower quota attainment and higher levels of active job searching. The authors’ research suggests that leaders who properly diagnose and address drag will see greater improvements in seller retention and commercial performance.
To get deals over the line in today’s high-pressure sales environment, sellers must undertake new, challenging activities outside their comfort zones. The ongoing need for agility is taking its toll: In a recent Gartner survey of more than 900 B2B sellers, 89% report feeling burned out and 54% report actively job seeking.
Sales leaders recognize the acute talent challenge on their hands, particularly in the era of catchily named, viral workplace trends (looking at you, quiet quitting). They clutch the old playbook in the hopes of finding some way to motivate their people by making tweaks to compensation, recognition, and reward.
The problem is, nearly six in 10 sellers describe the leadership of their sales organization as not understanding what “really” motivates sellers.
Seller Drive Isn’t The Issue
Through our research, we were surprised to learn that motivation toward work is not the problem.
In fact, 76% of sellers report high levels of motivation toward work, or what we call drive. Sellers experiencing drive are mentally engaged, ready to take action, and persistent in the face of obstacles. Drive is an important predictor of seller success and a natural focus of sales leaders. As one might expect, higher drive is associated with higher quota attainment.
So if three in four sellers report high levels of drive, then how can they also be burned out and looking for a new job? Blame another lesser-known character lurking in the seller motivation story – an evil twin of sorts whom we’ve come to call drag.
Drive’s Evil Twin: Drag
Sellers experiencing drag are plagued by workday boredom and distraction. They procrastinate. They “go through the motions” to satisfy activity-tracking requirements. Meanwhile, progress on true priorities languishes.
Essentially, drag is demotivation away from work. But it’s more than just an unpleasant experience: Drag is statistically associated with lower quota attainment and higher levels of active job searching.
High-drag sellers are more likely to be job hunting. We found that 70% of high-drag sellers report actively looking for new job opportunities, compared to only 7% of low-drag sellers. Between an open territory, hiring expenses, and ramp time, seller turnover is costly. Not only are high-drag sellers more likely to leave, but their performance suffers as well. Relatively speaking, mean quota attainment is 1.7 times higher for low-drag (vs. high-drag) sellers.
On the whole, drag predicts worse performance and increased intent to leave. What’s most concerning about drag, however, is that even sellers with high drive aren’t immune to its effects.
Sellers Feel Conflicted
The dynamics of seller motivation are complex. For many sellers, both drive and drag resonate with their day-to-day work experience.
According to sellers we interviewed, although some aspects of the job can be engaging — especially live interactions with customers and colleagues — others can be a real drag. Our survey results confirmed it: While more than three out of every four sellers have high drive, 83% of sellers report medium or high levels of drag.
The subjective experience of drag is hardly cold and clinical. Sellers we spoke to often expressed frustration with leadership’s failure to act on their concerns. This begs the question: Why aren’t leaders doing more about this?
Unfortunately, it turns out they’re simply going about it the wrong way. Sales leaders tend to chase marginal increases in drive via compensation and recognition. But our research suggests that leaders who properly diagnose and address drag will see greater improvements in seller retention and commercial performance.
Diagnose and Reduce Drag
Drag is a symptom of deeper organizational issues. The good news? That’s precisely what makes it so treatable. Our analysis shows that two of the biggest and most common contributors to drag are a lack of career development opportunities and feeling like a cog in a machine. Ultimately, however, the most important causes of drag can vary by organization.
The first step to diagnose drag in any sales organization is to move beyond periodic skip-level meetings, climate surveys, or manager feedback. These standard approaches can often lead to misdiagnosis, encouraging leaders to treat the surface level symptoms of drag rather than its underlying causes.
Lever, a small HR software organization selling talent acquisition solutions, undertook a co-investigation alongside sellers to increase engagement and curb attrition. Their comprehensive diagnostic approach is credited with a reduction in seller attrition, down from double digits to only 3% year to date. Their work highlighted four essential steps in effectively understanding and solving unique sources of seller drag:
Tailor a collaborative investigation process.
Any approach to soliciting seller input should incorporate multiple channels to provide honest feedback, including at least one avenue to do so anonymously. At Lever, a mix of focus groups, guided discussions, and surveys ensured that sellers could share specific pain points and also benefit from the perspective of their peers, clarifying which issues were potentially systemic.
Synthesize seller feedback to uncover unstated needs.
Lever sellers met in small groups to discuss common pain points and decide which to prioritize in their reporting. Leadership consolidated input to distill key overarching themes and further investigate root causes of particularly consequential issues. Interestingly, leaders did not put the onus on sellers to make a business case for fixing each concern raised. Instead, sellers were asked to rate the impact on either the customer experience and/or their own employee experience.
Develop a mixed-project portfolio.
Lever used an investment portfolio approach to analyze and prioritize the relative costs and benefits of each potential project according to time horizon, risk, and impact (on both the seller experience and the customer experience). The final project mix was selected based on urgency, visibility, and resource intensity to achieve optimal return on investment over time.
Maximize seller buy-in by being transparent.
Lever’s next step was to begin developing shared project dashboards to document rationale for which drag-reduction efforts to prioritize and implement. Progress updates in the implementation stage serve to further signal leadership’s commitment to improving the seller experience.
Cutting Through The Fog of Career Development
Fifty-nine percent of sellers report having trouble envisioning a clear and attainable career path within their sales organization. Those sellers who perceive a lack of career development opportunities tend to experience higher levels of drag.
High-drag sellers are in turn up to 35% less likely to attain quota and up to 51% more likely to be actively job-seeking than their low-drag counterparts. To reduce seller drag, sales leadership must address the risk and uncertainty that accompanies career movement at many organizations.
Unfortunately, sellers looking to branch out within their organization typically have limited knowledge of available alternatives. Traditionally, sellers have climbed a vertical career ladder, graduating to bigger or better accounts, segments or goals — perhaps even moving into management. This trajectory tends to afford limited opportunity to flex and stretch across a wide range of relevant competencies.
To address these common shortcomings, one approach is to develop a “career lattice.”
A career lattice incorporates traditional career path advancement, but adds more opportunities to gain experience and skills training in related, parallel roles. It clarifies role responsibilities using consistent language to describe skill requirements and allowing sellers to assess skill transferability.
The very existence of a career lattice signals a commitment to helping employees envision a bright future within the organization, but lattices are hardly the only way to signal a genuine investment in seller development.
FedEx’s European sales group understood that limited career development opportunities can jeopardize seller engagement. Merely offering clear options may not be enough — for many sellers, internal career exploration feels reputationally risky.
To address these concerns, FedEx changed how they structured their seller leadership academy. Under the new program, selected applicants could test drive a management role before fully committing, with no penalty for opting out and remaining in a frontline sales role. Unselected applicants were provided with supplemental development opportunities and individual coaching to help position them for success in the next application cycle, further mitigating perceived risk.
FedEx didn’t limit program eligibility to a hand-selected few. Instead, they changed how they identified leadership academy candidates: Rather than requiring nomination from a manager, sellers could now signal their career aspirations and commitment by applying independently. According to FedEx’s European Sales VP, the Sales Leadership Academy (SLA) has been a valuable tool for the next generation of sellers:
“When we look at why people leave, it’s the lack of development opportunities. Through SLA, we’ve seen a reduction in turnover as SLA prevents other firms from poaching talent, and there has been improvement in seller engagement as well.”
Leaders might question expanding career development opportunities if those opportunities make it easier for sellers to leave the sales organization. But our research shows that sellers who feel locked into a particular career path are more likely to look for outside job opportunities. Furthermore, their pre-resignation performance might also suffer, leading to lost revenue.
Fifty-six percent of sellers report feeling like a cog in a machine, while 76% feel that sales leadership dictates how to meet their sales objectives. Sellers experiencing drag from feeling like a cog in a machine are up to 34% less likely to achieve quota and up to 44% more likely to be actively job seeking.
Many sales organizations believe standardized, repeatable sales plays limit risk, minimize skill gaps, boost aggregate performance, and generate predictable revenue. But this approach may leave sellers feeling that they have little control over their work, providing scarcely any real value.
To reduce this source of drag, leaders should empower sellers by encouraging them to solve customer problems and improve business processes. Successful seller empowerment efforts are guided by three principles:
Meaningful work. Ensure opportunities will have a material impact for either the organization or the customer.
Guardrails. Limit risks associated with seller innovation by setting clear boundaries through scoping, seller enablement, and a systematic review process.
Exportability. Harness the impact of successful seller insights through formal implementation or productization of promising new ideas.
SAGE, an academic publishing company, took a seller empowerment approach rooted in these principles to address seller frustration and disengagement arising from the inability to meet customer product needs.
SAGE asked sellers to propose modifications to SAGE’s product set. First, sellers drafted an initial product brief linking the new proposed offering to an unmet client need. Next, cross-functional partners worked with the seller to vet and further develop the proposal. High-potential solutions were turned into products and in turn, introduced to the market.
Sales leaders have long relied on seller drive to carry the day. But the focus must shift to drag and its outsized impact on commercial results.