I harbor a nagging suspicion that Harvard Business Review (HBR) is secretly buying its content from The Onion. I think so for myriad reasons, many of which have inspired posts in this very blog. But one of HBR’s recent missives seems intended to remove all doubt: “How to Predict Turnover on Your Sales Team“. To keep this post shorter than the Manhattan phone book, we’ll only examine a handful of this beauty’s statements of the obvious and leaps of illogic.

Let’s Start Here
  • “Every time a solid performer leaves, his or her company faces a number of direct and indirect costs.”
  • “If managers could identify good salespeople who are at risk of quitting and take steps to retain them, their companies could realize substantial savings.”
  • “In companies without much variation in performance, people are less likely to feel challenged.”
  • “High-performing salespeople were less likely than average performers to quit (managers did a good job keeping their stars happy), but so were low performers (their poor showing limited their opportunities at other firms).”
  • “An individual’s attitudes and intentions are heavily influenced by his or her environment.”

I read those statements 2,647 times. I know that because I actually went to Walmart and bought a tally counter to keep track of how many times I read them. And I read them so many times because I was afraid I was missing something. If not, these statements are so screamingly obvious that anyone who worked a private-sector job for more than 20 minutes would know them to be true.

Don’t Go Away

After my thumb got tired of clicking my tally counter, I read on. That’s when things got really perplexing:

Exhibit A: “U.S. firms spend $15 billion a year training salespeople and another $800 billion on incentives, and attrition reduces the return on those investments.”

I get that training salespeople who quit constitutes a wasted investment. But if sales incentives are paid as percentages of sale revenues, how do those incentives constitute investments? And if they’re paid for revenue realized, how can they be considered losses?

Exhibit B: The researchers examined more than two years’ worth of data from a Fortune 500 telecommunications company that sells consumer electronics and software services … The researchers studied data on 6,727 salespeople working in 1,058 stores

Okay. So, the research covered one particular retail chain. Should we therefore deduce its results render sales turnover in industries other than retail predictable? Call me skeptical.

Exhibit C: Managers should pay careful attention to peer effects and consider conducting interventions in settings with little performance variation among employees and ones with rising levels of turnover … managers might routinely rely on data-driven dashboards labeling employees as being at high, moderate, or low risk of quitting. They could then decide which members of the high-risk group warrant interventions to help them stay put.

Since I’m a fan of TV programs like Intervention and Hoarders (this one frequently features family members and friends conducting interventions in attempts to convince the hoarders to trash their trash), I love the idea of retail managers conducting interventions with their sales people: “We’ve been watching your performance in our dashboards for months, Herb. And we all love you. But we just can’t let your addiction to commissions ruin our lives any longer. So, if you’ll agree to get the help we’re offering you today, we’ll pay you more. But, for God’s sake, Man — DON’T QUIT!”

He Who Laughs Last …

It’s great fun to mock HBR, the tripe it publishes, and the so-called research it wants us to find meaningful. It’s a hoot to have a laugh at HBR’s expense. But it’s fair to assume we’re not the only ones laughing. More than 280,000 print subscribers x $99 a year buys a fair amount of jocularity. And if you don’t think the brain trust at HBR is laughing all the way to the bank, you’re fooling yourself.

A word to the wise: If you peel the layers of HBR’s onion, be prepared to find yourself crying.