Dependent as companies are for top-line growth on the selection, assessment, and development of their sales people, they naturally invest a good deal of time, budget, and mental energy in the process. But how effective are we at absorbing scientific learnings about what determines success in a sales role?
When we ask sales directors what they look for in potential recruits, they place a lot of emphasis on the rapport established during the interview process. After all, the argument runs, this person needs to be able to establish great relationships with our customers. Hence, the enduring mystery of why so many pleasant, affable, ‘natural’ sales people perform brilliantly at interview but disastrously in their role: while building rapport is important, research from CEB in the US tells us that if sales people are defined by their emphasis on building relationships, then they are unlikely to be high performers. Why? Because this emphasis means that they tend to yield rather than challenge the customer or take control of the sale.
We see sales recruiters frequently put candidates through personality tests that measure dimensions of personality originally conceived by Karl Jung. When asked what they look for in potential sales people, recruiters frequently cite extraversion. Surely, high performing sales people need to be outgoing types if they’re going to put themselves out there and establish a rapport with the customer, don’t they? The evidence suggests otherwise. Research by Adam Grant at the University of Pennsylvania tells us that high extroverts perform just as poorly as high introverts. Why? Because high extroverts are poor listeners, often talking over the customer.
So are there tests that predict high performance in sales? The answer is yes, but oddly, they are little used. For example, Martin Seligman’s research focuses on ‘optimism’; in this context ‘optimism’ defines how we explain events to ourselves. For sales people, this is particularly important in the context of negative events. If we explain negative events to ourselves as either personal (‘I’m not cut out for this’) or permanent (‘Nobody’s ever going to buy this product’), then those sentiments will become self-fulfilling. Sales people with a pessimistic explanatory style often fall into avoidant mode, finding anything they can to soak up their time rather than expose themselves to more negativity. Seligman took a team of rejects from the selection process of the Metropolitan Life insurance company and tested them for optimism. Those with the highest levels were put to work at the company, where they outperformed the successful candidates.
Secondly, we can examine ‘grit’ as developed by Angela Lee Duckworth. ‘Grit’ describes the determination to succeed and push for long-term goals. Duckworth’s study of sales people in a vacation ownership corporation showed that those who scored higher on grit were less likely to quit and earned higher commissions.
This science suggests that someone with a high pre-existing level of optimism and grit will perform well in sales. These are what we sometimes call ‘natural’ sales people, those with an impermeably thick skin that persist regardless of the amount of rejection or adversity they experience.
The good news is that this can be developed. Whether or you call it optimism, grit, mental toughness or cognitive hardness, everybody can grow in this area with the right development interventions, so long as you have what Carol Dweck refers to as a ‘growth mindset’ rather than a fixed one. While training and development interventions for sales people tend to revolve around sales skills and techniques, our understanding is that most experienced sales people know their way around these skills but simply don’t put them into practice. Why not? Because they have not been trained in the cognitive skills of trying things outside their comfort zone and persisting in the face of adversity.
Whether with teams of desk agents selling transactional telecoms products or with senior account directors for global software companies, we have accumulated real evidence that developing the mindset of sales people through a combination of workshops and coaching really does lift performance. It is not an overnight shift, but the black art of sales performance is beginning to be illuminated by psychology and neuroscience.
About the author
Ian Price, author of The Activity Illusion and CEO-turned-business-psychologist, is an expert in the psychology and neuroscience of selling. Following a degree in English from Magdalen College, Oxford, he began his career with strategy consultants LEK before moving into the telecoms industry. Mr Price has an MSc in Organisational Behaviour and is a member of the Association of Business Psychologists. In March 2015 he became an Honorary Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales.
Mr Price is co-founder of Sales-Mind, a sales team development consultancy that has delivered workshops and coaching to sales teams across a range of industries and geographies since 2012. Clients include PWC, BT, BP, De Vere Venues, and CA Technologies.