The myths behind pushy salespeople

Leonardo DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, from Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures. TWOWS-FF-001
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

What does it take to be a good salesperson? There’s a wide range of responses. Most reflect what you’d expect to find in the Boy Scout Handbook, with commonly cited traits like modesty, listening, curiosity, achievement orientation, and lack of discouragement. In pop culture, it’s a different story. Salespeople are represented by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio’s flamboyant character in The Wolf of Wall Street, who addresses a group on how to make a sale by challenging them to “sell me this pen.” And popular business author Dan Pink comes at it from yet another angle, touting a personality study which claims that “ambiverts” (people neither extremely introverted or extroverted) sell best.

These traits are so broad that, at best, they simply say that people tend to do business with people they like (but not always and not as often as many sales trainers assume). At worst, they recycle the old cynical description of a salesperson as someone who practices “the art of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it.” In both cases, they’re stereotypes — formulaic and hackneyed images that obscure the realities.

For the realities, look at successful entrepreneurs—most of whom, in early-stage ventures, must sell—and their diverse paths. Jim Koch, for instance, went from bar to bar with six packs of beer to get Sam Adams started. Larry Ellison adopted famously aggressive sales tactics when he started Oracle Technology, a business where, if you win, you win a long-term contract and a string of licensing fees, and if you lose, you’re out of that account for years. It pays to be aggressive in that situation. But Mary Kay Ash focused her cosmetics salespeople on a combination of visible incentives (the signature pink Cadillacs), the intrinsic rewards and constant celebration of female achievement (when outlets for such achievements were more limited), and the kinder and gentler power of social networks.

In short, sales talent comes in all temperaments, because selling jobs vary greatly, from the products sold and the customers encountered to the relative importance of technical knowledge as opposed to relationship-building. Studies have examined emotional and rational appeals, product versus personal selling approaches, qualities like “emotional intelligence,” and demographics (e.g., age, education, years of sales experience), and they find no clear cause-and-effect links between personality and sales success.

Selling effectiveness is not a generalized trait. It’s a function of the sales task. These conclusions have financial, social, and governance implications. Most firms spend more on sales than any other area. Across industries, salesperson turnover is about 25% annually, which means that the equivalent of the entire sales organization must be hired and trained about every four years in many firms. That’s a lot of money and effort, so beware the sales guru with the all-purpose assessment tool or training methodology.

And think about the criteria used by managers in hiring and training. Research indicates a weak link (typically, less than 25%) between interview predictions (with or without personality tests) and job success, especially in sales, where many managers hire in their own image because “how I did it is the way to do it.” The best results, however, occur when tryouts trump interviews, which is why some firms pay job candidates to spend several weeks working on a project before making a hiring decision.

There are also societal implications. About 14 million people have sales jobs in the U.S., and this ignores the millions more who are called associates or managing directors, but who sell for a living. Unfounded stereotypes block paths for many people who could do the job, but never get a chance due to a blinkered assessment tool or unfounded assumption about having “the right personality” for the job.

Finally, a warning to executives and board members. If you are evaluating sales numbers, the facts about selling should motivate you to examine and ask questions right now about the part sales tasks play in your strategy in order to avoid being misled by glib generalizations about selling. The sales task, not a mythical “sales personality,” is the place to start to improve top-line performance and big resource allocations in your firm. One size does not fit all.

Frank Cespedes teaches at Harvard Business School and is the author of “Aligning Strategy and Sales: The Choices, Systems, and Behaviors that Drive Effective Selling” (Harvard Business Review Press).

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