What Truly Divides The Best Sales Reps From The Pack

January 26, 2016 Geoffrey Walters

'Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.'—Thomas Henry Huxley

When we think of successful salespeople, we tend to think in stereotypes. If we were asked what type of person made a good salesman, those of us who like to think we are up to date with current sales trends would no doubt say: 'The challenger!' Others of us may be more general and say: 'The extrovert!'

Both of these answers are based on stereotypes about what makes a great salesperson. We think of the dominating, domineering motormouth, the social butterfly, the man in the suit with the twinkle in his eye who won’t take no for an answer. But think about how many successful salespeople there are in the world: are they all extroverted challenger-types?

Let’s examine both terms and separate fact from preconception about what makes a great salesperson.

The Challenger

The Challenger

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As we’ve covered before, the challenger sales method is statistically the most successful. There’s no argument there. Where’s the misconception then? The confusion arises when we skip a step and say that, because the challenger method has been proven the most successful, everyone should then adopt it.

Think about the traits a challenger has to exhibit: expert knowledge, an ability to challenge the client’s preconceptions and teach them something new, a love of debate. For that, they have to have self-confidence coupled with an air of gravitas. That’s easy when you’re in your forties or fifties and have been in the business a long time, but how practicable is the challenger sale for younger salespeople?

Speaking at Sales Stack 2015, leading sales consultant John Barrows poured scorn on the idea of asking young salespeople to use the challenger method:

'I love the challenger sale, but I’m sorry, at 22 years old, you can’t be a challenger. Period! I’m sorry, don’t even try! You’re going to sit there and tell me how to do my business at 22 years old when I’ve been in business for 30 years? You’re out of your mind!'

Barrows’s message is simple: We can’t all be challengers. But if the statistically most successful sales method simply isn’t available for us, how can we be a success without it?

The Real Challenge: Motivation

Motivation

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Firstly, we need to move away from looking at types of salespeople—challengers, lone wolves, relationship builders—and look at the psychological makeup of a great salesperson, independent from which technique they happen to use. What makes a great salesperson tick, and how does that differ from an average salesman?

Nick Hedges, president and CEO of Velocify, found that only 20% of salesman tend to exceed their quota on the average team, meaning that, generally speaking, 80% of reps miss their quota on a regular basis. He and Professor Steve W. Martin of USC conducted a study of hundreds of salespeople from a wide range of businesses to see what characteristics the top sellers had in common.

Hedges distilled their findings down to four main characteristics that defined the best salespeople in their survey. The first was that the top performers commit to much higher standards than the average performers. Half of over-performing reps said they 'strongly agreed' that they are held accountable for hitting quotas, while only 26% of underperforming reps said the same.

The second characteristic was that the top reps were heavily incentivised. Hedges and Martin found that companies that meet or exceed quota are 48% less likely to cap compensation than companies that achieve less than 50%. This shows that some of the onus of creating a good salesperson falls on the company itself—if they create the right environment, it is easier for the rep to flourish.

The third factor was again to do with the company environment: that the reps believed in their company and leadership. The survey found that high-performing sales reps ranked their companies more highly than did reps that were not performing as well.

Successful reps also looked for different qualities in their leaders: whereas average performers looked for 'product and industry knowledge,' top reps went for 'experience.' The suggestion is that underperforming reps lack product and industry knowledge themselves, a massive hindrance when it comes to selling.

The fourth characteristic in Hedges and Martin’s study was organization. Top performers would have a fairly regimented process, operating the same way from customer to customer. Lower performers, on the other hand, were more likely to chop and change their routine, unable to find a streamlined process that worked.

All four of these factors are achievable no matter what your personality; they do not require the challenger method to be put into practice. What is required is an informed, organised rep who is setting the bar high for themselves, encouraged by incentives and backed by an experienced leadership.

So while the challenger method is undoubtedly an excellent method, there are other things you can do to improve your sales if the challenger does not fit your personality.

And to go back to the Huxley quote: always be willing to learn. The advertising, marketing and sales consultant Phil Bernstein has a nice anecdote about a piece of advice he was given that turned his career in radio sales around. Having chased a particular client for six months and presented him with three proposals without success, Bernstein called Jeffrey Mayer, whom he had just hired as a sales coach, and informed him of his desperate situation. Mayer’s reaction surprised him.

'Hold his business card over the speaker, and tear it up,' said the sales coach.

Bernstein felt liberated by getting rid of this time-wasting client, and it turned his fortunes as a salesperson around. But he was able to do this because he was willing to listen to a voice of experience, as all top salespeople do.

Extroverts

Extrovert

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The classic image of the successful salesman is someone with the gift of the gab, a sparkle in their eye, who’s at home in any company, who’s able to spin a yarn, who can talk a sale out of anyone. In short, great salespeople are all extroverts, aren’t they?

Well, no, they aren’t.

As reported by the Washington Post, a 2013 study by the University of Iowa showed that, after a meta-analysis of 35 studies covering nearly 4,000 salespeople, there was a correlation of just 0.07 between extroversion and sales performance—in practical terms, that’s as good as no correlation at all.

Plus, look at that description I just gave of the archetypal, extrovert salesperson. For a lot of people, that could be interchangeable with the description of a con man. As Trent Hand of LifeHack noted in his article Why Introverts Make The Best Salespeople:

'[C]ustomers become very suspicious of someone who is constantly smiling, laughing, joking and talking—we all have an inherent ‘B.S. meter’ that flares up anytime someone begins talking too much. It’s quite a turn-off, and not conducive to making a customer want to buy.'

Hand believes that while extroverts tend to 'wing it,' introverts are more likely to study a product deeply, to get to know its strengths and weaknesses—and therefore to be more likely to make a sale at the end of the day. Introverts also tend to be better listeners, 'scanning their knowledge to judge whether or not they can help you with their offering.'

In an article in the Harvard Business Review based on his aforementioned survey with Nick Hedges, Steve W. Martin writes that one trait of a successful salesperson was verbal acuity—that is, the ability to communicate with a customer on a level that is clearly understood by that customer. 'For a salesman to establish credibility, it requires that messages be conveyed at the recipient’s communication level, not too far below the level of the words that the customer uses,' says Martin.

Introverts, being more inclined to listen rather than talk over the customer, find verbal acuity far easier to master.

Ambiversion, False Dichotomies And The ‘Perfect’ Sales Rep

Ambivert

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In fact, the introvert/extrovert dichotomy should really be put to bed when it comes to sales, because most people are neither one nor the other. Psychotherapist Marti Olsen Laney says that introverts and extroverts lie at opposite ends of the 'energy continuum,' with the majority of people falling somewhere in the middle. So if you’ve been labelled an introvert or an extrovert, the chances are you’re neither.

As Leslie Ye points out in her Hubspot article Are Extroverts Or Introverts Better Salespeople, there are also misconceptions about the nature of extroverts and introverts:

'Extroverts aren’t all social butterflies, and introverts aren’t necessarily shy. In fact, the extraversion-introversion divide isn’t about personality at all. The distinction is defined by where people get their energy from—other people, or solitude. Introverts gain energy by being alone, while extroverts are invigorated by social situations.'

And the happy conclusion for all of you ambiverts—that is, people who fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum—is that you make the best salespeople. A study by Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, found that the most 'ambiverted' reps brought in $208 per hour for their companies, whereas introverts and extroverts brought in $127 and $115 respectively.

The One Thing That Sets Great Salespeople Apart

So having seen the myths that you have to be a challenger and you have to be an extrovert debunked, the question remains: Is there any one quality you really do have to have to be a successful salesperson?

Lisa Earle McLeod would tell you that a sense of purpose is the single quality that sets apart the great salespeople from the average. In her book Selling With Noble Purpose: How To Drive Revenue And Do Work That Makes You Proud, McLeod examines data that emerged from a study done by a major biotech firm. The data revealed that their top sales performers had a far greater sense of purpose than their underperforming colleagues.

McLeod says that, if the focus is purely on making profit, the customer is dehumanised:

'Customers are no longer human beings. They are anonymous targets and prospects whose sole purpose is to help the company make money. That kind of language creates a culture that says, we don’t exist to do something for our customers; customers exist to do something for us.'

One example she gives in her book of the success of transitioning to a noble purpose is that of Meridian Systems, whose original slogan focused on 'becoming the number one provider of project management software in the world.' After a rethink at senior level, their new motto became: 'We help people build a better world.'

An even more touching example is the tale McLeod tells of a drug-company rep who told her what she thinks of to motivate her on sales calls.

'When I go on sales calls, I always think about this particular patient who came up to me one day during a call with a doctor’s office… All of a sudden this elderly woman taps me on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, Miss,” she said. “Are you from the company that makes drug X?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I just want to thank you. Before my doctor prescribed your drug, I barely had enough energy to leave the house. But now I can visit my grandkids… I can travel. So thank you. You gave me back my life.”’

According to McLeod, that rep was the number-one salesperson in the country for three years running.

So stop worrying that you can’t sell because you’re too introverted or because the challenger sale doesn’t suit your personality. Focus on locating your sense of purpose and the rest will flow from there. And, as Huxley recommended a long time ago, cast aside those preconceptions. Huxley was one of the early advocates of Darwinism—so he should know what it takes to evolve.

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About the Author

Geoffrey Walters

A serial entrepreneur and digital nomad, Geoffrey has been running his own marketing consultancy for the past year.

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