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Analyzing the Sales Personality
A combination of childhood traits and training holds the key to sales success.
Posted Feb 28, 2014
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Can a person's career path be attributed to his personality at birth? Can anyone with a competitive streak become a professional athlete if they train hard enough? Might someone with a creative nature be predestined for a career as an artist? And beyond this, can someone override his nature to succeed in a role where he wouldn't stereotypically fit?

The salesperson stereotype is infamous. You don't need Google to tell you that people in selling roles are reputed to be aggressive, persistent, slimy, and dishonest. None of these descriptions are complimentary, and many salespeople would argue that they are untrue. Nonetheless, most would agree that certain personality traits are helpful in sales. Confidence, a quick mind, and positivity are all traits exhibited by leading salespeople—but are these characteristics innate or bestowed through workplace nurture?

This is a question that sales-i, with input from Cary Cooper, a professor of psychology at Lancaster University in England, attempted to answer earlier this year. In a survey of 254 salespeople in both the United States and the United Kingdom, we found a strong correlation between the childhood personalities and experiences of future salesmen and women.

Drive, competitiveness, and confidence were three attributes which clearly shone through in the resulting report.

Drive. More than two-thirds of salespeople had to earn their own pocket money as children, learning early on that hard work is necessary for financial success. One-third found their first job at the age of 13; only 8 percent waited until they were 18 to seek employment.

Competitiveness. Seventy percent of respondents competed on at least one school sports team; only 17 percent didn't participate in any extracurricular team activities. Additionally, when asked to name their dominant characteristic as a child, the most common response was competitiveness, followed by positivity, having a drive to achieve, and exhibiting an outgoing nature.

Confidence. As described above, salespeople selected being outgoing as a key childhood trait. Confidence can also be seen in the 66 percent of respondents who believe they were popular at school—just 7 percent said they were unpopular.

The research defines a clear personality type for the young salesperson. But does that mean that management should plow into prospects' backgrounds during the interview process, only hiring them if they played a competitive sport in high school? Absolutely not. It would be damaging to assume that personality is the only thing that makes a salesperson successful. A sizable 35 percent of individuals in the survey said that despite their intrinsic qualities, sales didn't come naturally to them, and 57 percent admitted they've improved as a result of nurturing from management.

It makes sense, after all. How many people walk into their first job and find themselves leading the pack within a month? Training and support from line managers is essential to bestow job confidence and ability upon a person; it is essential that an individual receives the right support in order to reach his potential.

Of course, there are some basic steps managers can take to help their sales teams reach this point.

Provide the right technology

No matter the industry, technology is an integral part of business. Only a few years ago, we all relied on notebooks and pens, but it's hard to imagine doing that now.

In sales, the advent of cloud technology and software has brought about a workplace revolution. Management can now use sales intelligence software to keep informed of their team's movements, successes, and failures. Rather than calling on individuals to relay their actions and risk missing important data, management can gain an oversight of their whole team's dealings. If any one person is struggling and needs help, this will be identified, allowing the manager to take action.

For the team members themselves, technology can keep even the most disorganized person afloat. Some software can even alert individuals to warm leads (for example, if prospect A has purchased computer screens but not accompanying keyboards).

Set individual benchmarks—and publish them

Most sales teams work to monthly or quarterly KPIs, and for the manager, this is the key to knowing who on the team is thriving and who may be struggling. But KPIs can be more than that if used to their full potential.

By publishing one aspect of a team's monthly metrics, the competitive nature of poor performers will emerge; chances are they'll soon make moves to rise from the bottom rung. Once performance has improved, the subject of the metrics can then be changed to target another area. For example, the first published KPI might be the number of new leads in a given month; the second might be the volume of net sales.

Whatever the focus, publishing the corresponding figures will lead to a swift improvement in that area.

Commit to one-to-one time

While the use of technology and KPIs can identify problem areas, one of the most important aspects of team leadership and nurturing is one-to-one time. Managers should look to spend a good amount of time with poor performers (and others if there's time) to understand their pain points and work on a development plan to help them improve. This is often easier said than done due to time restraints, but it's an activity that offers genuine value for both the manager and the team member. Not only does the employee gain confidence from the extra support given, but the manager might also discover issues which affect more employees than the individual in question.

Although the results of the survey suggest a certain personality type is more likely to be drawn toward and be successful in a sales role, managers shouldn't be dissuaded from hiring candidates that don't fit the "type." Ultimately, a person's success in sales is a result of nurturing by his team leaders; managers can't hope to hire a confident person and then leave him to his own devices. Real ability must be nurtured, and this comes down to having the right mixture of technology, goal setting, and spending valuable time with peers.


Kevin McGirl is president of sales-i, which offers business intelligence software to simplify and improve the sales process.


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