It seems to be a common perception in Britain that sales people are pushy and over optimistic. Mind you, it’s also depressingly common in Britain to hear “Sales always march to the right”. These things just might be connected. So what characteristics are important for success in sales?
I was sent a link this week to an interesting article by Steve Martin in the Harvard Business Review titled “Seven Personality Traits of Top Salespeople” (click here). The term ‘sales’ covers such a wide spectrum that it’s often unhelpful and misleading because the characteristics required of good people are so different in the various stages of selling, and in different sectors. In this piece I’m taking the term ‘sales’ to mean enterprise complex selling, and closing business that is not driven by a pricelist.
Steve Martin identifies the key characteristics as: Modesty, Conscientiousness, Achievement Orientation, Curiosity, Lack of Gregariousness, Lack of Discouragement, Lack of Self-Consciousness. I’ve been privileged to work with some seriously great sales people around the world, and my experience is much the same. There are outliers, but they are few.
When these things are missing
I often hear companies say that they don’t seem to be able to close sales. The reasons can lie in the techniques being used in selling. Steve Martin identifies curiosity and lack of discouragement as key character traits. What often militates against these is the fear of hearing bad news, hearing rejection. Handling objections and dealing with the issues, one by one, is all important, and you can’t complete this until all the questions have been asked.
The diligence and attention to detail that comes from Steve’s conscientiousness, and completeness is critical to complex selling. The things that you don’t yet know about the customer’s situation are every bit as important as what you do know. More often than not, the sale slips because of something you didn’t know, didn’t do or didn’t ask. These sales didn’t really slip: the sale always was going to be later, and you’ve just found that out.
Two more important characteristics
To Steve’s list, I’d add two further characteristics that I think are vital for complex selling. The first is scepticism. This is not just a lack of optimism, and it’s more than curiosity. Optimism is based on hope, not fact, and curiosity is a willingness to enquire. Scepticism is a keenness to have things proven. This is vital in selling. You can’t afford to believe what you’re told; you have to triangulate, to get more than one piece of evidence before you believe. So the curiosity drives you to search, and the scepticism leads you to search out the proof of all the things you need to close the sale. These qualifications actions are so often missing, leading to reduced win rate, sales marching to the right, and little reliability in sales forecasts.
Secondly, I’d add emotional intelligence. In complex selling, you have to be able to understand the political landscape and the dynamics of the organisation and the people you’re selling to. If your sales people can’t sniff out the rivalries, the different personalities and power bases involved, and understand the implications, you will continue to get wrong footed and feel out of control of events.
Selling is a profession that requires skill, a great deal of forethought, and diligence. Success takes finesse, tenacity and judgement. It’s very rare that such people would be described as pushy and optimistic, though.