The Most Important Predictor of Sales Success
by Philip Delves Broughton –
No profession in business has a more complex reputation than sales. When we think of salespeople — from Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman to Donald Trump to Steve Jobs — all kinds of contradictory ideas and images jangle in our minds. They can be persuaders and bullies, seducers and rogues, dream-makers and charlatans. But without them, no business exists.
It’s not just salespeople who must sell. Entrepreneurs must persuade others of the value of an idea or company which has yet to take concrete form. CEOs must convince the board, markets, employees, and customers that what they are doing is valuable. Politicians, artists, and scientists all must sell themselves and their work in order to succeed.
Sales is the most human and richly nuanced aspect of business and yet, amazingly, is not even a required course at most business schools. MBA students are dutifully taught finance, strategy and operations as if revenue appeared by magic and salespeople were at best a necessary evil.
But as one great salesman told me, sales is the greatest laboratory there is for understanding human nature. So while reporting my book The Art of the Sale, I set off on a trip to meet salespeople around the world, in different cultures and different fields of selling, to understand not only what they did, but also what went on in their minds as they did it.
I began my journey in a Moroccan souk, an ancient marketplace where people must look each other in the eye over a pile of goods and decide whether to buy or sell, without the cover of email or conference calls. Abdelmajid Rais El Fenni, one of the most successful carpet and rug traders in Tangiers, explained how he coped with the daily rejections and petty humiliations every salesman must face.
“You are like a beggar in sales, asking again and again all day,” he said. “The salesman should have loose robes. You never get upset. Of course, sometimes you have customers and you want to kill them. But you’re not allowed to.”
His ability to brush off the insults and press ahead, to have “loose robes”, enabled him to do what he really enjoyed, which was trading in beautiful objects with people he liked.
Anthony Sullivan, a television infomercial salesman based in Tampa, told me that trying to over-intellectualize selling was a surefire way to fail.
“I have people who work with me who know everything about sales, but they still couldn’t sell,” he said. “They don’t have what it takes. And then I’ve watched kids on YouTube who make fake infomercials and they’re getting millions of views.”
Sullivan has read numerous sales books and attended conferences, but says most provide no more than a brief sugar high. “They get you all fired up, but you fall back into your old ways pretty soon. When you get into a bar fight, you revert to what comes naturally — the old-fashioned tactics.” Your authentic self will always, eventually, come out.
Ashok Vemuri, the head of Americas at Infosys, the Indian business process outsourcing company, made a similar point. The more salespeople he has hired, he said, the less impressed he is with the stereotypes and training which dominate the sales industry. The rigid methods taught in most sales courses, he told me, are hopeless in the field. “It seems everyone has to be either Dirty Harry, or the girl on the beach in her bikini teasing people.” Instead, what he looks for are intelligence, curiosity and an agile mind. The chest-beating Alpha male of sales myth has no place in this universe. Rather, it is the low-ego character who regards client service as the highest goal who thrives. He is looking for people who can make others comfortable, who are articulate, and who are able to deal with the unexpected.
“I’ve had salespeople with terrible accents, who don’t adhere to an acceptable Westernized dress code, and misspeak words, but they are terrific story-tellers,” he told me. “They relate their story to your problem and can combine experiences across functions and geographies. They cannot hold a great conversation with the CEO about wine, but they can talk specifically about technology.”
Everywhere I went, from Silicon Valley to the world of Japanese life insurance saleswomen, I heard the same story.
I found that what most companies and sales training programs think really matters in sales is wrong. When training salespeople, they tend to propose one of two things: A sales process with methods and tricks which can move you from prospecting to closing, or a set of behaviors and character traits supposedly typical of great salespeople and worth mimicking.
Neither approach gets to the most important predictor of sales success.
If salespeople think of what they do as at odds with who they are or what they want to achieve in life, they will fail. If they are comfortable with it, they will thrive. Nothing matters more in sales than how each salesperson perceives his or her role, and how the act of selling protects, inflates, or undermines his or her sense of self.
Yes, there are underlying traits in every good salesperson — notably optimism and tenacity — which lead to resilience in the face of the adversity. But beyond that, what enables a salesperson to succeed is that they’ve found a match between who they are and what they are being required to do.
Some people are wooers, compelled to win over everyone they meet in an instant. They do well in jobs where they must close a lot of transactions every day and where long-term trust is not important. Others prefer to build networks of deep relationships over time. They might prefer selling products or services with long sales cycles and repeated interactions with the same customer. Some salespeople will be coin-operated, motivated entirely by commission and competition with their peers. Others put a higher value on the friendships they develop in sales and the opportunity to work in a field they enjoy, selling products and services they believe in. Some love selling for the pure thrill of it. Others sell as the means to getting what they really want, whether it is popularity, financial security or creative freedom.
But the first step for anyone selling, managing, or hiring a salesforce is to understand these dynamics between personality, self-perception, and role. Identify the conflicts so that selling feels as normal and natural as it should. Ignore them, and the cost — psychological, organizational and financial — will skyrocket later.