Through the years salespeople have been told that sales success depends almost entirely on sheer effort. Managers interested in hitting the numbers hammer home the virtues of hard work, persistence and the need to “go the extra mile.” Despite the revolutionary changes in selling over the past 20 years, hard work is valued more today than ever before. According to Penn State Associate Professor of Marketing Harish Sujan, however, 10 years of research in sales and motivation indicate that for many of today’s sales professionals, working “smart” is even more important than working “hard.”
“Most research on this area of sales has focused on motivating salespeople to work harder – getting salespeople to call on more customers, make more calls and work longer hours each day,” Sujan says. “While hard work does partially determine a salesperson’s success rate, in many sales jobs the direction of this effort is likely to be much more important than the quantity of effort. Most salespeople do work hard, averaging 53 hours per week. Whether they work smart is less clear.”
In other words, working hard may produce some results, but working smart will often deliver genuine success. Sujan defines working smart as “tailoring presentations to match the individual needs of the customer, making prudent decisions on how to spend time and investing time in learning new skills.” According to Sujan, the benefits of working smarter are greatest if your company sells a broad product line, if your products have many features and options, if customers need a great deal of information before making buying decisions or if salespeople need to understand a wide range of selling approaches. Today this definition applies to more sales organizations than ever before.
Attribution Theory In Sales
How can you tell if your salespeople are working smart or just working hard? As a starting point, Sujan recommends applying a psychological concept known as “attribution theory.” Attribution theory suggests that people assign reasons for past successes and failures, and the nature of these reasons motivates subsequent behavior. In one attribution study involving over 1,000 salespeople, Sujan discovered a key difference between salespeople who work smart and those who merely work hard.
“We found that when salespeople felt that lost sales were due to poor strategies, they were motivated to work smarter,” he says. “They were motivated to use different approaches with their customers in the future as well as to vary their selling approach across customers. However, strategy attributions did not affect the motivation of salespeople to work harder. They did not see a change in strategy as requiring greater effort.
“In contrast, when salespeople felt that lost sales were due to insufficient effort, they were motivated to work harder. They worked more hours each day and were more intense during the time they worked. Interestingly, these effort attributions actually reduced the motivation to work smarter. This means effort attributions caused salespeople to push themselves more in the same direction, doing the same thing over again. Thus, salespeople are motivated to work smarter when they believe that poor strategies, in contrast to a lack of effort, are responsible for their failures.”
These results make sense intuitively. When salespeople feel they have failed because they didn’t try hard enough or weren’t persistent enough, they will step up their efforts in the future. Similarly, when they feel they’ve failed because of technique – not asking the right questions or not doing enough research into their prospects’ needs – they will look for ways to improve their skills.
While attribution theory helps explain salespeople’s motivation to improve, it does not represent the only factor affecting the working smart vs. working hard equation. According to Sujan, perhaps equally important is the person’s goal orientation. Sujan defines the two major goal orientations that influence behavior in achievement situations – such as professional sales – as “performance orientation” and “learning orientation.” Salespeople with a performance orientation tend to focus on winning other people’s approval. They assume that their skills and abilities are fixed and consider an increase in overall effort the best way to improve performance. In contrast, learning-oriented salespeople are motivated to improve their skills and abilities. They seek out complex social interactions as opportunities to improve skills and they change social interactions in response to feedback.
“You probably see both types of people around you,” Sujan says. “There are those of us who spend much of our mental energies trying to demonstrate to others that we are smart and on top of everything. These people are very much performance oriented. And then there are others who are very happily and busily absorbing information – sometimes even at the cost of not knowing what to do with their newly acquired knowledge.”
Not surprisingly, Sujan’s research demonstrates that salespeople’s learning orientation motivates them to work smart and can, under certain conditions, stimulate them to work hard as well. A performance orientation will also generate hard work, but not smart work.
“Salespeople with the performance orientation believe they already know all about their jobs,” Sujan says, “and that the only way to improve their performance is to work harder. They seek to make more calls, see prospects more often, and be more persistent.”
Sujan makes a point not to place a value judgment on either a performance or a learning orientation. One is not necessarily better than the other; however, a salesperson with a learning orientation will be more likely to adapt to changes in the product line, customers or the marketplace. These individuals view failure as an opportunity to learn more. In contrast, salespeople with a performance orientation are more likely to view failure as a wake-up call for increased effort, at times with disastrous results. Sujan refers to this condition as “learned helplessness.”
“Learned helplessness is when people suddenly feel helpless and basically give up,” Sujan explains. “It happens everywhere in our society, from the schoolroom to the workplace. One striking example in the classroom is when a student flunks a math test. After that type of failure, students often come to view math as beyond their ability. This type of thing occurs in the sales arena all the time, when an initial setback will make a salesperson feel helpless to improve. It usually follows from a person’s assignment of personal, permanent and pervasive reasons for failure. For instance, saying to yourself, ‘I blew that sale because I am no good at selling to East Coast clients. I will never be able to understand their thinking.’
“The main point I make in my investigation is that when these initial setbacks happen to a salesperson with a learning orientation, he or she will still continue working hard and working smart. This is not true for salespeople with a performance orientation. If you have a performance orientation this adversity will cause you to put forth a greater effort. But if the increased effort and harder work do not produce results, a despondence can overwhelm you. You not only quit working hard, but you also quit working smart, which causes you to lose performance. This is learned helplessness. While you may survive at your job, it becomes very unlikely that you will ever become a top performer.”
How To Manage Smart Work
Because of past discrimination in favor of the hardest workers – those willing to go the extra mile – sales organizations have predominantly pursued, hired and focused motivational efforts on people with performance orientations. Today, Sujan says, this may well be the worst managerial policy.
“In the past and still to this day,” Sujan explains, “the hiring process has been very astute with regard to landing salespeople with the performance orientation. The hesitant interviewee traditionally does not get very far. Employers just tend to shy away from people who may be distracted in favor of bringing in the more gung-ho types. Then, once they’ve recruited the right people, managers merely encourage their salespeople to work harder. They don’t think about how they might motivate the sales force to work smarter. This can lead to a greater incidence of learned helplessness and stagnation within the sales organization.”
Sujan’s research indicates that with the correct approach, managers can help salespeople develop their learning orientations and increase their ability to work smarter.
“A goal orientation is both a character trait as well as a state of mind,” he says. “It is quite possible for someone’s goal orientation to change over time. Students, for example, when left alone tend to be tremendously learning oriented. That’s because they need to adapt to a new environment and to learning new skills. Unfortunately, in the classroom we often destroy their learning orientation by focusing so many outcome pressures on them in the form of tests, exams and getting the ‘right’ answer rather than exploring questions. In exactly the same way we take inexperienced salespeople, many of whom are very learning oriented at the beginning, and place so many pressures on them to perform immediately, that they slowly lose that desire to learn more. Now this isn’t to say we shouldn’t place any external pressures on them; it’s just that we have to be very careful about destroying the learning orientation in the process.”
Smart Management Steps
To foster salespeople’s learning orientation and ability to work smart, Sujan suggests three specific modifications to traditional sales management methods.
“First of all,” he says, “I believe that a sales manager should not put new salespeople on a quota system immediately. This way the salespeople have the opportunity to learn the ropes without fear of reprisal for lack of production right away. I’m not suggesting that this last a long time – maybe six months, depending on the industry, the complexity of product – and then ease them into a performance orientation. At this point they’ve already gotten into a learning cycle and it should continue.
“Second, as an application of attribution theory, sales managers can impact how salespeople view successes and failures. One direct way is to tell salespeople that an order was lost because he or she used a poor strategy. If that seems too direct, then rather than criticizing the amount of effort they invested, a manager might focus on how a salesperson could have approached the customer differently or done a better job investigating the customer’s needs, or how to consider alternative strategies for use in the future.”
Sujan’s third suggestion involves placing as much customer information at salespeople’s disposal as possible. One key source he recommends is market research information.
“The idea here is that an adaptive salesperson is very good at classifying the customer and then changing his or her behavior to be in line with the customer’s needs. Good market research will help salespeople in this process of accurately classifying their customers. Admittedly, this is not a common practice, but when you consider how much a salesperson’s success depends on understanding customer needs, the benefits are readily apparent. Plus it compels them to consider strategy and work smarter.”
While Sujan’s research demonstrates the importance of motivating salespeople to work smarter, he emphasizes that working smart and working hard are not mutually exclusive. In fact, because they tend to enjoy learning more, salespeople with a learning orientation tend to work very hard at working smart. The problem, as he explains, arises when managers and salespeople focus so much on exerting extra effort that creativity and strategy leave the picture.
“When I came to this country,” Sujan, who is originally from India, says, “I really admired Americans for their dedication to hard work. But over the years I’ve seen instances where I think this dedication gets overdone. And I’m not talking about the difference between being lazy and working hard – I mean overdoing it to the point where people become stressed out and push themselves beyond their limits. This is perhaps the difference between working 45 and 65 hours a week. This has an impact on creativity. Eventually your learning goals will disappear. And that’s when you get very performance oriented, stop working smart and open yourself up to learned helplessness.”
Smart Work Yields Results
Ultimately, Sujan says, the difference comes down to whether managers prefer to exact the most effort or the best effort out of their salespeople. Because people have a natural appreciation for and enjoyment of learning, a work environment where creativity, sales strategy and generally working smart is promoted will be more pleasant for salespeople – and more productive.
“Our research demonstrates that a learning orientation makes the process of selling more enjoyable,” Sujan says. “And people who enjoy their work tend to take a greater interest in learning. As a result of these findings we believe that any initiative sales managers can take to boost salespeople’s work enjoyment will not only increase job satisfaction, but will also increase people’s tendency to work smart.
“In the past, harder work was seen as the best path for increased production. As our research indicates, however, for the modern sales professional selling a broad array of complex products and services to many different kinds of customers with varying needs, working smarter not only makes the process more enjoyable, it delivers bottom-line results as well. And that’s what virtually every sales organization is looking for.” n
For more information, write Dr. Harish Sujan, Department of Marketing,
The Pennsylvania State University, 701 Business Administration Building, University Park, PA 16802-3007.
As the stakes increase and the price of making a poor personnel decision grows, psychological testing has become a viable method for determining not only which individuals stand a greater chance for overall success but also how to place different people into their appropriate positions.
Since 1961 one testing company – Caliper Management of Princeton, New Jersey – has assessed over 750,000 business people and more than 4,000 athletes for professional sports franchises. As Caliper CEO and President Herb Greenberg explains, many psychological tests used for help in hiring in the past have proved faulty for one fundamental reason.
“When you’re applying for a job,” he says, “you’re going to try to hide your weaknesses to make yourself seem as perfect as possible. The whole key to this type of testing is to cut through this factor to determine the reality behind the facade that people put forward. And that’s one of the reasons that our test works as well as it does.”
In the Caliper exam, prospective hires respond to 180 questions, each of which is phrased in the form of four self-descriptions. The subject then marks which question best describes him or her. Knowing the subjects want to give the “right” answers, each description is a positive trait. For example, one list of four descriptions might include “I am a good leader,” “I am responsible,” “I am emotionally stable,” and “I get along with people.” While each description is positive, by choosing one answer a subject reveals something. After 180 different questions, a subject paints a highly descriptive psychological profile that Caliper’s trained professionals can analyze.
But Greenberg is quick to emphasize that no test will tell you automatically which person will succeed in sales.
“The test allows us to assess who this human being is,” he says. “Every one of us has strengths, weaknesses and different hot buttons. But before we can tell you how well this person will perform on the job, we have to find out the functional requirements for the job. If it’s a sales job, will there be much prospecting? Will they be presenting in front of customers frequently? Do they need a lot of closing ability? Who will they be selling to? What’s the product? How much does it cost? And we gather as much information as a customer will give us about the position. Once we have a firm grasp on the nature of the job, then we analyze the person’s test results and tell you where we think there’s a match.
“But this is one point where many computer tests fail – they don’t take into account the nature of the job. Typically the best salesperson could be the worst administrator, and the best administrator could be the worst salesperson. So unless you know both sides of the equation there’s no way in the world you can predict one person’s success.”
But if you’re skeptical whether a simple 180-question test can really predict future success in sales, consider Caliper’s results. Factoring out the frequent turnover in many sales organizations by eliminating salespeople who left positions within one year, 85 percent of the individuals Caliper had recommended to clients are today in the top half of their sales forces. In contrast, of those hired against Caliper’s recommendation, only 17 percent are in the top half of their sales forces.
Not surprisingly, psychological profiles can be used for more than simply screening possible job candidates. One training company, Jack Wilder & Associates (JW&A) of Dallas, has found that psychological testing can multiply sales training exponentially. Using a simple 20-minute test known as the Hartman Value Profile, JW&A can analyze an individual’s strengths, weaknesses, limiters and biases. The company then uses the results to help managers better understand how to motivate their salespeople and help them overcome their limitations and enhance their strengths.
The well-known profile consists of two lists of 18 seemingly random statements. Subjects are asked to rank the statements from best to worst. The results are then run through a complex computer program based on the patterns of human thought to formulate an overall subject representation. According to company president Jack Wilder, the Hartman profile puts into managers’ hands the exact information they need about their salespeople.
“Managers want to know a few simple things,” he says. “They want to know how to communicate effectively, how to talk the way their salespeople listen, how to motivate different individuals and where each person’s strengths and weaknesses lie. What this all basically comes down to is how those salespeople think. Most sales managers I’ve seen cannot figure all of this out for themselves because they’re not psychologists – they’re sales managers. Our report is basically an instruction manual for how to work with each individual person.”
As with the Caliper test, subjects cannot influence the Hartman profile by providing answers they suspect their examiners want to hear. The 18 items on each list vary from extremely positive (“I love the beauty of the world”) to extremely negative (“I curse the day I was born”). The result of 87 years of work in the science of thinking by more than 30 doctors, the Hartman test can produce a full profile based solely on how subjects rank these statements. Wilder claims that the Hartman profile often provides people with a completely new insight on themselves.
“The best thing about the profile, I think,” he says, “is that it tells you what you don’t naturally pay attention to. It shows you what you don’t see on a sales call and it will tell you what you don’t hear. Now that is extremely valuable because, trite as it sounds, people don’t know what they don’t know. And they don’t know what they didn’t see. But that’s what you really need to know. So we take that information and give you a checklist system of what you need to do to pay attention to those things you normally would miss. And our clients find this to be an invaluable service.”
Ultimately, sales management is very much a psychological task. Yet few managers have any psychological training under their belts. They operate by the seat of their pants, hitting the bull’s-eye with some salespeople but missing the mark entirely with others. For such diverse companies as AT&T, Levi Strauss, IBM, General Electric and thousands more, psychological testing has provided a solid foundation on which to build a highly motivated sales organization, from initial hiring to future success. If that sounds good to you, psychological testing may well be in your sales organization’s future too.
For more information, write Caliper Management, P.O. Box 2050, Princeton, NJ 08543-2050 or call 609/924-3800; or write Jack Wilder & Associates, 15851 Dallas Parkway, Ste. 1103, Dallas, TX 78248 or call 214/385-7464.