Why Do Top Salespeople Succeed Where Others Just Get By

By herbert greenberg

Out of the nearly 20 million sales professionals, a mere 20 percent make a whopping 80 percent of all sales. Likewise, the remaining 80 percent fight over the 20 percent of the business not produced by the real pros. What do those top 20 percent possess that the rest do not?

In study after study on the effectiveness of sales conducted by Caliper Corporation, a Princeton, NJ-based human resources consulting firm, the researchers found that more than 55 percent of the salespeople studied have no ability to sell. Another 25 percent have sales ability, but are selling the wrong product or service. The remaining minority, 20 percent, are doing precisely the right jobs for themselves and their companies and, invariably, they are the ones who make 80 percent of all sales.

Caliper’s research in evaluating almost three-quarters of a million successful and unsuccessful applicants for sales positions at more than 15,000 companies proves that when the right people are hired and given effective training and supervision, productivity will be relatively high throughout the entire sales force.

One question encountered early in the study was: “Why does it seem so difficult to predict whether an individual can sell successfully?” The answer, the researchers found, lies in a prevailing failure to understand the personality attributes necessary to succeed in selling.

Salesmanship involves being on the line. It takes a very special person who can ask for an order assertively and take the inevitable amount of rejection involved. What kinds of people are motivated to expose themselves daily to the abuse, rejection, risk and even hostility that salespeople must endure to make a living? Through long observation, Caliper has found that successful salespeople need three basic personality qualities – and several additional attributes, depending upon the specific sales situation. The major dynamics required are:

Empathy. The ability to accurately sense the reactions of other persons and to recognize the clues and cues they provide allows you to relate effectively to them. A salesperson simply cannot sell well without the invaluable and irreplaceable ability to elicit powerful feedback.

The salesperson with poor empathy aims at the target as well as he or she can but lacks the guidance mechanism to home in on the bull’s-eye. Conversely, the professional whose empathy response is not hemmed in by prepared sales tracts and who can sense prospects’ reactions and make the creative modifications necessary, will reap big rewards.

Ego Drive. This is the inner need to persuade another individual as a means of gaining personal gratification. The ego-driven individual wants and needs this victory in an intensely personal way as a powerful enhancement of self-esteem. Ego drive is not ambition, aggression, energy or even the willingness to work hard. The ego-driven individual needs achievement in successful persuasion, not only for the material benefits but also for the feeling of satisfaction that comes from the victory.

Such individuals work hard to enhance egos and to do things that make them feel good about themselves. For the real sales pro, that satisfaction comes from the successful one-on-one persuasion of another person. The ego-driven individual feels 10 feet tall when the prospect finally says, “I’ll take it.”

It must be recognized that, although empathy and ego drive are separate characteristics, they are inseparable when it comes to sales ability. Ego drive is the motivating force launching the salesperson toward the potential customer, and empathy is the guidance mechanism that allows the salesperson to follow the prospect through evasions and objections until the prospect’s real needs are targeted and the sale is closed.

The individual with a great deal of ego drive and not much empathy will win over a certain number of customers through sheer drive, but one sidestep by a prospect will result in the salesperson’s running into the outfield fence.

On the other hand, the salesperson with a great deal of empathy and not much ego drive is probably a nice person and will even get a few orders because of that. But he or she will lose too many sales through lack of a real motivation to close.

Ego Strength. Salespeople need resilience to bounce back from rejection and be even more motivated on the next attempt. They must never feel totally demolished when a sale is lost. The way a salesperson deals with rejection is as basic to successful selling as having empathy and ego drive. The degree of self-acceptance is a key to sales success. Individuals with healthy, intact egos like and accept the way they are. This permits their personality dynamics to operate freely and fully, and they function at or near top capacity.

The major personality dynamics of successful salespeople, then, are empathy, ego drive, and ego strength. Lack of any one of these characteristics can guarantee a dismal sales showing, but possession of all three does not automatically guarantee success.

Depending on the specific sales situation, other attributes also may come into play. A salesman hired on the basis of his empathy, ego drive, and ego strength, will succeed brilliantly in his original assignment – one that suits him – but may fail when his company gives him a different opportunity.

For instance, the first job, in the highly structured environment of the home office, places the salesman where he works under close supervision. In the second, he is on his own in a vast territory. The new job requires someone who, in addition to possessing the basic attributes, is also a self-starter who can plan and organize his work and manage his time well. This salesman, lacking those abilities, will not do well in the field, and, since he will not want to return to a lower-status job, will likely leave the company. The moral here is: Hire for the job and then promote only if the job and the salesperson are still a perfect match. (Other abilities necessary in many sales situations involve the ability to make quick analyses, use negotiation skills, and possess the drive to prospect systematically and persistently.)

The overall challenge in selecting sales personnel is matching functional requirements of a specific job to the personality attributes of an individual. Business executives often fail to understand the real psychology of the successful salesperson and, therefore, create artificial hiring criteria that can screen out potentially effective applicants. For instance, our studies have shown that the two most prevalent criteria used in hiring – experience and education – are completely invalid as predictors of sales success.

Given the staggering cost of mistakes in hiring, it is obviously good business sense to make every effort to eliminate or reduce the number of hiring mistakes.

Our 14-industry study, published in the Harvard Business Review, demonstrates the success of hiring on the basis of job match. These statistics, together with the ones presented above, prove that effective hiring procedures are all important when it comes to boosting sales.

Jeanne and Herbert Greenberg are cochairmen of Caliper Corporation, one of the country’s premier psychological testing and human resources consulting firms. To learn more about how Caliper can help improve the people-side of your business, call 609/924-3800 or write to Caliper Corporation, 741 Mt. Lucas Road, Princeton, NJ 08540.