3 Key Traits Of Top Performing Sales Professionals
Emotional Intelligence (73% correlation)
Active Listening (88% correlation)
Anecdotes & Stories (92% correlation)
by Jamie Hitchcock & Olin Zanuck
Beginning in 1997 and continuing through today, the Gearner Research Group has conducted interviews with over 85,000 sales professionals in one of the largest ongoing research projects in the field of sales. The goal of the study has been and continues to be, to ascertain the traits and characteristics of the most accomplished sales representatives when compared against those deemed less successful.
The overarching question we set out to answer was, “Are the most successful sales professionals doing something fundamentally different than those who are less successful?” Not surprisingly, there are considerable implications of this study on selection and development of sales professionals.
Background: We initially developed a list of 38 traits we felt that were important for success in sales. Our goal with the study was to not only determine the traits of top performing sales professionals but also to identify the behaviors or traits that were missing from those less successful.
Participants in our study were nominated by their sales leadership. Our observed interview population consists of 65% sales professionals deemed by their organizations and by quantitative sales results, as being in the top 8-10% in their company or industry. The remaining group (35%) were specifically interviewed and observed as a comparison group. Subjects in this second group were ranked in the lower 20% of their sales organization on their quantitatively measured sales success over multiple years in selling.
• Financial services
• Technology (software)
• Real estate
• Educational services
• Marketing & Advertising
• Wholesale goods
• Technology (hardware)
While there are a number of traits and characteristics that are common to most sales professionals three key traits were found to be high predictors of success. Our findings are as follows:
Three Key Traits For Success In Sales Professionals
Trait #1: Emotional Intelligence. (A 73% correlation with sales success.)
Emotional intelligence (EI) describes the ability capacity, skill to identify, assess, manage and control the emotions of one’s self of others, and of groups. Different models have been proposed for the definition of EI and disagreement exists as to how the term should be used. Despite these disagreements, which are often highly technical, EI has successful applications in the sales domain.
In the 1900s, even though traditional definitions of intelligence emphasized cognitive aspects such as problem solving, several influential researchers in the intelligence field of study had begun to recognize the importance of the non-cognitive aspects. For instance, as early as 1920s E.L. Thorndike used the term social intelligence to describe the skill of understanding and managing other people.
In 1940 David Weschler described the influence of non-intellective factors on intelligent behavior. In 1983 Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences introduced the idea of multiple intelligences which included Interpersonal intelligence (the capacity to understand the intentions, motivations and desires of other people).
The first use of the term "emotional intelligence" is usually attributed to Wayne Payne’s doctoral thesis, A Study of Emotion: Developing Emotional Intelligence from 1985. We observed that traditional types of intelligence, such as IQ fail to fully explain sales success while subjects testing high on EI consistently fell into the ranks of superior performance.
As a result of the growing acknowledgement by professionals of the importance and relevance of emotions to work outcomes, the research on the topic continued to gain momentum, but it wasn’t until research by Geartner that the link has been fully established between EI and sales success.
Trait #2: Active Listening: (An 88% correlation with sales success)
Active listening requires the listener to understand, interpret, and evaluate what they hear. The ability to listen actively can improve personal relationships through reducing conflicts, strengthening cooperation, and fostering understanding. This traits was observed in 93% of those in the top group of sales performers yet only observed in 8% of those in the lowest percentiles.
We observe that when in a sales situation the less effective sales representatives are often are not listening attentively. They may be distracted, thinking about other things, or thinking about what they are going to say next. Active listening is a structured way of listening and responding to others, focusing attention on the speaker.
It is important for a listener to observe the prospective clients demeanor and body language. Having the ability to interpret a person’s body language lets the listener develop a more accurate understanding of the speaker’s message.In sales call we found the most effective sales professionals actively listenedfor feeling and emotionally charged words. Rather than merely repeating what the speaker has said, the active listener used these clues to address concerns and reduce fears through the use of stories (see trait #3).
Author Thomas Gordon who coined the term "active listening", states "Active listening is certainly not complex. Still, learning to do Active Listening well is a rather difficult task.” The relationship between active listening and sales success is clearly apparent which leads us to conclude that this is a trait sales leaders should use as a part of their sales selection criteria and reinforce through training and coaching.
Trait #3: Use of Anecdotes & Stories.(A 92% correlation with sales success)
Sales is largely about communicating a desire state. One in which the prospective client is no longer shackled by the limitations or restrictions of the particular problem they face. As such, the most effective sales professionals are highly gifted communicators of sales stories. However, it is interesting to note that the use of sales stories by the top 10% of sale professionals was a strategic rather than purely tactical tool. By this we mean that stories were developed and told that addressed a wide variety of issues. Our field interviewsshowed that on average the top performing sales professionals used 4.5 stories on a single sales call while those sales representatives in the lower 20% failed to use a single story on their typical sales call.
It is also interesting to observe that those in the lower 20% thought they used sales stories far more frequently than they did. On average individuals in this group claimed they told 5 stories per call when the actualobservable results were less than one.
Our conclusion for this behavioral disconnect between what the top sales professional actually did, and what the lowest performing sales representativethought they did, yielded someobservations and conclusions.
It is interesting to note that the top sales professionals did not attempt to make up stories as they were engaged in the sales call. Rather they had a total of 15-25 sales anecdotes and stories fully prepared and developed. These were described by multiple sales professionals as the “arrows in the quiver” that were then drawn out and used in response to verbal clues (see active listening). Again by contrast, the lower performing sales representatives had virtually no stories prepared except for an occasional “success story” that was developed by less than 5% of these lower performing group.
Conclusion: Although research is ongoing, it is clear that these three traits and characteristics have emerged as the top predictors of sales success across industries. Not surprisingly, only some of these traits may be considered developmental and will respond better to traditional training and coaching. Regardless, all three of these should be discussed among sales leadership from both a selection and development perspectives.