Note: This Steve W. Martin Sales Research Article Originally Appeared in the Harvard Business Review
My last article on the "Seven Personality Traits of Top Salespeople" was based on personality tests administered to 1,000 top business-to-business salespeople. The test results indicate that key personality traits directly influence top performers' selling styles, and, in turn, their success. However, the study also raises the perennial question, "Are top salespeople born or made?" In other words, must top salespeople be born with the prerequisite sales instincts, or can someone learn to become successful in sales without them?
Based upon my research, experience, and observations, I estimate over 70 percent of top salespeople are born with "natural" instincts that play a critical role in determining their sales success. Conversely, less than 30 percent of top salespeople are self-made — meaning, they have had to learn how to become top salespeople without the benefit of these natural abilities. In addition, for every 100 people who enter sales without natural sales traits, 40 percent will fail or quit, 40 percent will perform at near average, and only 20 percent will be above average (These figures vary by industry and the complexity of products sold).
Based on the figures above, the real question that should be asked is, "What determines whether or not a self-made salesperson will become successful?" While it's easy to recite a laundry list of general reasons for success (hard work, persistence, intelligence, integrity, empathy, etc.), my experience in the field and the research I've conducted indicates four key factors that determine the self-made salesperson's destiny. They are language specialization, "modeling" of experiences, political acumen, and greed.
The first differentiating factor between the success or failure of the self-made salesperson is language specialization. While all competent salespeople can recite their product's features and business benefits, very few are mavens who can conduct intelligent conversations about the details of daily business operations. Every industry also has developed its own technical language to facilitate mutual understanding of terminology and an exact meaning of the words used throughout a business. The technical language consists of abbreviations, acronyms, business nomenclature, and specialized terms (for example RAM, CPU, and flash drive in the consumer electronics industry).
Successful self-made salespeople possess domain-area expertise and speak the corresponding business operations language, or have deep knowledge of the industry's technical language. These languages are the yardstick by which customers measure a salesperson's true value and greatly influence their purchase decisions. Lesser-performing self-made salespeople are not as fluent in these languages, so they tend to focus on likability and friendliness with prospective customers.
Modeling of Experiences
Modeling is the mind's ability to link like experiences and similar data into predictable patterns. Salespeople continually learn through the ongoing accumulation and consolidation of information from their sales calls and interactions with customers. From this knowledge base, salespeople can predict what will happen and what they should do in light of what they have done in the past.
Modeling can be thought of as the engine that drives sales intuition. For example, let's say a salesperson is asked by a skeptical, analytical, financial-oriented prospective customer how his product is different from his major competitor's. His answer would be based on previous experiences with similar circumstances. Modeling can be thought of as trying to find the what, when, where response — what you should do when you are in a particular circumstance where you have to act.
Successful self-made salespeople have an effective methodology to store and retrieve all the verbal, nonverbal, factual, and intuitive information that occurs during sales calls and sales cycles. This results in a greater proficiency to win business than less-successful self-made salespeople who do not learn from their past mistakes and instead repeat them.
Unfortunately, many under-performing self-made salespeople take a textbook-type approach to sales and concentrate solely on the procedural aspects of the sales cycle. They don't take into account the human nature of sales and how people and politics determine the outcome.
Politics are based upon self-interests. Therefore, customers do not readily reveal the internal machinations of their decision-making. Political acumen is the ability to correctly map out each decision maker's influence and motivations. Successful self-made salespeople consider this their top priority. Political acumen drives winning account strategy whereas strategic planning without political acumen is a losing proposition.
We normally associate greed with a corrupt character or miserly scrooge. While this may be society's definition, in sales, "greed" takes on an entirely different meaning. In sales, greed and self-respect are closely intertwined. Greed can be thought of as the desire to be fairly paid for one's time. Time is a salesperson's enemy because time is finite. Time is the governor that determines how many deals can be worked and where effort should be focused. Salespeople are on a mission to learn the ultimate truth, "Will I win the deal?" Greed compels the successful self-made salespeople to push themselves beyond their comfort zone and ask difficult qualifying questions while continually pushing for the close. Conversely, the lesser successful self-made salespeople do not possess this inward drive.
Are top salespeople born or made? The true answer is that the overwhelming majority of top salespeople are gifted with innate talents. However, many others are self-made successes who have learned how to apply their language specialization and build their intuition. They know what accounts they should spend their time on and always navigate to powerful decision-makers in order to create the opportunity to persuade them to buy.