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You can’t teach ‘sales’; you’re either born with it, or you’re not

Calendar icon 10th September 2018

So went the thinking of one client I worked with many years ago who had an astonishing interview process involving hour long games of monopoly between various candidates to observe ruthlessness in deal making and negotiation skills. Back on planet earth, it is very clear that there is no pre-ordained system for the creation and development of the perfect sales professional but having headhunted and interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of sales people over the last 15 years, I think there really are some common traits that all combine to allow some people to succeed in sales roles where others may not.

Before I dive in to a list of characteristics and behaviours that I feel contribute to make great sales people, I suppose the key point to make is that career, ‘man-and-boy’ sales professionals are certainly not necessarily the most effective sales performers and indeed, as I’ll explain below, so often individuals who start their careers in Product or Technology and know the core details of a product or service, can easily transfer to the sales function – and frequently do. This is widely understood, much as the old assertion that the best sales performers make the best sales leaders, has long been forgotten…or has it?!

The below clearly doesn’t take in to account how one actually best identifies or assesses these traits (that’s another article in the writing…) but is food for thought on which characteristics I think should be evident sooner or later in a top sales person. I have recruited sales people both for my own teams but more so for my clients in the US, UK, Europe and most of Asia – the geography doesn’t matter so much, and neither does the industry.

1. Pipeline focus. Good sales people are focused on hitting their monthly numbers while great sales people also think about next month. A real understanding of the top-of-funnel activities that influence pipeline, be it volume or attrition rates, contribute to never having a ‘bad’ month or quarter and develop your reputation as the top, CONSISTENT performer.

2. EQ over IQ. Back in the 1990’s a psychologist called Dan Goleman suggested that EQ might trump IQ in any and all circumstances but while I have doubts about this in many fields I think it’s almost undeniable where sales people are concerned. Let’s consider the sales person’s favourite training mantra: ‘people buy people’. Well, if that is true and we as consumers or business people don’t like to purchase from people we dislike or find unpleasant then add to this the definition for EQ which refers to a person’s ability to perceive, control, evaluate, and express emotions. This would seem to be fundamental.

3. Know their product inside, out. Perhaps the most fundamental of all: if you don’t actually understand the features, advantages and benefits of what you are trying to convince people to buy then you’re not going to be joining the President’s Club Annual trip to Bali anytime soon…

4. Know a little about a lot of things. The best sales person I know is indeed an expert in their product but is also a (brief) encyclopaedia on almost everything else. Knowing a little, top line information about many different subjects be they political, cultural or sporting ensures the effective sales professional will be able to relate to any audience and so begins that rapport, trust, etc…

5. Understand their competitors. ‘Know your enemy’. So said Rage Against The Machine…and also Sun Tzu. For a sales professional this is crucial in positioning, pricing, negotiation and customer segmentation.

6. Be a good listener. This may sounds counter-intuitive for the stereotypical fast talking, slick sales person but it is so important if a sales professional is going to understand and plan their strategy and approach for each customer.

7. Know when to walk away. In some industries, price is the main buying factor and so the focus of the sales function is managing client acquisition versus margin and cost of goods. However in many sectors, particularly Professional Services where added value and expertise are part of the pitch and indeed high prices can sometimes be a proxy for high quality (again, a debate for another article) it is important to know that winning at all costs is not the best approach.

8. Spot an angle, exploit easy wins. This point is, on the one hand, hard to define but is really an ability developed from the sum of all the above parts. Much along the lines of ‘the harder I practice, the luckier I get’, this is how so many really great sales people are described by their peer group. Excellent sales people, or those who are top performers are often seen as able to turn a glimmer of an opportunity in to a quota-beating win…or a 1st class ticket to Bali. It’s not luck but simply doing points 1 through 7 consistently. Or, in homage to an old boss I once had: doing the basics, brilliantly.

9. Managing up. This isn’t necessarily essential when talking about a sales professional hitting numbers but is often the final icing on the cake for many a hiring manager. Maverick, mercurial sales people are great for growing revenues but often the very skills that make them great in front of customers, also make them deeply difficult to work with or manage. No doubt this is linking to point 2 but an employment reference from a previous boss should always cover an individual’s behaviour in this regard.

Finally, some advice for all the hiring managers out there: if you have anyone in your team who ticks all 9 boxes – do anything you can to keep them! If you don’t…give us a call – we can help you find some.