What separates the strongest salespeople from the weakest

What separates the strongest salespeople from the weakest? (by Steve W. Martin, Harvard Business Review, March 2015)
Summarized By Ellen Croux and Deva Rangarajan, Vlerick Sales Center

This document summarizes three connected pieces of work by Steve W. Martin, that should resonate with salespeople and sales managers alike.

A lot of research has been conducted concerning the right capabilities a salesperson should have to become a high-performing top salesperson. This project involved the interviewing of top salespeople and sales leaders to gather more information about the attributes necessary to exceed your quota.

High level of verbal acuity
A communication level where the meaning, nature, and importance of the words spoken by the salesperson are personally understood by the customer. A high-performing salesperson knows how to convey a message at the recipient’s communication level. On average they score between the 11th and 13th level on the Flesch-Kincaid test. A good understanding between both parties is necessary to make them see that they can both gain from a certain deal and it augments the credibility of the salesperson.

Achievement oriented personality
High performing salespeople are fixated on achieving goals and continuously measure their performance in comparison to their goals. They are well-equipped to function in competitive environments where self-discipline is a necessity. Most of them also played an individual or team sport in high school. High performers are also power users, they take full advantage of their company’s CRM technology and internal systems.

Situational dominance
A personal interaction strategy by which the customer accepts the salesperson’s recommendations and follows his advice. In sales, dominance is how people judge each other, it is not about the use of brute force. People sense what their position is; inferior, equal or superior, and this perceived position has impact on their

behaviour and communication during a conversation. A relaxed-dominant salesperson guides the conversation by speaking freely and by confidently sharing his knowledge and opinions with the customer.

Inward pessimism
Salespersons describe themselves as optimists. Salespeople always have to maintain a positive and pleasant attitude in front of customers. Upon further review a lot of high performers actually exhibit pessimistic personality tendencies. Inward pessimism drives a salesperson to question the viability of the deal and credibility of the buyer. Top salespeople ask the customer tougher qualifying questions and seek out meetings with senior level decision makers who ultimately decide which vendor will be selected.

Sales Management impact
High and underperforming salespeople utilize their managers differently. High performers find leadership and management skills; practical experience and sales intuition and communication and coaching skills the top 3 priority attributes of great sales managers. Underperformers tend to use their managers to make up for the product and industry knowledge they lack.

Both high –and underperforming salespeople are in contact with their sales managers at about the same frequency. But the conversations they have with sales leaders are different. High performers are collaborative in strategizing sessions about prospective deals.

Sales organization influence
High-performing salespersons rate their sales organization’s morale as being higher than in most sales organizations. The research suggests that sales organization morale influences individual sales success. Also accountability influences individual quota achievement. High-performers agree that salespeople at their company are measured against their quota and held accountable.

Conclusions & other studies
The study results also indicate that individual sales success is not dependent upon the growth rate of the company the salesperson works for.

When the different results of this research are taken into account, we can conclude that sales performance is more likely dependent on the attributes of the individual and sales environment characteristics over company-related influences.

Steve W Martin also conducted other studies concerning the right character traits and attributes you need to become a top salesperson. Two of those studies are mentioned here briefly.

A salesperson’s seven deadly sins (2010) 

Seven personality traits of top performers (2011)

& Rankings

Equis Association of MBAs AACSB Financial Times Economist Intelligence Unit