Rethinking the Extraverted Sales Ideal

Rethinking the Extraverted Sales Ideal: The Ambivert Advantage (by Adam M. Grant, Psychological Science, 2013)
Summarized By Ellen Croux and Deva Rangarajan, Vlerick Sales Center

Article At a Glance:
This interesting articles suggest that successful salespeople need not always exhibit extrovert tendencies, nor will salespeople be at a complete disadvantage if they introverts. The author works on a concept proposed by bestselling author Daniel Pink and proposes the ambivert (referring to an individual who falls between an extrovert and an introvert) as the ones who are more likely to be successful in the long run. Basing himself on a sample of salespeople, Adam Grant, proves his point and offers some pointers for sales managers.

Selling is a vital part of the economy, which is why psychologists have a long-standing interest in the character traits of successful sales people. According to conventional wisdom productive salespeople are more likely to be extraverted; they tend to be assertive and enthusiastic and so they are more likely to be selected for sales positions by managers. There are three major reasons for the advantage in sales of extraverts. First, selling requires a lot of contact with potential customers and extraverts tend to be more sociable and comfortable in initiating interactions with others. Second, extraverts express the confidence, enthusiasm and energy necessary to persuade customers. Third, extraverts are more likely convince customers to change their attitude by not taking no for an answer with firm and forceful behaviour. These reasons may seem obvious but research has shown weak and conflicting relationships between extraversion and sales performance.

The theory of costs of extraversion in work settings
High levels of assertiveness and enthusiasm can also reduce the effectiveness of extraverted salespeople in two ways. First, they may focus too heavily on their own perspectives and dominate conversations. This way there is the possibility that they neglect or suppress others’ perspectives. Extraverted salespeople may spend too much time delivering assertive and enthusiastic pitches, while seeking stimulation and social attention. As a result too little time is spend asking questions and listening to customers’ answers.

Second, extraverted salespeople may elicit negative responses from customers when their behaviour is perceived and recognized as persuasive intent. In this case customers might interpret excitement and confidence as a signal that the salesperson is trying to influence them and they react with actions to maintain control and protect themselves by scrutinizing the salesperson’s message more carefully, by marshalling counterarguments and by resisting or rejecting the influence.

This article offers a new perspective and proposes a curvilinear, inverted-U-shaped relationship between extraversion and sales performance. It proposes that ambiverts, who find themselves in the middle of the extraversion spectrum, should achieve higher sales than introverts or extraverts do. Ambiverts are likely to display the right requisite levels of enthusiasm and assertiveness to stimulate customer interest and convert this interest into sales. At the same time they strike a balance between talking and listening.

Research method and results
To test this hypothesis a study of 340 outbound-call-center representatives was conducted, in which their extraversion and sales revenue was tracked over three months. The study found a curvilinear relationship between sales revenue and extraversion. The results suggest that ambiverts have a sales advantage over extraverts regardless of their standing on the other four personality traits of the Big Five: conscientiousness, openness, neuroticism and agreeableness.

Results from a hierarchical regression analysis showing a predicted curvilinear relationship between extraversion and sales revenue over 3 months

Findings and further research possibilities
Studies have demonstrated that job performance can suffer if employees are too conscientious, too emotionally stable, too generous or too learning oriented, but research about whether sales performance can suffer if employees are too extraverted still has to be extended. The findings of this study call into question the long-standing belief that most productive salespeople are extraverted. Previous studies that found inconsistent results may be explained by too much focus on the benefits of extraversion and underestimation of the costs. There exists a clear call for greater attention to the dark sides of extraversion. Future research should examine factors that might elevate the sales performance of extraverted people to the same level as ambivert sales people, for example factors like clear reward structures. There should be a study to examine whether the sales performance of ambiverted people is consistently better than the performance of introverts or extraverts. Also variation of the results by facets of extraversion should be examined and whether there are other personality traits or behavioural patterns that can reduce or eliminate the negative effects of high extraversion on sales productivity.

Why these findings are good news
There exists a western cultural bias favouring extraversion, nowhere is this bias more clear than in sales. Yet the findings of this study suggests that hiring managers may be missing out on star performers and less extraverted people may be missing out on productive careers. Organizations might stand to benefit from training highly extraverted salespeople to model some of the quiet, reserved tendencies of their more introverted colleagues. The finding that ambivert people deliver the best sales results constitutes good news because in the world population, levels of extraversion generally follow the shape of a bell curve. Which means that most people find themselves somewhere in the middle, in the ambivert spectrum. The logical conclusion is that most people are well suited to selling.

Rethinking the Extraverted Sales Ideal

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