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Selling With Strengths

A Q&A with Tony Rutigliano and Brian J. Brim, authors of Strengths Based Selling

The best salespeople have innate talents. But do they know it? And do they use them? If not, they're squandering a powerful asset, say Gallup's Tony Rutigliano and Brian Brim, Ed.D., authors of Strengths Based Selling. Great salespeople are fairly rare, and those who develop their talents into strengths are rarer still -- but the research shows that they're also much more successful.

The best managers pay attention to each person individually.


There are two widely held myths about what it takes to be successful at sales, say Rutigliano and Brim. The first is that anyone can sell. This myth keeps too many people in the wrong career because only certain people have the ability to consistently perform well at sales. The second myth is that there's one right way to sell, which is nonsense, say the authors. Salespeople are trained to mimic various techniques, which may or may not help them sell.

In this conversation, Rutigliano, a senior practice expert, and Brim, a practice consultant, discuss the assumptions that can limit greatness in sales. They talk about salespeople's strengths and how to develop them. They talk about managers -- what the great ones do differently, what the bad ones do alike, and what all salespeople really need from managers. Finally, Rutigliano and Brim discuss the biggest hot button of all -- money -- why it isn't the motivator it's thought to be, and what it takes to keep salespeople in the game.

Gallup Business Journal: What do you mean when you talk about strengths?

Brian Brim, Ed.D.: A strength is the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance, and it's the outcome of talent times investment. It is the positive, productive application of your talent -- talent being a natural way of thinking, feeling, or behaving. And the words positive and productive are important, because those are the outcomes of investing in your talent.

Investing how?

Dr. Brim: Investing can be experiences that you have or the acquisition of knowledge. It can be learning a new skill, spending time practicing, or any number of things. These intentional investments in your talent lead them to becoming strengths.

Tony Rutigliano: Experience can increase confidence also. Sometimes we talk about strengths and talent as if experience doesn't matter. But if you don't believe you can do something, it doesn't matter how talented you are, right? The belief that you can do something comes from doing it and seeing success, from self-efficacy and self-confidence. I think self-confidence can get a little boost if you have some success in doing something. Experience is a good teacher, and it's also a confidence builder.Strengths Based Selling

Dr. Brim: That's also where a sales manager can come into play. Great managers always "hold the mirror up" to people to help them better understand the experience they just had that led to the building of a strength. A sales manager can build a salesperson's confidence by saying things like, "Do you realize that you asked some excellent questions that led to an opportunity to close that deal?" or "That was a great conversation. It led to a better understanding of the type of service that client needs."

It sounds like good managers pay close attention to what their salespeople do.

Dr. Brim: Yes, absolutely. The key difference is that the best managers pay attention to each person individually. They don't try to develop every salesperson in the same way. That's been the downfall of many sales-effectiveness or sales-training programs. Sales managers start with a template, then they expect every single person to follow that template and live by it. The result is mediocrity.

The great sales managers we've studied consistently challenge their sales reps by helping them think about performance objectives and stretch goals. These managers are incredibly effective at watching for opportunities or experiences for growth; they recognize and appreciate each sales rep as an individual. They remove barriers; they're adept at removing roadblocks that could slow down a salesperson's performance.

In your research for the book, did you find ways that sales reps can help their managers help them?

Rutigliano: Success and engagement are both two-way streets. A manager can't make you successful, but a manager can work with you to help you be successful. A manager can't engage you, but a manager can work with you to ensure that you're in the right environment in which to be engaged. If you keep your talents a secret, if you keep your limitations a secret, or if you keep your desires in the job and what you need to be successful a secret from your manager, you likely won't be successful or engaged.

We make so many mistakes in selecting and promoting managers.


You have to work with your manager. For example, you could say, "Hey, I love getting new business and I hate tending to old stuff. But Harvey over there is exactly the opposite. Can't he and I work together?" I don't think enough of those conversations happen because some sales managers don't want to hear them. Too many sales organizations put people in boxes and pay them the same way no matter how they go about their jobs -- or how successful they are at doing their jobs.

Managers need flexibility and latitude to do the right thing with their people. Sales is like chess, not checkers. In chess, the pieces move differently; in checkers, the pieces move the same. Many managers want to play checkers, so they treat salespeople as if they were checker pieces with the same moves and capabilities. But it just isn't so.

Treating each salesperson individually takes time and attention and care. It takes dedication to the workplace and the employee. But some sales managers honestly don't care -- they just want the numbers.

Rutigliano: We make so many mistakes in selecting and promoting managers. Often, the biggest problem in the workplace isn't the worker, it's the person selecting those workers and managing them. If we have a sales manager who says, "I just want the numbers, so go do it," what's the likelihood of long-term success for his or her salespeople? Not very good. The bad decisions we make about who we promote to management come back to haunt us again and again, and they certainly cost organizations in lost productivity. Good managers want to -- and will -- get to know their people, and they calibrate how they manage them depending on who each person is.

Dr. Brim: Tony and I have seen this time and time again. Sales environments are some of the worst about promoting outstanding individual contributors into management jobs. Sometimes that's a transition that the outstanding salesperson can make because he or she has a management talent set as well. Too often, organizations put salespeople who are outstanding at sales in charge of other salespeople, and they really don't want to manage them -- they want to compete against them; they want to outperform them.

Why do organizations do that?

Dr. Brim: They think the only way to recognize performance is promotion, rather than giving people the opportunity to continue to excel and to have opportunities for growth within their role, or recognition or pay increases within that role.

Rutigliano: We also have an up-or-out mentality in our society. If someone's not moving up, we think that maybe we should move them out, instead of thinking that person might have found a role that's perfect for him or her. It's like thinking that Picasso is a failure because he never became the director of a museum. In sales, it's easy to recognize the best individual contributors because it's quantitative. What's ridiculous is thinking that salespeople can't grow within their role and gain great status and rewards.

We also think we have to get promoted or we're not being successful. If we can instill the notion that growth within a role might be even better than growth to another role, though -- if we can get people to recognize that becoming a manager might be the worst thing that ever happened to them -- sales organizations would improve immensely. Every organization would.

Can you give me an example?

Rutigliano: There are some fields that typically don't connect promotion to management with greater rewards. Often in financial services, an account executive will not make as much as somebody who has a great book of business, so many of the great producers don't want to be managers. The same thing is true in real estate. R&D-heavy organizations offer dual career ladders: I can go up the people track, or I can go up the bench-scientist track. I think we need an equivalent to these dual tracks in sales so you can be a big success without having to manage another human being, if that's what fits your strengths.

Speaking of which, do salespeople have different strengths from other people?

Dr. Brim: There's a stereotype that if you're in sales, you have to be able to go for the jugular to close business. What we're discovering instead is that depending on the type of sales you're in, there may be different types of talents that are keys to success. That's why it's so important to understand your own talents -- so you can figure out your pathway to success.

A sales stereotype: You have to be able to go for the jugular to close business.


Rutigliano: We know that salespeople tend to be highly motivated, but that motivation can take different forms. One salesperson might be competitive, one might be ego-driven, and one might have resounding convictions in his products and services -- motivation can come from various things. Salespeople tend to be influential too. They think about how they can get somebody to do something that maybe they didn't intend to do when they woke up. In those ways, they tend to stand apart from many other people.

One thing that you did not mention as a motivator is pay. Why is that?

Rutigliano: While we were researching this book, I had one salesperson look at me with a straight face and say, "I'm coin-operated." He thought money was the be-all, end-all for him. But for many salespeople, money isn't the sole reason to work.

Money, however, can be the point system for salespeople motivated by competition. Making money makes them feel good because they beat someone else in the W-2 game. Money can also be a form of validation. If you pay me a half a million dollars a year to sell something, you think a lot of me, so I feel validated and appreciated. Or if you are a tremendously responsible person with bills to pay or a family to feed, you can be motivated by money in that way. For other salespeople, money doesn't really matter. They're motivated by a belief in the product, or by doing the right thing, or they've found a profession they love.

Did you learn anything that surprised you while you were writing the book?

Rutigliano: One of the things I thought all salespeople would own was being good at negotiation. But some of them told me that they try to avoid it. Instead, they have a conversation and direct it so the logical end of that conversation is closing business. It's not a negotiation because they just talked about everything they had to talk about. Some salespeople who had risen to very high positions within their companies said they're not good negotiators at all. One sales rep said, "I hate cold calling. Don't tell my people that, but I hate cold calling." And he's one of the top 100 executives at one of the world's most powerful companies.

Dr. Brim: One of the things that became clear to me is that some salespeople will try to be all things to all people. When you look at the complexity of the sales process, you must bring many different elements into play. Great salespeople have figured out what brings them to the game and what their blind spots are. They may never be great at some things, but they don't let it become their Achilles' heel. Instead, they maximize their areas of excellence so they can perform at high levels.

GMJ: You bring up an interesting point about weaknesses. Should salespeople admit what their weaknesses are? And how should they deal with them?

Dr. Brim: You can't ignore your weaknesses, but you can decide whether a weakness matters. You may identify something as a weakness, but if you use your talents to manage around it, you can neutralize it. Sometimes, poor managers will identify something as a weakness just because a sales rep doesn't do it as well as the manager. If it doesn't get in the way of the salesperson's performance, though, is it actually a weakness? I don't think it is.

A weakness matters when it gets in the way of your success or the success of someone around you. If it does, then you have to deal with it. Take cold calling, for example. Traditional sales organizations would typically say two things to folks who aren't good at it: "Try harder" or "Get training." Well, we can do a lot better than that.

GMJ: How?

Dr. Brim: It all starts with talent. Say you're an Achiever [one of the 34 themes of talent identified by the Clifton StrengthsFinder] doing cold calling. Create a tracking mechanism that pushes you to set your productivity bar high. Make sure that the number of cold calls you make feeds that desire to be more productive than others regardless of whether an individual call is successful or not. Even if a particular call isn't successful, the fact that you have made a large number of calls can be one way to feed your Achiever talent.

In the book's appendix, we included seven strategies for sharpening strengths and managing weaknesses to help people think about different ways to deploy against a weakness. A simple one is developing a complementary partnership. We've seen many salespeople who hate cold calling but who have built great complementary partnerships with people who love to cold call. So they spend their time serving, retaining, and growing accounts while others work through the cold calling element. Tactics like these can help people be much more sophisticated about managing their weaknesses.

-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison

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