In their new book, Strengths Based Selling, Gallup's Tony Rutigliano and Brian Brim, Ed.D., debunk some widely held beliefs about sales. Such as: There's one right way to sell. There isn't. Or: Anyone can sell. The reality is that only certain people have the ability to consistently perform well in sales.
What's more, you might be the biggest sales star in your company, but you could boost your performance even further if you intentionally use your talents in the sales process. Behind that assertion is a tremendous amount of research. Gallup scientists have studied and measured the effects of strengths development on performance in sales organizations for decades. They've found that salespeople who know their talents and develop and use them are different from other salespeople -- and they often outperform everyone else.
If your manager reminds you about your talents, you're much more likely to be engaged.
In this conversation, Rutigliano, a senior practice expert, and Brim, a practice consultant, discuss how even great salespeople need self-awareness and support, how salespeople can develop their talents and strengths, and why flawed thinking about the sales process inspired them to write their book.
GMJ: Do great salespeople have different strengths than average salespeople do?
Brian Brim, Ed.D.: I think that some people are better at applying the talents they have more effectively. There are salespeople who have similar talents at similar levels of intensity, but some of them are more self-aware; they have an understanding of that talent and are willing to work at developing it to become the best of who they are.
It also depends on the type of support you have. You could be a talented salesperson, but if you're saddled with a poor manager and an organization that doesn't care about your engagement as an employee, that will affect your performance. Many factors can influence overall performance: whether or not you're engaged, the type of clarity and support that your manager provides, and whether you have opportunities to become the best of who you are.
Rutigliano: There are also catalysts to talent: your manager, the type of customers you work with, or your colleagues -- all those things could enable your talents to come to the fore. The biggest catalyst, though, is employee engagement. If you have a manager who reminds you about your talents, you're much more likely to be engaged. If you're more engaged, you're much more likely to be successful.
GMJ: How should a salesperson develop his or her talents?
Dr. Brim: First, get real about what drives you and how you're wired. Then have transparent conversations with others about that. The Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment was designed to help people become more aware of their talents, but it's up to individuals to be transparent with others about their talents.
Many organizations create an environment where we are supposed to be all things to all people, even though that's impossible. We're supposed to be perfectly well-rounded and excel at all things, even though no one can. So when we fall short, we end up pretending to be something we're not. That's why transparency is incredibly important.
GMJ: How can salespeople stay on track?
Dr. Brim: Support systems can be highly beneficial. Let's say that I want to engage with my customers in a more meaningful way, yet I tend to forget some of those connecting points after a call. A support system could be a notebook where I capture key data about a client that I can review prior to my next meeting. This could help me sharpen my ability to apply my Responsibility or Arranger talent themes, for example. Sometimes it's being realistic about expectations. If cold calling is something I don't like to do, perhaps I could work with my manager so that I spend 10% of my time on cold calling versus 30%.
Another support system is getting the right training or education. Sometimes acquiring the right skills or knowledge will help you become much better at what you're doing. If you're not fully versed in a product that you're trying to sell, it will be difficult for you to close an effective deal and build out more business and a stronger relationship with your clients. And sometimes, it's about repositioning yourself. I've worked with people over the years who failed miserably in one sales organization and were outstanding in another because of the type of sales.
GMJ: You mentioned building out more business. Are people who sell with their strengths better at it?
Rutigliano: Yes and no. Some salespeople are better hunters than farmers, while others are better farmers than hunters. Farmers are adept at building out business with current customers but aren't good at opening new business. Hunters can get plenty of new business, but that's the whole thrill of sales for them, and tending a field is boring as hell. Hunters won't do farming well after a while unless they can look at it as hunting.
Salespeople have this crazy notion that they have to excel at all parts of the sales process.
If I am naturally disposed to be a hunter, I better work in a line of business where opening up opportunity is the key to my success. If that's not me and I'm best at assessing and exploiting opportunities that exist in established relationships, then I better find an organization where growing existing relationships is where it's at. Companies that think about those things and manage their sales force from that perspective can be much more successful.
Dr. Brim: It's also important to understand what building out means to your customers. We've done a lot of work in "expansive" or advice-based customer relationships versus "negative" or price-based customer relationships. One of the things we've discovered is that if you are trying to build out a customer relationship, you need to understand that it's really about investment, problem solving, and partnership.
That's when understanding your talents and how to apply them in the sales process becomes so important. Gallup's research into behavioral economics and the emotional economy -- how emotion affects customer behavior -- has given us a much more sophisticated perspective about what it means to create a long-term, deeply trust-based relationship with customers.
GMJ: Having researched selling for years and written a book about it, would you say that you have the talent for sales?
Rutigliano: Me? Not at all. The odd thing is, I'm a pretty good communicator, and for that reason, there are people who think I can sell. When I've given speeches, I've been offered some great sales positions by people in the audience. "Come work for me. I'll make you rich." I think, "No, you won't, because I'm not going to meet quota."
I get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I have to ask people for money. I can't even fundraise for my church; I force myself to make 10 fundraising phone calls every year, and I hate every single one of them. The day Gallup says, "Tony, you've got to be a rainmaker," that's the day I'll go look for work somewhere else. I can help others make rain, but I can't make the rain.
Dr. Brim: I've actually sold before. I carried a bag for several years. I loved it, and I was very successful at it. And I did figure out the best way for me to do it. I used a relationship-based sales approach, a trust-based approach, and I had no problem asking people for money because I believed in what I was doing, and I knew that what I was selling would help improve their business. So I had the right wiring for that kind of sales. Now, if you threw me on the phone and told me I had to sell this much and make a thousand cold calls, that wouldn't be for me. It goes back to being aware of the type of selling you can do best.
GMJ: What made you want to write Strengths Based Selling?
Rutigliano: The sales process is so interesting, but most salespeople have grown up with this crazy notion that they have to excel at all parts of it. I wanted to write something that would help them think through how they could be better at some parts of it and could excel at other parts of it -- and how to have conversations with their manager about both those things.
Dr. Brim: Too often, the only advice that salespeople get is "Just sell like I do and you'll be great like I am." That doesn't work. We wanted to be a lot more tactical about how salespeople can apply the best of who they are to the sales process -- to move from the general to real application. I think this book is a way to open some eyes about how to be competitive and how to help organizations improve.
-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison