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Business Journal

Taller Is Better

That's just one of the myths that decrease the effectiveness of your sales force

by Benson Smith
Coauthor of Discover Your Sales Strengths

We have good news for our taller readers: Your height is apparently worth something extra to your employer. According to a recent column in The New York Times, tall people earn, on average, $789 more per inch annually than their shorter counterparts. Does that difference have anything to do with actual productivity? No. It's simply an added premium employers pay to taller employees.

This information may give new meaning to the term "stretch objectives." But the message is clear: If you want to be paid more, stop worrying about productivity and just grow a few more inches. An extra foot would net you almost $10K more a year. Be careful, however, to grow taller and not wider. Those extra pounds can cost you plenty. Obese women, the story reports, earn 17% lower wages than women of average weight.

QUOTE: If you want to be paid more, stop worrying about productivity and just grow a few more inches. An extra foot would net you almost $10K more a year.


While we're at it, let's not forget the importance of good looks. The Times column referenced an analysis published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis that concluded that good-looking people get more money and promotions than the rest of us. If you're looking for a new job, it seems that your chances of getting hired are a lot better if you're taller, trimmer, and better looking than other applicants. No one ever said life was fair.

Now, let's get serious, OK? Are companies so blind that they actually allow these characteristics to shape hiring, promotion, and compensation practices? Yes, they are! If you rate high on the appearance scale, you're likely to be paid 5% more than your more average-looking colleagues, and if you rate low, it may cost you a 9% penalty. That's a 14% swing in your paycheck based on your appearance. These averages are so significant that they point to a wide pattern of practice among companies, not just a few isolated occurrences. What's more, hiring managers might not be aware of such favoritism because it occurs largely on a subconscious basis. Nevertheless, appearance prejudices are alive and well.

The "glare" factor

This comes as no surprise to Gallup Organization researchers who help companies create selection profiles. We often find that "glare" factors interfere with candidate evaluations; they may influence managers to hire someone with less potential who "looks better." These glare factors are deeply ingrained in human nature. According to published research, even parents treat their more attractive children with favoritism, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that employers and hiring managers do as well.

When it comes to hiring salespeople, managers may well assume that customers will respond more favorably to attractive people, and that perception tends to influence hiring decisions. Is that so wrong? After all, if it's human nature to favor tall, trim, attractive people, won't that work to someone's advantage in sales? This sounds intuitively correct (if politically incorrect), but it doesn't work that way in reality.

When Gallup first began studying exceptional salespeople more than 50 years ago, researchers started each project by identifying top performers and comparing them to moderate performers. Gallup generally defined top performers as sales reps who were consistently in the top 25%, based on objective results; mid-range performers were reps whose objective results consistently placed them in the middle of the pack.

If you replicate this study with your sales force (provided it is big enough for a statistically valid sample), you will come to the same conclusions Gallup did after looking at more than 170 sales organizations. You will find that your best performers are no taller, no thinner, and no more attractive than your mid-range group. You will also find that people in your top-performing group did not go to better schools, get better grades, earn an MBA, or possess more experience than those in your mid-range group.

That's why we refer to appearance, education, and experience as glare factors. They are things about a candidate that may influence your hiring decisions but tell you very little about a candidate's likelihood of success. Unfortunately, too many companies place too much emphasis on these glare factors. Also, we often found that managers' perceptions about what made their best people successful differed substantially from what really made them a success at sales, as revealed by our research.

This realization led Gallup to an even more important question: If appearance, education, and experience don't tell us much about a candidate's potential for success, then what does? This is an important question because the difference in the best performers' results is staggering when compared to your average performers' results. A comparison of the two performance groups in a medical device company showed that the top quartile generated nearly 60% of the sales increases, while mid-range performers produced only 18%. A luxury car manufacturer told us that their best salespeople sold 40 cars a month, while their average performers sold only eight. A mortgage brokerage company generated an average of $100 million in loans from their best producers, while their mid-range producers sold only $18 million. It is well worth finding out what really differentiates your best producers, because companies can't improve the quality of their sales forces by hiring more average people -- they need to hire people with the potential to be exceptional.

The importance of talent

Gallup consistently found two common denominators that best explained these differences in performance. First, the best performers had certain talents that were far greater in intensity than they were in average performers. The talents most predictive of success in these sales roles had to do with motivation, an ability to build trust quickly, and a willingness to ask for commitments; in some sales roles, problem-solving and organizational talents also played a role. These talents have nothing to do with a person's height, weight, appearance, education, or experience. Yet when a sales candidate's talents matched closely with those of a company's best performers, their on-the-job results far exceeded those of people who were similar in other respects but lacked the same talent configurations.

Second, talented performers seemed to do much better when they were assigned to above-average managers. Managers who were adept at creating an engaged team got the best from their star performers. Not only were their salespeople more productive, but they stayed with the company longer and developed more engaged customers. This translates into significant top- and bottom-line improvement.

As sales organizations face a tough competitive marketplace, perhaps it's time to separate perception from reality. The perception is that tall, trim, and attractive candidates are worth hiring and deserve more pay. The reality is that these characteristics have nothing to do with employee productivity or corporate profitability. Instead, companies should hire people who have similar underlying talents as their best producers, then put them to work for managers who know how to create an engaged workplace.

Benson Smith is coauthor of Discover Your Sales Strengths.


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