Face facts. We hire salespeople for the sole purpose of getting someone to buy a product. If they can't do that, we might as well mail out brochures and wait for customers to send in orders.
Think of all the money that we could save if we didn't have to spend so much on a sales force! But customers frequently need a little nudge to make a commitment. In some cases, customers may need to be bulldozed off the edge of a cliff before they buy. That's where a salesperson makes all the difference.
Yet not all salespeople are equally effective at gaining commitments from their customers. Differences in sales results are often related to impacting talents, or -- in some cases -- the lack of them.
The Gallup Organization studied sales forces in 170 companies and 21 industries and found that 35% of the sales reps we interviewed lacked the threshold talents needed to be successful in sales on a consistent basis. Our research grouped these talents into "striving" themes and "impacting" themes. Striving themes motivate salespeople. Impacting themes help sales reps gain commitments. Together, they make up the two most critical elements of "fit." Without an abundance of these ingredients in a person's make-up, sales is a very tough profession.
When we first began our research, we thought of impacting primarily as it related to closing. To many, closing is an activity that occurs only at the end of the sales process. We prefer a broader definition. We believe that impacting occurs whenever salespeople gain needed commitments while building their customer relationships.
The requirements for impacting themes can vary tremendously from sales job to sales job. Very direct sales jobs may have only one occasion to ask for a commitment: when you're asking for the order. More complicated sales roles frequently involve gaining incremental commitments throughout the process, moving the customer from step to step toward a sale. But what allows some people do this so consistently?
The difference between training and talent
Many sales articles have devoted lots of attention to closing techniques. More recent books have focused on negotiation skills or asking the right questions. All these techniques are really part of the broader process of gaining commitment. What our research shows is that gaining commitments is not just a matter of technique or training. Training can be helpful, but neither training nor techniques are what distinguish the most effective "impactors."
Years ago, we studied a door-to-door sales force. After a salesperson made his way into the householders' living room, he needed to ask them to make a decision at the conclusion of the presentation. If he failed to do this, after the presentation the householders would invariably tell the salesperson they wanted to "think it over," and the sale was lost. The company spent lots of time figuring out the very best wording to use to ask the householder that question.
In his initial training, each new sales representative focused heavily on memorizing the exact wording for this section of the presentation, practicing it many times. No one was permitted to go into the field without thoroughly mastering this critical element. Virtually everyone could do it perfectly in a role-playing situation in training.
Yet when it came time to ask this question in front of a "live" customer, eight out of 10 sales recruits could not do it. Why? Many told us they just felt too awkward asking that particular question. They felt like they were putting their customer on the spot, and this made them uncomfortable.
This experience helped us understand the difference between training and talent. Those without a high level of "Command" (an impacting theme) could not ask the question, no matter how much training they received. Those with a strong Command theme quickly integrated the question into their sales presentation. Not only could they ask an awkward question, they took great delight in doing so.
Impacting themes generate results. However, Command is only one of the impacting themes that Gallup research has identified; understanding the many possible impacting talents of your individual sales reps is critical to their development. Instead of trying to force your salespeople to use the same cookie-cutter approach, you are better off understanding how your sales people impact others.
One of the biggest problems with training programs is that they assume everyone can learn every technique. Our research contradicts this assumption. The best salespeople we studied sold very differently, within the same industry or even the same company. What they did do, though, was use a selling approach that was a perfect fit with their impacting talents.
Salespeople with strength in the impacting theme "Positivity" typically approach customers in different ways than those with strong Command, because these themes are so dissimilar. Individuals with strong Command carefully build a case, perfectly timing their sales close so it's almost impossible for their customers to say no. In contrast, salespeople with strong Positivity may give less structured sales presentations, and -- instead of closing once -- they will keep asking for the sale, even if the customer initially says no. They persist until the customer finally agrees.
For example, Anne E., a sales rep with a strong Command theme, creates tightly structured presentations, always asking for the sale at just the right closing moment. Cliff O., whose strongest impacting theme is his boundless Positivity, uses a radically different approach. Unlike Anne, Cliff is always closing, but he's so genuinely enthusiastic, it hardly ever turns his prospects off. He just keeps nudging and nudging and nudging them, until they almost inevitably say "yes."
A third and very different impacting theme involves "winning others over," or "Woo." Individuals strong in "Woo" are excellent at meeting and greeting new people. They are able to make others comfortable with them very quickly, and they leverage their new friendships to ask for favors or commitments. Ernesto D., for example, makes such a good first impression, customers want to do business with him. In fact, he's often able to get people to agree to something, even before he's completely explained what it is.
If you want to get the best from your salespeople, you need to understand the talents they use to impact others. Different impacting themes give the best salespeople we have studied different and unique selling styles, but they often need an understanding manager.
In a long selling cycle, highly commanding sales reps can be frustrated unless their managers can help them appreciate and recognize the small "victories" or "closes" that add up to the big deal. As a sales manager, you should not expect highly commanding reps to be "lions in the field" and then "lambs in the office." These reps might need help managing office politics and in maintaining the internal relationships they need to deliver on their promises.
It can be tempting for managers to try to get reps with lots of Positivity -- like Cliff -- to give more structured presentations. However, such a style is uncomfortable to them and usually weakens their performance. Similarly, managers need to understand that individuals with lots of "Woo," like Ernesto, may not develop long-term relationships with their customers. Managers need to keep salespeople with strong "Woo" centered on meeting new people and making the most of their prospects. Too much contact with their customers can sometimes erode their relationships.
Many of these individuals have benefited from managers who understood their strengths and helped them develop a selling style that takes advantage of their natural abilities. After all, the reason we have salespeople in the first place is to make a selling impact on our customers. Impacting themes are the essence of selling talent.
Impacting themes often work hand-in-hand with an individual's approach to building and developing relationships. In our next article, we'll show how different "relating" themes affect sales performance.