When it comes to sales excellence, relationships aren't everything. Neither is motivation. You probably find this surprising given the persistent myths about the importance of both to the sales profession.
The Gallup Organization's research confirms that the ability to develop relationships and a burning desire for success can be critical components of world-class sales performance. But without "something else," these two characteristics alone do not result in the highest level of productivity.
Sales managers have had the notion beaten into their heads that customers buy from "people they like." And so, individuals who have some people skills are often encouraged to go into sales. This is especially true in technical sales or with financial products, where engineers or accountants who can smile and say hello are moved into the sales force. In our studies, we often hear about how certain salespeople's customers "love" them, but we do not usually find these salespeople in the top 25%. In fact, sometimes relationships actually get in the way of making sales!
Similarly, many sales managers have been taught that if someone only has enough desire, they can be successful in a sales career. And so, sales managers will look for the hungriest candidates they can find. To be sure, there are plenty of people who want the success that can be obtained in sales. A sales career has the potential for well above average income and, in many companies, is a fast track to senior management.
But as we studied and interviewed more than 250,000 sales representatives, we found that desire and relationships are not enough. There was still a missing link, one that emerged when we segmented out the very best sales producers. But before we describe that link, let's explore these two myths more fully. (Other myths -- Sales Myths and Reality and Education, Experience, and Training -- are explored in earlier columns.)
The relationship myth
We are almost reluctant to write about the "relationship myth." We can already hear the chorus of objections. "Well, maybe relationships don't matter in certain situations," some managers will say, "but in our industry, relationships are everything." Yet we found the value of relationships is frequently overstated and misunderstood.
The notion that relationships are critical to selling is so widely held that everyone assumes it's true. And in part it is. People with strong relationship attributes frequently use those strengths to generate positive results. But we also see people with great relationship talents who cannot sell a thing. Why? Because relationship strengths themselves are not enough. Gaining customers requires more than just making friends, and friendly people are sometimes afraid to risk a relationship in order to ask for the business.
Surprisingly, we found a good number of top salespeople who have only average relationship talents. But they have adopted a selling style that works for them and have figured out how to make the most of the relationship abilities they possess. Usually their job is an exact match for the relationship talents they have, and they have developed very different ways to foster constructive business relationships. Some salespeople are good at meeting and greeting new people, some may be better at developing a few close relationships, and still others may use trust and honesty as a way to build relationships over time. Different sales positions may require quite different relationship talents.
An individual's relationship talent may be a key indicator to the selling position that would best suit him or her. But relationship talents alone are not good predictors of success.
The desire myth
Why is the desire myth so prevalent? Even our own research shows that the single most reliable predictor of sales success is a person's inherent motivation. Being successful, achieving goals, or competing to win are obviously not equally important to everyone. But when we examined the motivation of the very best salespeople, we found that they were more driven than 95% of the general population. The kind of motivation we're talking about here is deeply internal. It is not the result of a pep talk or the announcement of a new sales contest. Yet by itself, even motivation this strong is not enough.
Society sends us the message that people can do or be anything they want, as long as they are willing to work hard and make it happen. Most of us hear this myth from the time we start elementary school, but in the back of our mind, we know it just isn't true.
Most people could never make it through medical school, no matter how much they want to be doctors. And just because a person wants to be a famous movie actress, a rock-and-roll singer, or a professional athlete, doesn't mean it's going to happen. No matter how much people want success or how hard they are willing to work for it, they still need something more. And we are not talking about lucky breaks.
People need the accompanying talents in order to be successful in a given occupation. In sales, motivational themes are important to an individual's success. You may have your own vocabulary for these striving themes; you may think of them as determination, drive, persistence, or "fire in the belly." But striving themes, by themselves, do not make someone a superior salesperson. Whatever your terminology, these themes or strengths are exceedingly important -- but so are the other strengths that are required for success in sales.
Let us introduce you to Donna P. Donna was well educated and articulate, and she had a strong desire to be successful. After completing her MBA work, she was employed by a brokerage firm. Eventually, however, she became unhappy and she felt that the products her company offered really didn't meet her clients' needs. When an opportunity arose for her to join a well-known national brokerage company, she was ecstatic.
At this point, Gallup interviewed Donna. We found that while she had many impressive attributes, she lacked the strengths that would enable her to gain commitment from people. And the job, at least as we saw it, required gaining commitment in order to be successful.
We discussed this issue with both the manager and with Donna. Donna felt that if she were selling a product that she really believed in, she could ask for the business. The sales manager was so taken with her other attributes that he went ahead and offered her the position.
Three months later we had a conversation with the sales manager, who informed us of how hard Donna was working and what excellent progress she had made. She had thrown herself into the task of understanding all of her company's products; the manager remarked that he had never seen someone get off to such a fast start or to be so hungry for success.
At six months, the manager was still glowing in his reports about Donna. She was now getting out in front of customers on a daily basis and starting to make real progress. His expectations for her future were high.
At nine months, Donna walked in and resigned. She told her manager and us that she had come to hate the job. She didn't like the constant pressure to ask people to buy things. She enjoyed explaining the products to her prospects, but when it came to asking them to make a decision, she would balk. Even though she could do it, and was trained to do it, she felt uneasy asking for commitments. She felt like she was putting people on the spot and this made her uncomfortable. This lack of comfort led to frustration and eventual resignation.
The missing link
Many people assume it's the talent to form relationships. While relationship strengths can be a tremendous asset, they are not as important as the talent to impact people. These impacting themes enable the best salespeople to ask customers for commitments in a way that gets positive results. People without these impacting themes may be wonderful at making friends, but gaining customers requires more than just making friends.
Some people are simply better at asking other people to do things than the rest of us. This is not the result of some learned technique or repeated sales instruction, but is an inherent talent which enables the best salespeople to intuitively understand how and when to use these techniques. These impacting talents come in several forms. Some salespeople are very subtle, while others might be more "in-your-face." Some of the world's best salespeople are persuasive and logical, while others are more emotional in their appeal. But all of the best sales reps have an exceptional ability -- and a natural tendency -- to be able to ask for commitment.
When we interview world-class sales performers, we find an abundance of impacting talent coupled with an unusually strong desire for success. Frequently, we also find just the right kind of relationship talent for the company's particular sales mission. These talents, along with a person's consulting and work style themes, create the right fit. Our research shows that individuals with the right fit in sales organizations generate four to 10 times as much sales revenue as average performers and are responsible for the lion's share of customer loyalty. They are definitely worth recruiting and worth keeping!
The concepts of talent and fit are critical to the development of a world-class selling organization. In our next column, we will discuss the concept of fit and how it relates to the myth of "the right sales approach" -- and the myth that "a good salesperson can sell anything."