THE PERSONA OF TOP SALES PROFESSIONALS
Take the Test and Compare Yourself to Top Sales Professionals
Not all sales professionals are equally successful. Given the same sales tools, level of education, and propensity to work, why do some sales professionals enjoy greater success? Is one better suited to sell a certain product because of his or her background? Is one more driven or just luckier? I recently conducted an extensive study of more than 1,000 salespeople and sales management leaders to determine the attributes of top sales professionals--those who achieved more than 125 percent of their assigned quota last year.
The goal of the study was to better understand the personal attributes, attitudes, and actions that influence their sales productivity. This is a very select group as only 15 percent of the study participants met the criterion. Conversely, 16 percent of participants were under 75 percent of their quota and the majority (69 percent) achieved 75 percent to 125 percent of their annual quota.
About one-third of study participants were field salespeople, one-third were inside salespeople, and the remainder were mid-level sales managers and top-level vice presidents of sales. These top sales professionals have been in sales an average of sixteen years and achieved the annual quota assigned to them 88 percent of the time over the course of their careers. This is 22 percent higher than the average of study participants who achieved less than 75 percent of their quota last year.
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Participants completed an extensive forty-three-part survey on subjects that included sales strategy preferences, past sales performance, and a wide variety of questions to better understand their values and personal beliefs. The questions were very different than you might expect because I wanted to discover the underlying psychological orientation and behavioral tendencies of overachievers. In other words, I didn’t want to identify traits that one normally associates with success such as perseverance or work ethic. Instead, the questions were formulated to test various hypotheses about successful sales behavior.
This report contains a cross-section of the questions the study participants were asked to complete. They are presented prior to the discussion of each research subject. Before reading about the results, I recommend you take the time to think about which answer you would select just as though you were taking the test. You may even want to print this report now before reading further so that you can write down your selections.
Except where noted, I’m not suggesting that these attributes are solely exclusive to overachievers. Indeed, top, average and underperforming salespeople share many of the same traits. Nor am I claiming that sales success is dependent upon one particular behavior or another. Rather, this report provides an overview of the attitudes of top sales professionals and serves as reference for you to compare yourself. Specifically, this report is divided into six key areas:
1) Focus and Motivation
2) Career Orientation
3) Personal Attributes
4) Customer Interaction Strategy
On this page, we'll review the first four key areas. You will find a link to download the full 39 page report at the bottom of this page. Finally, this is the first of a series of reports based on the results of this sales persona research project. Future reports will focus on the similarities and differences between men and women in sales, and how location influences selling styles and performance.
1) FOCUS AND MOTIVATION
Money is extremely important to me and how I measure my personal success
O Very True O True O Neutral O Untrue O Very Untrue
Are you money motivated? It’s not surprising to find that top sales professionals are money motivated. Sixty-six percent agreed with the statement “Money is extremely important to me and how I measure my personal success,” while only 10 percent disagreed as shown below.
But, there is another interesting way to think about money motivation. That’s in terms of its association with greed. We normally associate greed negatively with a miserly scrooge or a corrupt character. While this may be society’s definition, in sales the greed instinct takes on an entirely different meaning. In sales, greed and self-respect are closely intertwined. Greed can be thought of as the desire to be fairly paid for one’s time.
You have probably worked with many different types of salespeople, and you may have noticed that some gravitate towards working on “big deals” while others “nickel-and-dime” their way to quota working smaller deals. The greed instinct is actually a key influencer in the way sales professionals work their territory and this is linked to how money motivated they are. For example, 71 percent of the sales professionals who were under 75 percent of their annual quota indicated they would rather pursue a medium size deal that has a higher probability of closing than a large deal that has a lower chance of closing. In comparison, only 47 percent of top performers would pursue a medium size deal over a larger deal.
Obviously, it is the absence of greed that can impact sales performance. Nearly half of sales professionals who were under 75 percent lack the greed instinct. They selected very untrue, untrue, or were neutral when asked about being money motivated. This indicates that they aren’t nearly as money motivated as top sales professionals. In addition, twice as many top sales professionals thought the statement was very true.
Being respected by and recognized as one of the best by my peers at my company is very important to me.
O Very True O True O Neutral O Untrue O Very Untrue
Top sales professionals aren’t solely motivated by money. I theorize that one of the reasons for the intense preoccupation with money is that it serves as undisputed validation that the salesperson is an expert who deserves respect. The study results also provide proof that top sales professionals are highly motivated by status and recognition. A staggering 84 percent indicated that being respected and recognized as one of the best by peers at their company is very important to them.
Top sales professionals feel their opinion matters and always want to be heard. They truly believe they are experts in the field of sales and know exactly how it should be done. They naturally seek to achieve the alpha (or dominant) position within their group to ensure they are heard. Whether formally or informally, they desire to see their actions emulated by other team members, and the only way to achieve the alpha position is by becoming a top salesperson.
The leadership position top sales professionals seek is not necessarily reflected in their title—it is a position of prominence based upon their knowledge and the recognition that comes along with being thought of as an expert. I remember as a vice president of sales, I experienced a more motivated sales team environment by awarding a forty-five dollar trophy than would be achieved by increasing the compensation plan by ten times that amount.
Which statement best describes you?
O I am very dependable and good at prioritizing my time
O I am a likeable person who makes customers feel comfortable
O I believe my knowledge is powerful
When asked to select how they describe their personal focus, 42 percent of top sales professionals believe they are a likeable person who makes customers feel comfortable. At the foundation of all sales is a relationship between people. Great salespeople have an innate talent to build these relationships by creating rapport. Their presence has an appeal that makes a customer feel at ease. The customer enjoys their company. They build personal alliances based upon understanding individual wants and needs. The customer trusts them.
Thirty-two percent consider themselves very dependable and good at prioritizing their time. These sales professionals are oriented differently than the group who selected likeability. When asked to select three words that they would use to describe themselves, the most frequent selections were “confident,” “productive,” and “responsible.” In separate personality testing I have done in the past, 85 percent of top salespeople had high levels of conscientiousness. They are classified as having a strong sense of duty and being responsible and reliable. These salespeople take their jobs very seriously and feel deeply responsible for the results.
Twenty-six percent believe that their knowledge is their most powerful attribute and this group had the highest average quota attainment last year at 170 percent. These salespeople are masters of language. They are accomplished communicators who know what to say and, equally important, how to say it. Through their domain expertise and the knowledge of their industry, products, technology, or business, they have developed the ability to persuade skeptics to buy.
They are also sales cycle experts. The sales cycle is the formalized information exchange between a customer and a salesperson. It consists of a series of steps that are designed to gather information about the customer and present information about the salesperson’s solution. While a company has identified these steps for the sales force, the best salespeople enhance this process by drawing upon past sales experiences. They use this reservoir of experience to manage and control their deals. As a result, they close more business.
2) CAREER ORIENTATION
I am the type of person who…
O Lives my life one day at a time
O Has a written or mental list of things I want to accomplish
O I’m frequently thinking what my future will be like in 5, 10 or more years
Top sales professionals think about work a lot. According to study results, they find themselves thinking about their job over half of their free time on weeknights and weekends. I would argue this statistic proves that sales requires a higher level of job fixation than most careers. In addition, they’re goal and outcome focused. Fifty percent said they were the type of person who keeps a written or mental list of goals they want to accomplish.
While you might associate this with someone who prefers order and structure, this is not the case, as 81 percent of participants who selected this response prefer a wide variety of activities as opposed to repetitive daily routines. I surmise the list provides a reinforcing visual representation of forward progress and milestones of accomplishment as completed items are crossed-off and also serves as a practical reminder.
Thirty-seven percent indicated they’re frequently thinking about what the future will be like in five, ten, or more years. Only 13 percent described themselves as the type of person who lives life one day at a time. These sales professionals employ less structure to their sales methodology when compared to those who maintain lists or are constantly thinking about the future.
Each of these three groups not only have different types of personalities, they work on deals in completely different ways. More list maintainers said they focus on situations where they were more likely to win when working on deals. More future thinkers indicated they follow their instincts while more one-day-at-a-timers selected they take calculated risks when working on deals.
The fundamental reason I’m in sales is
O I like to control my own destiny
O The harder I work the more money I make
O It suits my personality
O It just happened naturally
What is the fundamental reason you’re in sales? The responses from top sales professionals about the fundamental reason they went into sales were fairly evenly split as shown below.
One way to analyze these answers is by grouping them into two distinct categories. Controlling your destiny and working harder represent the “sales as a career” category. This is a group of confident like-minded individuals who share many traits and characteristics. They answered most of the survey questions similarly and their answers tended to show more conformity to the expected norms of sales behavior.
The second category is “sales as a lifestyle.” The diverse nature of their answers indicate this group is composed of more independent thinkers who are more outgoing and gregarious. They think differently than the first group. For example, each group was asked if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: I like to win, but cannot stand to lose because the pain of losing is greater than the joy of winning. Twice as many top sales professionals in the sales as a career category thought the statement was very true. Conversely, twice as many sales as a lifestyle category thought the statement was very untrue.
3) PERSONAL ATTRIBUTES
Which of the following subjects would you say was your favorite when you were in school?
O Language or Composition
O Physical Education
Do childhood experiences influence sales success? The results indicate they do as 72 percent of top sales professionals remember their childhood fondly as a generally happy time while only 9 percent disagreed with that statement. This affirms research that shows the level of childhood happiness correlates to higher earnings later in life. Furthermore, I believe it invalidates the popular opinion of many people who’ve never been in sales that it is a career for those who never had the opportunity or propensity to do anything else.
Furthermore, another aspect of childhood experiences provided interesting results. When asked which school subject was their favorite, 29 percent selected history and 23 percent selected science and math. Overall, top salespeople preferred sciences over language and the arts as shown below.
First, the study results indicate that a person’s gender greatly influences the subjects he or she selects. We’ll explore the importance of this fascinating topic in much more detail in the next research report on the similarities and differences between men and women in sales.
The subject you selected is an important indicator of your selling style, how you process information, and develop your sales intuition. Sales intuition is the ability to correctly read and anticipate a customer’s actions. You can think of your sales intuition as a highly developed model for making decisions and a powerful heuristic engine that is constantly learning from the past. It is the process of comparing a series of past experiences against current circumstances.
History is based upon the study of important events, times, people and places from the past. Obviously, learning from the past is an important method for making well-informed decisions in the future. Therefore, it should not be surprising history was the top selection. In essence, history is based on a form of storytelling and this is indicative of a person’s high level of verbal orientation. Equally important, history lovers tend to possess a characteristic I refer to as situational curiosity and this impacts their sales success. This is the personal desire to understand all the different aspects of a sales situation--the who, what, when, where and why the customer will buy.
Science is the process of discovery and exploration based upon a systematic methodology of observation, measurement, and testing. Through this process science lovers attempt to organize the chaos that occurs naturally during the sales cycle.
This requires the ability to think about the future hypothetically. Their sales intuition is developed based upon a more cerebral orientation, where the interpretation of results tend to be processed more quantitatively than the qualitative history lover.
Math is based upon formulas, frameworks, and regimentation. It is indicative of absolute thinking where results are either black or white, all or nothing. Math lovers have an analytical orientation that is consumed with predictable outcomes based upon concrete terms. In which level of the sales organization is this type of thinking most relevant--the sales rep level, mid-level management or top-level vice president of sales? More top-level vice presidents of sales selected math than did any other sales role, and this makes sense when you think about the complexity of sales forecasting.
Physical education (sports) and sales share a lot of the same characteristics. Each requires hard work, perseverance, sacrifice, and personal discipline. More importantly, each is based upon preparing oneself--physically, mentally, and strategically--for the long run--whether it is an entire season or a fiscal year. Being in sales takes a single-minded drive to achieve a goal and this is indicative of someone who is action oriented.
It requires an intensely competitive personality and the willingness to make a commitment and personal sacrifice to winning. The habit of putting in long hours, whether on a baseball diamond, on a football field, on a tennis court, or in a swimming pool, parallels the habits of successful salespeople.
Language, composition and the arts are based upon self-expression that tend to be associated with mental, spiritual and social well-being. When compared to math and science, the creative orientation is quite opposite. They are concerned with empathy, emotional expression, and out-of-the-box thinking. Language and art lovers strengthen their sales intuition through deep, personally sophisticated customer conversations.
Unfortunately, sales organizations today are making two common mistakes. First, the majority of sales training time is spent only on memorizing logical facts about the company, product, and competitors. Little or no training is given on the development of sales intuition, when in fact, a salesperson’s intuition is responsible for saying or doing the right thing at the right time. Second, everyone is taught to deliver the same thing in the same way even though sales professionals learn, process information, and communicate in vastly different ways.
When I have to make an important decision that impacts my life, my decision is usually based on
O Much more on logic than instinct
O Slightly more on logic than instinct
O Equal parts logic and instinct
O Slightly more on instinct than logic
O Much more on instinct than logic
Salespeople typically equate persuasion solely with satisfying the analytical mind. This isn’t surprising since we spend the first decades of our lives in schools that indoctrinate us with the scientific method of investigation and technical theories to explain the phenomena of life. Our training continues throughout adulthood as our employers teach us the processes and procedures needed to fulfill our duties. However, we are not as objective and analytical as we think, and even the most well-thought-out decision is ultimately determined by emotional and subconscious influences.
When asked how they make important decisions that impact their lives, 40 percent said their decisions are based on more logic than instinct, 30 percent use equal parts logic and instinct, and 30 percent use more instinct than logic as shown in the figure below.
From the standpoint of last year’s quota attainment, it was exactly the same for top sales professionals who use more logic than instinct and those who use more instinct than logic. However, the average for those who use equal parts logic and instinct was seven percent higher.
What’s better over the course of an entire career? Is it better to be someone who makes decisions using more logic than instinct, equal parts logic and instinct, or more instinct than logic? While the results were close, the answer may surprise you. Top sales professionals who
used more instinct over logic estimated they achieved their annual sales quota 91 percent of the time over the course of their career, on average. Those who used equal parts logic and instinct, or more logic than instinct, were tied at 87 percent, on average.
4) CUSTOMER INTERACTION STRATEGY
Rank the following sales strategies in order of effectiveness:
__ Asking questions that show your expertise
__ Driving the topics of conversation
__ Getting the customer to emotionally connect with you
__ Showing the value and benefits of your solution
__ Tailoring your sales pitch to the customer's needs
The top sales professionals ranked five different sales strategies based on their effectiveness. As shown below, the top-ranked strategies were “Getting customers to emotionally connect with you,” followed by “Tailoring your sales pitch to the customer’s needs,” and then “Asking questions that show your expertise.” The two lowest ranked strategies were “Showing the value of your solution” and “Driving the topics of conversation.”
1. Getting the customer to emotionally connect with you
2. Tailoring your sales pitch to the customer's needs
3. Asking questions that show your expertise
4. Showing the value and benefits of your solution
5. Driving the topics of conversation
The order of the answers above may surprise, or even upset, the sales enablement and sales training professionals who are reading this report. You see, most training programs are predicated on showing the value and benefit of solutions. They share the same fundamental flaw. They think of customers as rational decision makers who use logic and reason exclusively. Meanwhile, the successful salesperson understands and appeals to the emotional, political, and subconscious decision maker. They have to build a trusted relationship and personal friendship in a short period of time.
The conversations salespeople have with customers are quite complex.Unfortunately, when most salespeople meet with prospective customers, they talk in only their own language about their product's features, functions, and benefits. A sales training program should also explain the psychological reasons customers buy and provide practical real-world examples on how to incorporate the elements of customer behavior into a winning sales strategy.
People buy products they believe will help them fulfill deep-seated psychological needs: satisfying the ego, being accepted as part of a group, avoiding pain, and ensuring survival. All the other outward appearances of a customer’s decision-making process—the analysis, return-on-investment calculations, and other internal studies—are the means to achieving an overriding psychological goal. Therefore, the training program must take into account the psychological value of your solution and explain how to influence the politics of organizational decision making.
Which statement do you agree with most?
O Sometimes you have to point out what the customer is doing is wrong and proverbially tell them their “baby is ugly”
O Likeability is a very important differentiator between myself and my competitors
O Challenging the customer’s point of view can make the customer feel too uncomfortable
When surveyed about which customer interaction statement they agreed with most, 49 percent indicated that likeability was an important differentiator between themselves and their competitors. Conversely, 45 percent agreed with the statement, “Sometimes you have to point out that what customers are doing is wrong and proverbially tell them their baby is ugly.” In other words, sometimes you have to be provocative and confront the customer’s belief system. Only 6 percent concurred with the statement that challenging the customer’s point of view will make the customer feel too uncomfortable.
Situational dominance is a personal communication strategy by which the customer accepts your recommendations and follows your advice. The drive to take command of a situation is instrumental to a sales professional’s success. Just as a doctor must sometimes prescribe a painful treatment to heal a patient, in some sales situations you must control prospective customers to help them. Conversely, at other accounts you must align with their business strategy and follow their decision-making process explicitly. In every account, you have an important choice to make. The answer you selected is a preliminary indicator of your natural level of situational dominance.
Most interestingly, each of these answer groups gave completely different reasons when asked why they are most likely to lose a deal. “I might have thought I was in a better position than I was” was the top answer for those who selected likeability as an important differentiator. “I was outsold” was the top answer for those who selected you have to point out what the customer is doing is wrong. “Something outside of my control made it impossible to win” was the top answer for those who selected challenging the customer can make them feel uncomfortable.
I tend to
O Develop very close personal friendships with my clients
O Have cordial relationships with my clients because we are both busy
O Feel personally responsible and dedicate myself to ensure my client’s success
O Keep a general pulse on what’s happening with the customer after the sale
What type of relationship do you have with customers following the sale? Contrary to what many people think of as a requirement for sales success, only 16 percent develop very close personal friendships with their clients. Rather, nearly half of all respondents indicated they have cordial relationships and keep a general pulse on what’s happening with the customer after the sale. Thirty-six percent of top sales professionals indicated they feel personally responsible and dedicate themselves to ensuring the client’s success.
What’s the best sales strategy? While it’s hard to pick the outright winner, the evidence suggests the worst sales strategy is to keep a general pulse on customers. Here are some results associated with each of the answers so you can make your own decision.
THE SALES ORGANIZATION PERFORMANCE GAP STUDY:
What Separates High-performing Sales Organizations from Average and Underperforming Sales Organizations?
The answer to this question Steve W. Martin conducted extensive surveys with top-level sales leaders, mid-level sales managers, and salespeople. The resulting research, The Sales Organization Performance Study Report, provides detailed insights on the characteristics of high-performing sales organizations, quota analysis measurements, and key sales performance metrics.
Seven hundred eighty-six sales professionals participated in the study by completing an extensive forty-two-part survey. The survey goal was to gather both qualitative information about the attributes of high-growth sales organizations and the associated quantifiable performance metrics. Participants were asked to share their opinions on their sales organization, their top sales challenges, and personal details about their own quota performance. In exchange for their candor, it was agreed that their names and organizations would remain anonymous.
Twenty-two percent of survey participants included top-level sales leaders such as vice presidents of sales, 14 percent were front-line sales managers who manage salespeople, 17 percent were hybrid sales managers who sell directly to customers and manage other salespeople, and 47 percent were salespeople who carry their own quota.
The study results reveal there are fifteen significant differences between how high-, average-, and underperforming sales organizations perceive themselves, measure performance, staff their organizations, and operate.
Learn More Read the Performance Gap Report
SALES ORGANIZATION RESEARCH: THE TRENDS THAT ARE CHANGING SALES
What is the Truth About the Migration from Field Salespeople to Inside Sales?
What Strategies are Sales Leaders Employing to Overcome their Top Sales Challenges?
How Does Sales Cycle Complexity Impact the Structure of the Sales Organization?
What are the Latest Key Sales Performance Metrics?
The answer to these questions are exactly what Steve W. Martin, a well-known sales author and sales organization researcher set out to find. To do so, Martin conducted in-depth interviews and extensive surveys with over one-hundred top sales leaders at leading high technology companies and business services providers. The resulting research, provides detailed insights about the evolutional nature of sales organizations along with key sales performance metrics by sales category (software, cloud, hardware, telecommunications, etc.):
Percent of Sales Organization Achieving Quota
Average Sales Cycle Length and Order Size
Average annual Quota and On-target Earnings
Inside Sales Centralization Statistics
Field Sales Revenue Trends
Over the past two years, forty-six percent of study participants reported a shift from a field sales model to an inside sales model. Twenty-one percent reported a shift from inside sales to a field sales model. More than twice as many study participants reported moving to an inside sales model. WHY?
This landmark study reveals key factors that determine when a sales organization will utilize a field or inside sales model. It provides qualitative information including trends and future predictions along with quantifiable sales organization metrics. Sales leaders share their top
sales challenges and future sales strategies to meet the revenue goals. Learn More
The results from this fascinating study quantify what many sales leaders have intuitively known for years. The best sales organizations have strong leaders who exercise control, monitor team performance, and establish internal processes that all team members must abide by. They hire talent of such high quality that it challenges the more tenured sales team members to continually perform at the highest level. Learn More
Steve W. Martin
Steve W. Martin is the foremost expert on Sales Linguistics and the Human Nature of Complex Enterprise Sales. He is the author of the "Heavy Hitter" Series of books for Senior Salespeople.
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