The following articles on high-performing salespeople and sales organizations are based upon client-based research and Win-Loss-No Decision Studies conducted by Steve W. Martin for companies including IBM, EMC, AT&T, Oracle, TELUS, Acxiom, Infor and PayPal. To accomplish these studies he has interviewed hundreds of C-level executives and countless mid-level managers and lower-level personnel about their experiences during sales calls, presentations, and demonstrations. Steve has interviewed over 1,000 top salespeople about their sales philosophy, territory strategy, key account wins along with administering personality trait testing.

Articles On this Page:

1. Research Reveals the Art and Science of Sales Forecasting
2. What Top Sales Teams Have in Common
3. Study Reveals Why B2B Salespeople Lose
4. The Real Reasons Salespeople Lose 
5. Why Customers Don't Buy
6. Seven Personality Traits of Top Salespeople

WHAT TYPE OF FORECASTER ARE YOU? RESEARCH REVEALS THE ART AND SCIENCE OF SALES FORECASTING

This Steve W. Martin research article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.

Predicting the future is difficult, if not near impossible. However, salespeople and their managers are asked to forecast the future all the time. Sales forecasting is an art and a science. It is the combination of metrics, qualitative information, intuition, and best practices. So who are the most accurate sales forecasters, and what separates them from the least reliable? I recently conducted a study of the forecasting habits of more than 350 business-to-business salespeople and sales managers to answer this question. 

Sales Forecast Research 1 Steve W Martin

The study results suggest there are three basic types of forecasters: Exaggerators, Sandbaggers, and Heavy Hitters. Nineteen percent of the study participants were classified as Exaggerators, who are overly optimistic forecasters. They tend to interpret information in their favor. For example, if a customer says, “We understand your product, so there’s no reason for you to demonstrate it,” Exaggerators will interpret this as a positive sign, even though all the other vendors are demonstrating their products.

Exaggerators are happy-ear forecasters who take customers’ words at face value. When asked why they have forecasted a particular deal to close, they will say, “The customer told us he likes our solution.” They seem to have forgotten the old adage that “all buyers are liars.” Exaggerators may also continually paint the future as being incredibly bright.  While this quarter might not look so good, the next one is always going to be fantastic.  

Twenty-five percent of the participants were categorized as Sandbaggers, secretive forecasters who try to get by giving as little information as possible on the forecast. They figure the less information they give, the less exposure they have to upper management’s analysis of their forecast and their associated deal-inspection questions.

Fifty-six percent of the participants were classified as Heavy Hitters, who forecast per their conscience. They constantly analyze their forecast and strive for perfection. Regardless of whether they will have a good quarter or a bad quarter, they tell it like it is. They ignore the braggadocian, hyped-up forecasts of their teammates and consider it a personal obligation to be honest to themselves, their managers, and their company. 

Sales Forecast Research 2 Steve W Martin

Forecasting accuracy is directly related to the time and effort the forecaster spends calculating, revising, and confirming the forecast during the quarter. Thirty-two percent of the study participants spend one to ten hours on average updating their forecast, 38% spend eleven to twenty-five hours, and 30% spend more than twenty-six hours. Heavy Hitter forecasters spend twice as much time updating their forecast during the quarter as Exaggerators on average.

Sales Forecast Research 3 Steve W Martin

Forecasting accuracy varies during the year. For example, the accuracy of the forecasts from the first quarter  was different when compared to the fourth quarter. Thirty-three percent of forecasts were below the actual revenue number achieved in the first quarter compared to 23% in the fourth quarter. Forty-one percent of forecasts were very close to the actual revenue number achieved in Q1 compared to 44% in Q4. Twenty-six percent of the forecasts were above the actual revenue number achieved in Q1 compared to 33% in Q4. 

Sales Forecast Research 4 Steve W Martin

Forecasting accuracy also varies greatly during the quarter. Study participants were asked to rate how accurate their forecast was at key moments during a quarter on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the highest level of accuracy. At the thirtieth day of the quarter, 22% rated themselves at 1 or 2, 24% at 3, 31% at 4, and 23% at 5. At the sixtieth day of the quarter, 11% rated themselves at 1 or 2, 21% at 3, 59% at 4, and 9% at 5. At the ninetieth day of the quarter, 11% rated themselves at 1 or 2, 23% at 3, 23% at 4, and 43% at 5.

Sales Forecast Research 5 Steve W Martin

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the study was identifying who are the most accurate forecasters. The participants who rated their accuracy as a 5 or a 1 at day thirty both ended the quarter with the exact same forecast accuracy of 3.3 on average. Those who rated their accuracy as a 4 ended the quarter at 3.7, while those at 3 ended at 4.4 on average. Meanwhile, the highest accuracy forecasters were those who rated their accuracy as a 2 on day thirty: their accuracy level on average was 4.8 at the end of the quarter.

Sales Forecast Research 6 Steve W Martin

What impact do logic and intuition have on forecasting accuracy? Study participants were asked to explain what percentage their forecast was based upon logic versus intuition. The results indicated that two groups are the most inaccurate forecasters. The least accurate forecasters base their forecasting on 40% or less logic and 60% or more intuition and 80% or more logic and 20% or less intuition. Conversely, the most accurate forecasters base their forecast on 50 to 70% logic and 30 to 50% intuition.

Sales Forecast Research 7 Steve W MartinJPG

Participants in this range had the highest percentage of respondents who rated their forecast accuracy as a 5 at the end of the quarter. Respectively by group, 61% percent of those who based their forecast on 70% logic and 30% intuition, 60% of those who based their forecast on 60% logic and 40% intuition, and 43% of those who based their forecast on 50% logic and 50% intuition rated their accuracy level as a 5.

Sales Forecast Research 8 Steve W Martin

Preparing a complete, accurate forecast is more than a chore that comes with being in sales; it’s actually proof that you belong in sales. The best forecasters are Heavy Hitters who use a calculated measure of logic and intuition to predict the future.  They spend more time than their counterparts ensuring that their forecast is correct and cautiously approach each quarter being careful not to overcommit and thereby ruining their reputation.

WHAT TOP SALES TEAMS HAVE IN COMMON, IN FIVE CHARTS 

 


Click here to read the original Harvard Business Review Article

What separates high-performing sales organizations from average and underperforming sales organizations? In order to answer this question, I recently conducted an extensive 42-part survey with 786 sales professionals. Participants were asked to share their opinions on their sales organization and personal details about their own quota performance.

Twenty-two percent of survey participants included top-level sales leaders such as vice presidents of sales, 14% were front-line sales managers who manage salespeople, 17% were hybrid sales managers who sell directly to customers and manage other salespeople, and 47% were salespeople who carry their own quotas.

Study participants were asked to compare their company’s year-over-year revenue growth for the past two years and indicate whether annual revenues increased significantly, increased slightly, remained about the same, or declined. Responses were then analyzed by company name, annual revenue, number of employees, and industry type to ensure data accuracy. Thirty percent of participants indicated they had a high level of revenue growth, 44% had slight revenue growth, and 26% had revenues which were about the same or had declined. The survey responses were then grouped into high-performing, average, and underperforming categories according to these revenue classifications.

The study results reveal there are 15 significant differences between how high-performing, average, and underperforming sales organizations perceive themselves, measure performance, staff their organizations, and operate. Below are five of these key attributes and performance-related metrics that illustrate these differences and the gap between optimum and sub-par sales organization performance.

 1. High-performing sales organizations rated the quality of their sales organization higher than average and underperforming organizations.

Twice as many salespeople and sales leaders at high-performing sales organizations rated their organization as excellent as compared to average and underperforming respondents. In addition, 76% of high-performing team members rated their organization as excellent or above average compared to 51% of average and 49% of underperforming team members. Only 1% of high-performing team members rated their sales organization as below average compared to 10% of average and 8% of underperforming team members.

Sales Organization Performance  chart 1 Steve W Martin

 

 2. High-performing sales organizations employ a more structured sales process.

Fifty percent of study participants from high-performing sales organizations responded they had sales processes that were closely monitored, strictly enforced or automated compared to just 28% from underperforming sales organizations. Forty-eight percent of the participants from underperforming sales organizations indicated they had nonexistent or informal structured sales processes compared to only 29% from high performing sales organizations.

Sales Organization Performance Chart 2  Steve W Martin

 

3. High-performing sales organizations hold their team members to a higher level of accountability.

Study participants were asked whether or not they agree with the statement that their salespeople are consistently measured against their quotas and held accountable for their results. Twenty-nine percent of high-performing sales team members strongly agreed with that statement while only 13% of underperforming sales team members did.

Sales Organization Performance Chart 2  Steve W Martin


 4. High-performing sales organizations are not afraid to aggressively raise year-over-year annual quotas.

Seventy-five percent of high-performing sales organizations raised 2014 annual quotas more than 10% over 2013 quotas compared to 25% for average and 17% for underperforming sales organizations. Annual quotas remained the same or decreased for 65% of underperforming sales organizations, 48% of average sales organizations, and only 14% of high-performing sales organizations.

Sales Organization Performance Chart 4 Steve W Martin


5. High-performing sales organizations are quicker to terminate underperforming salespeople.

Eighteen percent of high-performing sales organizations indicated that salespeople will be terminated for poor performance after one quarter compared to only 2% of average and 5% of underperforming organizations. Seventy-eight percent of high-performing sales organizations indicated that a poor performer will be terminated within a year compared to 63% of average and 52% of underperforming sales organizations. Nine or more quarters are required to terminate an underperforming salesperson according to 12% of underperforming and 9% of average sales organizations while no high-performing sales organizations indicated it should take that long.

Sales Organization Performance Chart 5  Steve W Martin

 

The results from this 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. In addition, weaker sales team members who cannot contribute their revenue share are quickly removed. While the company’s goal may be to go public or reach certain revenue milestones, the greatest sales organizations are on a never-ending mission to prove to the world that they are the best.

STUDY REVEALS WHY SALESPEOPLE LOSE

 

This Steve W. Martin research article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.

Over the past year I’ve had the opportunity to interview several hundred business-to-business salespeople about how they win-over prospective clients and the circumstances when they lose. These interviews were conducted with salespeople across a wide variety of industries including high technology, telecommunications, financial services, consulting, industrial equipment, healthcare, and electronics to name a few. Their companies ranged from start-ups to billions of dollars in sales with the majority being between fifty and five-hundred million in annual revenues.

During the interviews I always asked the salespeople to describe the top challenges they were facing. Specifically, I was trying to find the obstacles that prevented them from closing more business (as opposed to a general list of items that made their job more difficult). Since I didn’t want to influence their answers, I asked open-ended questions instead of providing them with a list of topics to be ranked. Below, you will find the most frequently mentioned responses prioritized from most to least important.

No Decision. The real enemy of salespeople today isn’t their archrivals; it’s no decision. Customers will go to great lengths to reduce the stress of buying. They list their needs in RFP documents that are hundreds of pages in length. They hire consultants to verify that they are making the right decisions. They’ll conduct lengthy product evaluations and talk to existing users of the products to ensure they work as advertised. All these steps are taken in an effort to eliminate their fears, reduce their uncertainties, and satisfy their doubts. However, customers are never 100 percent sure they are purchasing the right product and there are always naysayers in the organization who are against moving forward. As a result, customers frequently won’t make a purchase even after an exhaustive evaluation.

Stalled Sales Cycles. Customers are more cautious than ever and moving the client to the point where they will make a purchase is a formidable undertaking. In some cases, the excitement generated by the salesperson’s initial 30,000 foot sales pitch to senior executives didn’t motivate meaningful follow-up from the lower level personnel of the customer’s organization. At other accounts, prospective buyers weren’t experienced with purchasing products. They didn’t understand how to sell their project internally and were unable to garner senior executive sponsorship. During lengthy sales cycles, evaluators frequently become reoriented toward other emergencies and the decision makers disappeared. Increasingly, purchasing has more say over decisions that were previously made solely by business areas. Procurement can be introduced very late during a sales cycle and reopen the process long after the salesperson thinks he has already won the deal.

Inability to Penetrate New Accounts. One of the most difficult tasks in all of sales is to penetrate new accounts. Salespeople continually cited how hard it was to generate initial customer interest and secure an introductory meeting. In almost every interview, salespeople also lamented the lack of leads being generated by their marketing department as well.

Product Commoditization. Nearly every market today has matured to the point where there is very little difference between the features, functions, and specifications of the competitive products.

Price versus Value. From the customer’s standpoint, the cost of the salesperson’s solution was prohibitive because the perceived value of the operational benefits did not justify the price. In other cases, a competitor’s price was significantly less thereby blocking the salesperson’s future involvement in the sales cycle.

800 Pound Gorilla.  Many underdog sales organizations have to compete against the mindshare of 800 pound gorillas in their marketplace. Companies like Microsoft, Cisco, and IBM are so dominate in their particular industry that they win business by default.

“Nice-to-Have” Product. During these tough economic times, companies have drastically cut back on any type of purchase that may be considered non-essential or a luxury. In other situations, the salespeople indicated they lacked the financial arguments and real-world proof points to move their product into the “must-have” category.

Internal Sale. At many companies the difficult task of winning over new customers is equally matched by the effort required to sell the deal internally. Salespeople not only have to rally internal support to pursue an account, they must aggressively justify the approval of legitimate business terms and pricing concessions. They also have to contend with long-drawn-out internal processes to generate proposals, quotes, and contracts that can impact deal momentum.

Administrivia. Salespeople complained that excessive updating of CRM systems, time consuming forms/reports required by management, and post-sales administration activities sapped valuable selling time in the field. 

Pre-sales Resources. Many sales organizations are not adequately staffed with enough pre-sales engineer resources and product specialists to fully support all sales efforts. In addition, these technical resources also serve as an important escalation focal point should problems arise during the initial product implementation. When the customer has a negative experience it hinders future purchases and the lack of referenceable customers impacts sales efforts overall. 

Overall, it was a feast or famine year for many salespeople. While some enjoyed great success, many more struggled to make their annual quota. The percentage of salespeople making quota at some organizations was as low as 35 percent and this is no doubt in due to the challenges listed above. Finally, I believe these challenges have also directly influenced the top business-to-business sales trends for the year.

THE BUYER'S PERSPECTIVE: THE REAL REASONS SALESPEOPLE LOSE 

 

This Steve W. Martin win-loss research article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.

I've interviewed thousands of decision-makers as part of the win-loss studies I conduct for clients. I'm always fascinated by how they describe their selection process and why they made their final decision. One of the most interesting parts of the interviews is learning why the competing salespeople lost.

There's a natural tendency to assume that the losing salespeople lacked sales prowess that the winner possessed or their product was far inferior in some way. However, in the overwhelming majority of interviews the evaluators ranked all of the competing salespeople and the feature sets of their products as being roughly equal. This suggests that there are other factors that separate the winner from the losers with some being completely out of the salesperson's control. Below, you will find these key factors along with a corresponding win-loss interview quote.

Incumbent Advantage. The incumbent vendor has a huge sales cycle advantage and the tendency is for them to win business by default. Based upon my research, the odds of unseating an incumbent vendor is typically about one in five.

"It's a pain to switch vendors. It's a pain to analyze whether you should or not. We naturally prefer working with our existing vendors." —Vice President of Purchasing

Inability to Remove Risk. Customers are never 100 percent sure they are purchasing the right product. Regardless of their confident demeanor, on the inside they are experiencing fear, uncertainty, and doubt. The ability to remove perceived risk plays a key role in determining who wins the deal.

"It sorts itself out pretty fast — those who will and won't make it with us. We are a big company, so there's always a tendency to go with the big players. Who are your proven big-time customers? What resources do you have to get something fixed?" —Chief Operating Officer

C-Level Executive Access. Because every major purchase involves executive level approval at some point, a salesperson's goal is to connect with a busy executive and conduct a meaningful face-to-face meeting. However, one of the toughest jobs in all of sales is to penetrate the C-suite, and there is a direct correlation of winning to the number interactions the salesperson has with executives during the sales cycle.

"Every salesperson is trying to get into my office and explain how their wonderful products will save me tons of money. Very few do because most don't understand what it takes to sit across the table from me." —Chief Executive Officer

Business Solution Focus. A common interview theme is that both the winning and losing salespeople knew their products very well. However, winners were better able to prove their value as a business partner who had the expertise to solve the customer's problem.

"What's wrong with salespeople is they're typically selling a product. I don't need a product unless it solves one of my business problems." —President

Ineffective Messaging. Successful communication is the cornerstone of all sales. Winners have the ability to tailor compelling messages that resonate with the various evaluators across the organization and up and down the chain of command. 

"We are a skeptical group, and they lost the deal during their presentation. They said they were different and much better than what we have, but they didn't provide enough proof. What they said didn't really apply to us." —Chief Financial Officer

Poor Pre-sales Resources. The complex sales process is typically a team-related sales effort that involves pre-sales product and consulting experts. Losers were often cited as having inferior quality pre-sales resources and equally important, the lack of knowledgeable resources who consistently attended each meeting throughout the sales cycle.

"The vendor we chose has a group of smart, dedicated, customer-oriented people. To a great degree, I don't think their products and services are different from their competitors'. They distinguish themselves with their people." —Vice President

Lack of an Internal Coach. A clear difference between winners and losers is that the winners developed an internal "coach" within the account. Coaches are evaluators who provide proprietary information about the selection process, status of the competition, and help the salesperson determine his course of action.

"Anytime we had a question, the sales rep attacked it. He would get their people on the phone within a day to answer how we could do something. He listened to what we were trying to do and he knew his resources. He earned our trust so we were much more open with him." —Chief Information Officer

Out-of-range Pricing. Time after time, interviewees reported they did not pick the least costly option. Savvy evaluators realize there will always be a low bidder. In reality, there is acceptable price range that the prospect is willing to pay and this can be anywhere from ten to twenty-five percent higher than the lowest proposal (depending upon industry and products being purchased). However, solutions priced outside of this boundary will rarely, if ever, be selected.

"Price is always important but we did not buy the lowest priced solution. There are many other factors including the fit between organizations that render pricing to a secondary factor. With that said, I never want to buy the highest priced solution." —Vice President of Technology.

Losing is always hard. Learning you are the loser in the eleventh hour of a deal is a frustrating, humbling, and embarrassing event. If you find yourself in this circumstance, perhaps it's time to honestly ask yourself if any of the factors above were at the root cause of your loss.

WHY CUSTOMERS DON'T BUY

This Steve W. Martin research article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.

The real enemy of salespeople today isn't their archrivals; it's no decision. That’s according to the several hundred business-to-business salespeople I interviewed on my recent article on the Top Reasons Salespeople Lose Deals. What is it that prevents a prospective customer from making a purchase even after they have conducted a lengthy evaluation process? The reasons may surprise you. 

Regardless of the prospective customers’ confident demeanor, on the inside they are experiencing fear, uncertainty, and doubt while making their selection. The stress this creates serves as the key factor in determining whether or not a purchase will be made. Therefore, all salespeople need to understand this lowest common denominator of human decision making—they need to understand the nature of stress.

From a psychological perspective, stress shortens attention spans, escalates mental exhaustion, and encourages poor decision making.  From an organizational perspective, when anxious evaluators experience too much stress it typically results in analysis-paralysis. They are too overwhelmed with information and contradictory evidence to make a decision. It’s the salesperson’s responsibility to anticipate and diffuse the main sources of customer stress during the selection process: budgetary stress, corporate citizenship stress, organizational stress, vendor selection stress, informational stress, and evaluation committee stress. 

Budgetary Stress: Is the money available and justified to be spent?
Whether a purchase is actually made is directly related to the perceived risk versus the anticipated reward. A company’s budgeting process is not only designed to prioritize where money is to be spent but also to remove the fear of spending it.Here’s a quote from a senior executive decision-maker I interviewed as part of a win-loss study  that explains this point:

“There are two main criteria for deciding on whether or not to make the purchase. One is value to the company as measured by return on investment and how it compares to the other projects being considered. Then there are strategic projects that are critical to our long term success such as protection of our brand or improving customer satisfaction. While projects may be approved initially for further evaluation, a cross functional team of senior executives reviews the final recommendation and whether the money should be actually allocated and released.”

Every initiative and its associated expenditure is competing against all the other projects that are requesting funds. Purchases are continually reprioritized based upon emergencies and in response to changing conditions.  For example, when new executive leaders join organizations, one of their first acts may be to freeze major expenditures and reevaluate all requests. The bad news is that a salesperson may have worked on a deal for most of the year only to find out that it was never truly budgeted. 

Corporate-Citizenship Stress: Is It in the Best Interest of the Company?
While customers inherently want to do what’s in the best interest of their company and to be good corporate citizens, the fundamental dynamic of corporate-employee loyalty has changed. Today, business is a “survival of the fittest” world where employment is never guaranteed and loyalty frequently goes unrewarded. In some situations, prospective buyers can feel continual pressure to put their individual needs before the company’s. For example, I remember one information technology decision-maker telling me, “There’s no such thing as picking the wrong solution so long as it helps you land your next job.”

Even after a formal evaluation process, the likelihood that a purchase will not be made jumps tenfold when the solution recommended is not aligned to company’s goals and direction. This is frequently the case with projects and purchases that are instigated by lower levels of an organization as they bubble up the chain of command for review. There is not a compelling business case to drive the purchase forward so it never garners senior level support.

Organizational Stress: How Do My Colleagues Perceive Me?
Peer pressure is a powerful influencer of group dynamics and evaluators are constantly worried about how the purchase decision will reflect on them. Senior executives are worried about what investors, the board of directors and members of the leadership team think about them.  And of course, they want their employees to respect them as well.  Mid-level managers suffer competitive pressure because all are striving to advance in their careers and move upward in the organization. Lower level personnel are continually seeking to prove themselves to their managers.

Whether from above, below, or the same level in an organization, coworkers are continually evaluating the behavior, success, and failures of those tasked with the decision-making process. Obviously, this exerts pressure on the evaluators to make the right decision and not to make a decision if there isn’t an obvious choice or clear-cut direction.

Vendor Selection Stress: Is the Tug of War between Vendors Equal?
One of the biggest problems during the sales cycle is that the difference between most products is extremely small.Compounding this problem is that everyone is presenting thesame basic messages to the customer. Take a moment and visit the homepage of your company’s website and those of your two biggestcompetitors. You’ll see that the words and claims are basically interchangeable.

There tends to be a higher no decision rate where product differentiation is extremely small.Since all the competing products share the same basic features,functions, and benefits, evaluation team members may take longer to make their decision or postpone it indefinitely.

Informational Stress: Is the Information Being Presented Truthful?
We live in very skeptical times in which information presented by the media and experts is continually challenged and constantly debunked.  In addition to being subject to the general cynicism of our society, most customers have had negative experiences with some salespeople sometime in the past. Therefore, customers are always in the stressful position of separating fact from fiction. Meanwhile, even the most ethical salesperson carries the burden of proving he’s telling the truth.

Worse yet,as the sales cycle progresses competing vendors may try to escalate FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) in the customer’s mind about the wherewithal of the competitors’ and the capabilities of their products. For example, competitors will try to sabotage one another with facts such as unfavorable performance metrics, missing functionality, and tales of unhappy customers. In turn, the attacked competitors will provide the customer with believable information that contradicts the original attacks. Therefore, the sales cycle naturally disintegrates into a quarrel between salespeople and this scenario helps set the stage for no decision to be made.

Evaluation Committee Stress: Why Can’t we Agree on a Solution?
Whenever a company makes a purchase decision that involves groups of people, self-interests, politics, and group dynamics will influence the final decision.  Tension, drama, and conflict are normal parts of group dynamics because decisions are not typically made unanimously.  As members promote their own personal favorites, the interpersonal conflicts can cause the decision-making process to stagnate and stop. Other selection team members may not be 100 percent certain they are picking the right solution. All of this uncertainty encourages no decision.

Closing Thoughts
Customers are stressed out. They don’t know whom or what to believe. They are under immense peer pressure, and they are torn between doing the right thing for the greater good of the company and acting in their best personal interest. To make matters worse, the vendors increase the pressure by injecting claims of their superiority and accusations about their competitors’ inferiority.For all these reasons it’s no surprise that no decision is the top competitor today.

SEVEN PERSONALITY TRAITS OF TOP SALESPEOPLE

This Steve W. Martin research article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.

If you ask an extremely successful salesperson, "What makes you different from the average sales rep?" you will most likely get a less-than-accurate answer, if any answer at all. Frankly, the person may not even know the real answer because most successful salespeople are simply doing what comes naturally.

Over the past decade, I have had the privilege of interviewing thousands of top business-to-business salespeople who sell for some of the world's leading companies. I've also administered personality tests to 1,000 of them. My goal was to measure their five main personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and negative emotionality) to better understand the characteristics that separate them their peers.

The personality tests were given to high technology and business services salespeople as part of sales strategy workshops I was conducting. In addition, tests were administered at Presidents Club meetings (the incentive trip that top salespeople are awarded by their company for their outstanding performance). The responses were then categorized by percentage of annual quota attainment and classified into top performers, average performers, and below average performers categories.

The test results from top performers were then compared against average and below average performers. The findings indicate that key personality traits directly influence top performers' selling style and ultimately their success. Below, you will find the main key personality attributes of top salespeople and the impact of the trait on their selling style.

1. Modesty. Contrary to conventional stereotypes that successful salespeople are pushy and egotistical, 91 percent of top salespeople had medium to high scores of modesty and humility. Furthermore, the results suggest that ostentatious salespeople who are full of bravado alienate far more customers than they win over.

Selling Style Impact: Team Orientation. As opposed to establishing themselves as the focal point of the purchase decision, top salespeople position the team (presales technical engineers, consulting, and management) that will help them win the account as the centerpiece.

2. Conscientiousness. Eighty-five percent of top salespeople had high levels of conscientiousness, whereby they could be described 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.

Selling Style Impact: Account Control. The worst position for salespeople to be in is to have relinquished account control and to be operating at the direction of the customer, or worse yet, a competitor. Conversely, top salespeople take command of the sales cycle process in order to control their own destiny.

3. Achievement Orientation. Eighty-four percent of the top performers tested scored very high in achievement orientation. They are fixated on achieving goals and continuously measure their performance in comparison to their goals.

Selling Style Impact: Political Orientation. During sales cycles, top sales, performers seek to understand the politics of customer decision-making. Their goal orientation instinctively drives them to meet with key decision-makers. Therefore, they strategize about the people they are selling to and how the products they're selling fit into the organization instead of focusing on the functionality of the products themselves.

4. Curiosity. Curiosity can be described as a person's hunger for knowledge and information. Eighty-two percent of top salespeople scored extremely high curiosity levels. Top salespeople are naturally more curious than their lesser performing counterparts.

Selling Style Impact: Inquisitiveness. A high level of inquisitiveness correlates to an active presence during sales calls. An active presence drives the salesperson to ask customers difficult and uncomfortable questions in order to close gaps in information. Top salespeople want to know if they can win the business, and they want to know the truth as soon as possible.

5. Lack of Gregariousness. One of the most surprising differences between top salespeople and those ranking in the bottom one-third of performance is their level of gregariousness (preference for being with people and friendliness). Overall, top performers averaged 30 percent lower gregariousness than below average performers.

Selling Style Impact: Dominance. Dominance is the ability to gain the willing obedience of customers such that the salesperson's recommendations and advice are followed. The results indicate that overly friendly salespeople are too close to their customers and have difficulty establishing dominance.

6. Lack of Discouragement. Less than 10 percent of top salespeople were classified as having high levels of discouragement and being frequently overwhelmed with sadness.  Conversely, 90 percent were categorized as experiencing infrequent or only occasional sadness.

Selling Style Impact: Competitiveness. In casual surveys I have conducted throughout the years, I have found that a very high percentage of top performers played organized sports in high school. There seems to be a correlation between sports and sales success as top performers are able to handle emotional disappointments, bounce back from losses, and mentally prepare themselves for the next opportunity to compete.

7. Lack of Self-Consciousness. Self-consciousness is the measurement of how easily someone is embarrassed. The byproduct of a high level of self-consciousness is bashfulness and inhibition. Less than five percent of top performers had high levels of self-consciousness.

Selling Style Impact: Aggressiveness. Top salespeople are comfortable fighting for their cause and are not afraid of rankling customers in the process. They are action-oriented and unafraid to call high in their accounts or courageously cold call new prospects.

Not all salespeople are successful. Given the same sales tools, level of education, and propensity to work, why do some salespeople succeed where others fail? Is one better suited to sell the product because of his or her background? Is one more charming or just luckier? The evidence suggests that the personalities of these truly great salespeople play a critical role in determining their success.

LANDMARK SALES ORGANIZATION STUDY

Based upon Interviews and Surveys with Vice Presidents of Sales at Top Companies

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 is the Truth About the Migration from Field Salespeople to Inside Sales?
What are the Latest Key Sales Performance Metrics?

Sales Organization Study

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, The Truth About the Field Sales to Inside Sales Migration Trend, provides detailed insights about the evolutional nature of sales organizations along with key sales performance metrics.

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. Read More

Steve W. Martiin Speaker


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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Keynote Speaker


Steve Martin will energize, enlighten, and entertain your sales team with real-world sales strategies, proven tactics, and helpful advice delivered with a healthy dose of humor!
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Sales Training


Heavy Hitter training is not the typical classroom lecture, it’s a completely interactive workshop. Learn how to penetrate, navigate, and conquer complex enterprise accounts.
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What Clients Say!


Learn what "Heavy Hitter" Clients have to say about Steve W. Martin's Sales Kickoff Meeting Keynote Presentations, Top Salesperson Panels, Sales Training Workshops!
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