Imagine Your Ideal Salesperson. Turns Out Your Mental Picture is Probably Wrong.
If you're looking for an employee on the front lines of your business (salespeople, customer service, etc), you might have this image of an outgoing, gregarious individual. Or maybe you picture the aggressive (pushy?) self-confident types, who relentlessly drive sales results.
Well, I hate to break it to you, but you (and pop culture) are wrong - these types are actually the worst choices for your front lines. So if you're targeting only these types during your hiring process, odds are you're only hurting your sales success. Here's why.
A study from the Harvard Business Review found that effective salespeople do not necessarily exhibit a particular personality type - extroverted, introverted, etc. The study focuses instead on seven "skills related to sales success." For example, "The Socializer," the outgoing type most people think makes for an effective salesperson, is "the worst-performing when it comes to making the sale." How can this be? Because "Socializers tend to chit-chat at the expense of actually making the sales pitch." Similarly, "Storytellers" focus on "how other clients used the product or solved the problem," but taken to extremes their stories are "counterproductive...The danger for storytellers is they pay too much attention to these past customers, and not enough on those sitting in front of them." Makes sense to me. Time is valuable and these types use too much of it by not getting to the point. I avoid the incessantly chatty cashier at my supermarket - and she's always the only cashier without a line, so I don't think I'm alone there.
Another HBR study found that "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." Likewise, it was actually a lack of gregariousness (a preference for being with people and friendliness) that resulted in higher performance - "top performers averaged 30 percent lower gregariousness than below average performers." As the researchers conclude, "ostentatious salespeople who are full of bravado alienate far more customers than they win over." In other words, for fans of The Office, would you rather deal with Dwight, or Jim?
You may be thinking, "Wow, now I'm not sure who to hire!" If we've torn down everything you thought was true, and your mental picture of a good salesperson is now just a formless wraith, don't worry. We can rebuild it - we have the technology.
If you want the best sales profile possible, ideally you should seek out an ambivert (a mostly equal mixture of introverted and extroverted traits). A study by Adam Grant at U Penn's Wharton School found that "In a three-month period, [ambiverts] made 24% more in sales revenue than introverts, and 32% more in revenue than extroverts." No, that's not backwards. Not only did the ambiverts outperform extroverts, but the gregarious extroverts were actually the worst performing for total revenues earned, of all three personality types. And introverts and extroverts both "pulled in roughly the same percentage of sales." Why are ambiverts so much more effective? As Grant puts it, "The ambivert advantage stems from the tendency to be assertive and enthusiastic enough to persuade and close, but at the same time, listening carefully to customers and avoiding the appearance of being overly confident or excited." Ironically for those hiring managers that try to whittle down their applicant pool by focusing only on the extreme extroverts, and then wonder why finding a great candidate is so difficult, most people are ambiverts, so the most effective salespeople were ruled out before you even hired them. You might have even ruled out the ambiverts on your own staff in favor of the boasting, gregarious candidates, when the perfect person to do the job is right down the hall.
Think about the last time you were hiring someone for a sales or customer service role. First impressions matter, right? During the interview, you were probably laser-focused on whether the candidate had that gregarious and outgoing personality. So when the candidate was nervous and didn't effectively sell themselves exactly like you imagined, you ruled them out. They were nervous the first time they met you, so how are they supposed to make a great first impression and effectively sell your product or service to customers? But we've written before about the differences between interview skills and working skills. Turns out that candidate who nailed the interview, and made that phenomenal first impression? He might only be great at interviewing because he's pretty lousy at doing the actual job. In fact, the study we referenced found "the contributions of extroverts were not as good as expected and the introvert performed beyond expectations in a team environment." Are we saying to take an extroverted candidate out of consideration, solely because of their personality? Of course not. Just include the introverts and ambiverts in the mix as well. Studies show they'll surprise you.
If you'd like to stop wasting your time on the irrelevant, superficial aspects of interviewing, and start understanding the deeper elements of what really predicts success a new hire, read our post on How to Conduct a Job Interview so Top Performers Actually Want to Take Your Job.
And, if you prefer all that research and information pulled together into one attractive document you can easily share with others, download our Employer Guide to Interviewing.
Of course, interviews are only one component of a great hiring process, our Resource Center has additional topics you might find helpful:
- How to Replace Underperforming Employees
- How to Write Job Descriptions that Attract Great Candidates
- How to Handle Bad Glassdoor Reviews
- How to Evaluate the Effectiveness of Your Hiring Process
- How to Make Your Hiring Process More Certain, Predictable and Consistent
One disclaimer: This advice will be most relevant to hiring managers who are interviewing professional staff in large metropolitan areas. Our perspective is shaped by our work, and we work in a retained executive search firm, conducting searches for CEO and senior staff positions. We've completed over 600 searches for associations and other nonprofits in major metropolitan areas like Washington DC, New York, and Chicago, so we make no claim that all of our advice will be relevant if you are interviewing for other types of positions in other job markets.
Topics: Interviewing Executives