Search for the phrase top attributes in sales performers, and you will get about 400,000 results. A harvest that includes blogs, magazine articles, research studies, and white papers. Many of them describing archetypal qualities similar to ones that Kendra Lee, a sales author and strategist, posited in an article, 5 Telltale Signs of All-Star IT Salespeople: work ethic, effort, coachability, sales intelligence, and problem solving.
Hard to argue with that list. If you subtract sales from sales intelligence, you get a set of desirables for every occupation. Try it with me! I swapped out IT Salespeople for dentist, lumberjack, and talk show host. Yep, yep, and yep. These are telltale signs for All-stars, alright.
But another list, Key Qualities of a Great Salesperson, by Flip Flippen, offers an entirely different set: driven, confident, outgoing, assertive, funny, structured, relational, and focused.
These attributes don’t have the universality of Lee’s list. That’s a plus. A competent lumberjack does not need to be relational, except when a heavy branch is about to land on a co-worker. A talented dentist does not have to be funny. Better, actually, when he or she isn’t. If you’re seeking the skills toolbox that predicts whether a rep can “just crush it,” maybe Flippen’s list brings us closer to that nirvana.
But why is funny important for a salesperson, and why does it receive mention over other essentials, like honesty and empathy, which are absent from Lee’s list as well? I can offer no answers, other than it leaves room for future iterations.
Lee had five success attributes, and Flippen had eight. What did others think? Once again, my interrogative journey spiraled to new heights. Tweaking my search, I discovered sets of attributes with as few as three, but topping out at eighteen. Eighteen! Some were from well-known thought leaders like Brian Tracy, others from people less famous. A random sampling of articles, listed in ascending order of the number of essential traits needed in top sales producers:
Hiding behind these superficial views of success are serious logical distortions. If putative success attributes explain rep achievement, what explains reps who succeed despite having some – or none – of these qualities? What explains reps who have these qualities, but don’t succeed? And what explains reps who have roller-coaster revenue results – sky high one year, and deep in the tank the next? Surely their skills did not spike and recede in tandem.
People are wired to identify patterns even where they don’t exist, creating what author Nassim Taleb describes in his book, Fooled by Randomness, as hindsight bias. According to Taleb, “past events will always look less random than they were,” a rampant myopia that infects marketing and sales. Example: Tomas just closed a big sale. We retroactively call out the positive reasons, carefully enumerating the salient elements of his “skillset.” The opposite for the deal he lost. We explain, point by point, what makes him a buffoon. If you’ve never experienced this, please enter a comment below (caveat: you must have worked in a sales organization for sixty days or longer).
Three elements play huge roles for determining a sales rep’s success – a quality frequently conveyed through a simplistic, over-used numerical proxy called percent-of-goal:
1. Luck. People need to “take knowledge less seriously,” Taleb writes at the outset of his book. “The role of luck [in outcomes] is something that few people understand, but many think they understand.” Hence the breadth of opinion on what portends a sales rep’s success.
2. Corporate strategy. Which rep is likelier to make goal – an average one working for a company executing a great strategy with great products? Or an excellent one struggling with feckless leadership and failed marketing? I’m betting on the average rep. “All we really had to do was answer the phone!” an account executive who sold DEC VAX’s in the 1980’s once told me.
3. Quotas. The denominator of the percent-of-goal metric that every executive wants to know, but few bother to investigate. How was the number derived? Many quotas are created without mathematical or logical rigor – only a simple parsing of the corporate revenue goal onto individual revenue producers. A mediocre rep who achieved 140% of a low quota will always appear more skilled than a great rep who achieved 88% of a goal that she didn’t have a snowball’s chance of making. When the 140% achiever was lauded at the annual kickoff, which “success attributes” were mentioned? Most assuredly, someone voiced an opinion.
“We need to purge our minds of the notion of intellectual certainties,” Taleb writes. Do attributes like intelligence, work ethic, tenacity and focus contribute to positive sales outcomes? Probably. The same for good personal hygiene, punctuality, eye contact, and a firm handshake. But contribute and causality are not the same. People would laugh if I said that popping a breath mint before the contract was signed caused me to win the deal. But they wouldn’t be disturbed if, ex-post-facto, “tenacity” was pinpointed a causal factor.
An opportune time to question an idea is when it appears glaringly obvious. For example, a strong work ethic seems a reliable progenitor for sales success, but some argue that it causes people to get mired in detail, to lose creativity, and to miss big-picture problems. A situation no company would want for a sales rep.
Be skeptical about what others profess as causal in sales success. A lazy, un-coachable rep who produces record revenue might not be the anomaly people think it to be.