What Makes a Good Salesperson? Answering the Impossible Question

There comes a time in every consultant’s life when for some unknown reason they feel the need to document their thoughts on the defining characteristics of successful sales people. Well, now it’s my time.

Of course, this is a very risky proposition. Inevitably, we all see the world through our own biases and prejudices. No individual’s personal view on the characteristics of great salespeople (or great anything) can ever really compare with a more rigorous, scientific study. But often, it’s the insights from the experience of individuals that informs and triggers the studies and eventually leads to firmer, more evidence-based conclusions.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with hundreds of salespeople from over 20 different countries – so at least my own personal, biased thoughts are based on a reasonably large and diverse sample.

So here goes – my top 3 and a bit characteristics of world-class salespeople. Bear in mind that my viewpoint and experience is biased towards people who sell high value professional services:

1. Passion
It’s a characteristic that’s been highlighted many times before, and something I talked about in In Praise of Passion. My experience has been that the fundamental characteristic all great salespeople share is an absolute belief and passion in the product or service they are selling. That passion infects customers and makes a major difference in the trust they place in the salesperson.

It’s sometimes joked that if you can fake sincerity you’ve got it made. But I’ve found that almost no one can fake real passion for what they sell. Somehow, some way, customers just pick up on it.

What do you do if you’re not passionate about your products? Either get passionate (talking to customer about how they benefit from your product is a good start), get another product you can be passionate about, or get out of sales.

2. Likeability
Before anyone will buy anything from you, they need to trust that it’s going to do what you say it will. Sometimes the product or the evidence speaks for itself – but more usually, it’s the salesperson who will need to be trusted.

Now it is possible to trust someone without liking them. But in the world of sales, someone who isn’t likeable never gets the opportunity to prove their trustworthiness. It’s a basic pre-requisite to building relationships.

3. Resilience
As I pointed out in Rejection – Sometimes It Really is Personal, being turned down is just part of the job of a salesperson. Successful salespeople can’t afford to need everyone to like them – they need a thick skin and an ability to learn and move on quickly from failure.

And the final bit – Willingness and Energy to Learn
The pace of change and the need to continually adapt and improve approaches has never been as great as it is today. The salesperson who commits to continuous learning, and applies themself wholeheartedly will soon catch up and outpace more talented rivals who rest on their laurels.

So that’s my little shortlist. Passion, likelability, resilience and continuous learning.

Onward!

Ian

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Comments

  1. says

    Ian, nice post, I’m with you on this. In my training, I teach “The 12 Qualities of Wildly Successful Salespeople”, which includes the four qualities you mention:

    -Passion (I call it “A Burning Desire to Close Sales”- a trait every high performer possesses).

    -Likeability (I call it Likeability, too, and agree that it’s key in achieving sales success).

    -Resilience (I call it “Bouncebackability” – you just can’t get bogged down in failure).

    -Willingness and Energy to Learn (I call it “Constantly Improving” – a key to boosting sales performance).

    Cheers!

  2. says

    Ian and Skip,

    There two things that great sales people have that is not listed here. These qualities are all too often taken for granted.

    One is the ability to shut up and listen. The second is the ability to craft and ask compelling questions that demand thought provoking conversations.

    If you add these to the four above, you have a rock star.

    Skip,

    What are your other 8?

  3. says

    Hi Karl,

    I think the two areas you mentioned are really important – but I see them more as learnable skills – whereas the other areas I talk about are sort of inherent capabilities or traits (albeit able to be enhanced with the right training & motivation).

    I’m no psychologist though – so I wouldn’t argue much.

    Ian

  4. says

    Great post Ian…

    In my experience a sincere desire to help is also very helpful. From a certain point of view everything we sell is designed to help in some way. When you start focusing on fulfilling the customers needs, and not your commission you will close more sales.
    In my first job as a mortgage broker I spent a lot of time selling loans and being a good banker and it just wasn’t working for me. A very good friend of mine advised me to get to know my customers and help them solve their problems whether that’s avoiding foreclosure, financing repairs or buying a boat. I found that when people trusted me and recognised that I honestly wanted to assist them in achieving their goals I made more sales easily and got more referral business.

    -Brad

  5. says

    Great job, Ian. The three characteristics you mentioned are “must haves” for any successful seller. While there are definitely other important characteristics – whether they are congenital or learned – I’ve never seen a successful seller who didn’t have your top three.

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