Successful Sales and the Problem with Adjectives
What makes a good salesperson?
Well, people on the internet certainly have some ideas. You only need to do a quick Google search for "sales attributes" to find countless articles of the top X characteristics of a sales pro. It's maybe worth noting that there's surprisingly little overlap from list to list.
The above word cloud aggregated ten lists of must-have sales qualities. See all the words in small font? Those are the terms that only appeared once. In other words, nobody seems to be able to agree on just what these supposed must-haves are.
You would not know this by talking to most selling consultants. Hire a consultant to fix your slumping salesforce, and chances are good they will bring in their own list. They'll point out how any salesforce will follow the classic bell curve, and they'll take great pains to prove that the top of the curve sellers are those who best embody the ultimate sales traits. The key, they'll say, is to let your overachievers keep doing what they're doing, tell your middle of the curve to be more like the top, and cut out the deadweight at the bottom who lack those magic qualities. Either way, they'll say, it's all about putting your faith in the list.
The problem is, if you really want to understand the secret of good selling, the list is baloney. It's a matter of correlation doesn't equal causation.
Logging the details of a cancer patient's symptoms might give us a better understanding of their current situation, like their white blood cell count. But if your goal is to heal the cancer, you don't just want to know what it's doing, but why and how. Watching the outcome of the disease doesn't shed a light on where it came from.
Similarly: are confident people more skilled at sales, or is it simply that being a skilled salesperson tends to boost your confidence?
Following the list rule is essentially saying that successful people are successful because they exhibit signs of having experienced success.
Culturally, we assume that great salespeople are the ones who were blessed at birth with innate gifts—deeper empathy, better communication skills. But neuroscience shows us again and again that these "gifts" are not fixed and immutable. They're developed through practice, whether we realize it or not.
Can you train a salesperson to be more empathetic? You can certainly train them to mirror body language, to pick up on cues from their customers, to take notes on what their customer says and relate it back to them—all of these moves, executed correctly, build a connection that to any observer will look like empathy.
So instead of assuming that people are predestined to be good or bad at sales, and instead of automatically jettisoning anyone at the bottom of the curve, consider the fundamentally malleable, teachable nature of the human brain. And instead of fixing some nebulous adjectives to describe what a high-achieving salesperson "is", focus on what they do—the concrete moves that can be seen and taught.
And thank neuroplasticity, because with the correct coaching, there's hope out there, even at the bottom of the bell curve.