I didn’t set out to have a career in sales. Like many people, I just happened into it. But I stayed with it for thirty years. And for just over half of those years, I was a leader and coach of salespeople which, for anyone who’s done it knows, is an entirely different ball of wax and requires a completely different set of skills than being an individual performer.
Just as in any other line of work, there are varying degrees of proficiency in the field. You’ll find a wide assortment of great salespeople, horrible salespeople and everything in between. Unfortunately, the general stereotype of a salesperson is not a positive one, which is a shame because the vast majority of people who make a living in sales are darn good at what they do. It’s not fair to them that all salespeople are lumped in with the hacks of our profession. I feel especially bad for great used car salespeople (and I’ve met many) because the bad ones ruin it for everyone else.
So, what separates good salespeople from bad salespeople? Another question is do bad salespeople even know they are bad? I’d say a big part of the reason salespeople get such a terrible rap is because their own companies have trained them to do the wrong things (if they bother to train them at all). They simply don’t know any better. It’s like when I get bad service in a restaurant. I don’t blame the server. I blame the management.
I’m reminded of what really bad salesmanship looks like whenever I walk into my neighborhood big-box home improvement store and I’m welcomed with the universally loathed greeting, “Can I help you find anything?” Not only are these unofficial greeters NOT store employees but they are the world’s worst salespeople. It’s the classic bait and switch. Drape a standard-issue apron on your chest, masquerade as a store employee and attempt to “hard sell” any hapless fool who walks through the door on the features and benefits of your windows (or attic insulation or whatever super-high margin product is being pushed that day). Wait- you mean you weren’t really serious when you offered to help me find something? Of course you weren’t. Hack.
But I digress. This post is supposed to be about what makes a great salesperson so extraordinary. I will, therefore, happily focus the rest of this space on the eight traits, I have found, to be universal among the very best salespeople. A quick side note: As many championship teams have proven time and again, you don’t have to be a great basketball player to be a great basketball coach. I take no small comfort in this truth because I was never a very good salesperson myself – maybe just slightly above average. But as a long time coach of salespeople, I’ve learned to spot a great one when I see one and understand entirely what makes them so special.
So, without further ado, here is my list of eight traits of the greats:
They are supremely dependable.
Great salespeople keep their commitments. Period. They always do what they say they’re going to do. Always. Whenever buyers are given the opportunity to rate, rank or otherwise recognize their best vendors, this quality of “dependability” is universally at the top of their list. I mean, look at it from a buyers’ perspective. Most salespeople over promise and under deliver. In response, buyers tend to steer the bulk of their business to the most dependable, trustworthy salespeople. It’s not rocket science, but it is oh so hard to find people like this!
They are hard working, self starters
I always chuckle (audibly) when I hear sales managers ask how to “motivate” their sales people. Here’s a nickel’s worth of free advice: don’t worry about how to motivate the members of your sales team. All great salespeople hold themselves to a much higher standard than you could ever dream up for them. Hire people who are self–motivated and then get the hell out of their way. Want something to do? Look for ways to make their paths as smooth as possible.
They excel at building and maintaining relationships
We’re talking, here, about genuine relationships. Not the highly manufactured “hi-how-can-I-help-you?” nonsense you get from the apron-clad store greeters. Great salespeople truly do care about people in general and their customers specifically. You can tell because they are also great listeners. When I’m on this topic, I always think about a one particular person on my team (who, eventually, succeeded me as the leader). When Lou (his real name) talks to you, he gives you his total and complete attention. He looks you right in the eye and makes a deep, sincere connection. When you talk to him, you feel like you are the most important person on the planet. You feel like he really cares because – guess what? – He DOES.
They keep good records and are very organized
Great sales people take a lot of notes. In order to deliver on the first point above (being dependable), they know they can’t trust anything to their memory. Whenever I hire someone for a sales role, I do my best to test and probe to find out what their organizational skills are like. I know, from experience, that being a salesperson is a very tough job with a lot of details to track. Only a super-organized person can perform well in the role. To be fair, there are certainly lots of great salespeople who are not very organized but they are no picnic to manage. Go for the organized ones if you can.
They are very disciplined in the use of their time.
Here’s where we really start to separate the wheat from the chaff. Bad salespeople are notoriously “all over the place.” They tend to measure success in terms of hours worked, number of sales calls made, and the size of their to-do list. In fact, you’ll know you’ve got a “dud” on your hands if they’re always complaining about how hard they are working. Great salespeople have a lot to do too, but you won’t hear them complaining about it. The salespeople who get the most done are very stingy with the use of their time and allocate it in a way that will provide them (and their company) with maximum return. They never confuse activity with achievement. They want to be measured by results, not methods. They are the measure-twice, cut-once types (credit to another former team member, Colleen B for this gem). To great salespeople, time IS money and they are thrifty stewards of it. And, lastly, they know when & how to say, “no.”
They are highly coachable
You can always tell a bad salesperson because they already know it all, their sales manager is a moron, and they’re always talking way more than they’re listening. Truly great salespeople, however, are intellectually curious. They are always looking for a better, faster way. Humility in a person is such an attractive trait not because it makes them a more pleasant person to be around (which it most certainly does) but because it puts them in a constant state of readiness and openness to new ideas. The good news for sales leaders is this one is very easy to ferret out during the interview. Just get the candidate talking about themselves and their accomplishments. If you can’t get a word in edgewise, then cut the interview short and move on.
They are great team players
Most people don’t consider sales a team sport. But it’s very rare to be a professional salesperson and not also be part of a sales team. Most companies have many salespeople grouped into teams of five or six with a common manager. Great salespeople not only enjoy being a part of a team but also thrive among like-minded peers. They feed off each other, support each other and, together, elevate the atmosphere as well as the performance. Great salespeople are very others-minded and look for ways to cheer on the group. Sales leaders carry a great responsibility to not let the locker room be poisoned by a non-team player. Like cancer, it will kill the team from the inside out. Do your best salespeople a favor and learn how to spot this trait during the interview process. It’s your job to keep these bad apples off the team.
They have a positive attitude
I probably could have listed this one first since it is so important. Glass-half-full people make better salespeople every single time. Positive people lift up everyone around them. Being a salesperson is a very tough job! You can’t survive, let alone thrive, without keeping a positive attitude. Great salespeople are also very supportive of both the team leader’s and the company’s policies. They don’t take things personally. They bounce back from failures and setbacks. They wake up every day just knowing it’s going to be a great day.
So that’s my list. Are there any other traits of greatness? Absolutely. And I’d be thrilled if you’d add some of your own thoughts and experiences to the comments section below so we can all benefit from your perspective. Or, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
One final note to all the wonderful salespeople out there who are shining examples of how to do it right: keep up the great work!