Sales Personality Tests: What Makes Salespeople Tick

By Ira S Wolfe

This is a story about Willy and Roma and how you too can avoid hiring them.

What is it that differentiates the top producing salespeople from the Willys that go through life working very hard to eek out a paycheck and the Romas who would sell their mother out for a buck?  Is it experience? Is it sales knowledge? Is it personality? Is it values?

Not unlike a lot of today’s “mature” workforce, Willy Loman was a man lost in the past.  Willy, the failing salesman in Death of a Salesman, immersed himself in flashbacks.  His mind was constantly tormented by the hopes and dreams he had years ago.  His solution: complain about them and expect the future to change as a result.  To Willy the flashbacks became today’s reality and he blamed everyone but himself for his failure.  He explained to his wife Linda why he had a very hard time selling, “the trouble is, Linda, people don’t seem to take to me.”

The main characters in Glengarry Glen Ross, another classic business movie, spend much of their time and energy complaining about crummy leads, bad product and high asking prices.  One exception was Roma who lived and died by his ABCs – Always Be Closing.  Yes, Roma did make sales.  But while Roma did whatever it took to get his customer to sign on the dotted line, his style of selling was – and is –  distasteful to most people. To Roma customers were just a means to an end.

With over 16 million people employed in sales and sales-related positions, there certainly is no shortage of salespeople with experience. Billions of dollars are spent each year on sales training so it seems unlikely that there is a lack of sales knowledge. And yet there is no single position that demands comparable attention and investment from executives, business owners, and managers than sales when it comes to recruiting and hiring.

Given all the data and information and past experiences about how personalities affect sales performance, doesn’t it make sense for hiring managers to understand what makes successful sales people tick?

Recent validation studies and thousands of empirical experiences prove that personality traits give managers a leg up in hiring salespeople who can meet and exceed expectations. But not everyone with the “right” personality becomes successful. Why? Because personality is not a case of you have it or you don’t. Personality traits provide a recipe for success but other factors determine whether these traits will be turned on….or just lie dormant.

What are these “other” factors? In addition to some genetic component, environment certainly influences how an individual uses these natural abilities. For example, growing up in a family of extroverts with parents who encourage a bit of risk-taking will turn on different traits than a conservative upbringing that values a subdued, private lifestyle and feels that a bird in hand is worth more than two in the bush.

Personality traits also combine in unique ways. The number of possibilities is enormous which explains why two people who might look capable of selling (or doing any job for that matter) perform very differently in the workplace. That explains why understanding combinations of personality traits gives managers a new powerful tool in making hiring and training decisions and getting the most out of their employees.

What it comes down to is this:  Single personality traits do not predict performance but combinations of personality traits do.  More specifically, unique combinations of personality traits working together predict an individual’s natural ability to succeed at certain work-related skills.

For example, customer focus is a critical competency for Joe’s job as sales director.  But he’s struggling. Personality implications for customer focus are insight, positive attitude toward people, work pace and assertiveness.  Joe falls within the recommended benchmarks for the first three, but flags assertiveness.  While Joe looks out for the customer, projects a positive outlook and works at a reasonable pace, his low assertiveness prevents him from standing up for customer-focused initiatives and complaints.

A different problem arises if we look at the competency “persuading to buy.”  Personality implications include assertiveness, work pace and sociability.  Based on his personality assessment, a manager would find none of his traits “help” his ability in this area.  Joe will have difficulty working with strong-willed customers and he may hesitate to ask for the sale.  A few customers may even intimidate him.  And while positive about people, his reserved nature may deter him from “working the crowd” and networking to engage new customers and bond with existing ones.  Finally, his work pace, while adequate for customer service, falls short for top sales effectiveness.

Another key competency for sales is negotiation and personality definitely influences an individual’s innate ability to get others to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.  Personality implications for negotiation include assertiveness, need to be liked, positive toward people, insight, frustration tolerance, criticism tolerance and self-control.    Personality “helps” include his positive approach and broad outlook in searching for common ground.  But certain traits may hinder his chances for success.  Like the situations above, his low assertiveness may make it difficult for him to promote or sustain his position.  Others may control the discussions and influence the outcomes.   His need to be liked may drive his efforts to winning new friends rather than closing the deal.  And his low frustration tolerance may force him to reveal his cards, compromise, or walk away too early.

Not unlike many of our engagements, we were called about Joe after he was hired.   Our client-to-be wanted to know:  is Joe worth keeping?  And if so, what can they do to motivate him?  Would coaching be a worthwhile investment?

The first question I always ask is, “Tell me more about Joe.”  What I hear most often is that Joe had something like 10 years of experience, worked in our industry, won numerous sales awards and came highly recommended.  Occasionally my client will tell me they used a “test.”  Most often, the assessment is a behavioral assessment such as DISC or Myers-Brigg Temperament.  Rarely do we hear the employee was screened using a competency based process or instrument.  The result is that they hired Joe because his “behavior” was right for the job.  As it turns out, behavioral style doesn’t measure competence.  Just because they look like they can sell and they talk like they can sell doesn’t mean they can – or will – sell.

In Joe’s case, the client was impressed – and to some degree “blind-sided” – by his experience, positive outlook toward people, practical and pragmatic approach to decision making, attitude toward teamwork, reserved manner, and attention to details.  Compared to his predecessor, “General Patton on steroids”, Joe was a breath of fresh air – until it came to getting results.

By failing to assess Joe’s personality and cognitive (general mental abilities) skills and how they impact specific competency-driven performance factors, our client ignored how his low assertiveness, low frustration tolerance, high self-control, and average general mental abilities would work in cahoots to undermine his effectiveness when negotiating, persuading, and motivating others.  Joe didn’t lie on his resume or put on a show for his interview. Joe actually portrayed himself to be exactly who he was.  Our client, like many other managers and owners, had selective interviewing – he saw what he wanted and ignored what he didn’t.

Not unlike many managers and business owners, our client wrote off personality testing.  He previously viewed tests as tools that provided “nice-to-know” information but not predictable and reliable instruments that can predict a candidate or employee’s natural ability to perform specific professional and management skills at the highest level.

As our client found out after the fact, the right personality test, and more importantly the right interpretation, can help uncover what you can’t see and differentiate between hiring top performers or another Willy and Roma.

Sidebar

Much of the scientific research for using personality tests (and not sales skills tests and sales knowledge tests) for hiring salespeople comes from the Big 5 or Five-factor model.  Examples of assessments constructed on the Big 5 include TotalView and ASSESS.  This model has been studied since the mid-1950s and has gained enormous acceptance as a result of the need to hire highly productive employees, the increasing competition from a global marketplace, and the high cost of recruiting and training.

The Big 5 Personality Traits are easily remembered by the acronym OCEAN. The letters represent:

Openness to Experience: Salespeople who are more open thrive in a more fluid, dynamic, and technology driven marketplace while the more conventional salesperson prefers a more predictable, traditional, and familiar routine.

Conscientiousness: Salespeople who prefer spontaneity over conscientiousness can be very effective at making sales but time management, follow through, and completing sales reports will be an ongoing challenge.

Extroversion: Salespeople are typically extroverted.  Extroverts believe there are no strangers, just people they haven’t met yet. They do however tend to dominate conversations, be overly optimistic, and do more talking than listening.

Agreeableness: Highly agreeable salespeople will go out of their way to avoid conflict.  Cold-calling, asking for the sale, and holding profit margins can be a big problem.

Neuroticism: While some degree of restlessness and excitability ignites urgency, too much of it triggers impulsive behavior and vulnerability. A reasonable level of neuroticism energizes salespeople to react when things aren’t going as planned. Perseverance and resilience – two traits absolutely necessary when you’re talking about commission-based sales – are linked to the neuroticism trait.

Ira Wolfe (iwolfe@super-solutions.com) is founder of Success Performance Solutions (www.super-solutions.com and www.best-small-business-solutions.com), a Lancaster consulting firm providing competency based employment and career testing.  He has authored several books, Business Values and Motivators, The Perfect Labor Storm: Why Worker Shortages Will Not Go Away and a new e-book, Seven Surefire Steps to Hire High Motivation Employees.

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