If classic movies like Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Tin Men (1987), Used Cars (1980)—or more recent hits like Wolf of Wall Street (2013)—have taught us anything, it’s that sales is not for those of a weak disposition.
And whether the character portrayal is ruthless and intimidating like Alec Baldwin’s Blake, broadly comedic like Danny DeVito’s Ernest Tilley, or charmingly sneaky like Kurt Russell’s Rudy Russo, movies have also suggested that salespeople need to be either pushy or conniving to achieve success.
While such representations do elevate dramatic tension or provide an impetus for farcical scenarios to play out on screen, they’re pretty far from reality, especially in today’s world of sales. Now more than ever, customers are informed and have a wide array of choices. Online reviews, comparison websites, specs, even satellite and street views of real estate are at the fingertips of potential buyers. So if salespeople have lost their leverage with information, what can they do to win the account?
Some attributes typically associated with sales remain important and probably will be for some time. Building relationships, for example, is something even the most advanced predictive algorithm cannot do. Persuasiveness, coupled with social engagement (which we might describe as “personal impact”), is also a major component of selling. As implied in the opening paragraph above, resilience is perhaps most critical of all to sticking it out in competitive sales. The best salesperson loses at least 75% of the time.
Alas, personal impact and resilience are not teachable qualities. There are compensatory techniques that can be conveyed through training and coaching, but both psychometric research and practical experience show that such techniques are rarely sustainable in sales. If you work against your intrinsic motivations, like cold-calling when you are socially reserved and lack self-assurance for example, you are likely to burn out sooner rather than later.
So let us assume we’re addressing salespeople who already display personal impact, are adept at relationship building, and can rebound from rejection. How can they adapt in a sales environment where information technology has empowered customers as never before? By demonstrating the fourth common success factor revealed by psychometric research: curiosity.
In measuring the personality drivers of successful sales people across multiple industries, we have found that “information seeking” is a quality shared among many top performers. We’re not talking about following a sales script or asking basic qualifying questions. Information seekers are naturally curious about people and things. Information seekers are not dismissive of new ideas and input, either, and they are open to others’ perspectives and experiences. Your grumpy uncle who reflexively thinks anything that does not interest him is a stupid waste of time? Not an information seeker. Maybe he did great in insurance sales thirty or forty years ago, but he’d find a very different environment today.
How does information-seeking lead to sales success? Now that’s a question for curious people! The folks who bailed on this piece after reading the previous paragraph—because they reflexively dismissed the concept—were not information seekers either. Let’s explore the answer without them.
Information seeking supports sales success because it redirects the conversation. The customer did the research and already has the specs on hand and prices in mind. They think they are in control. When you start asking questions—meaningful, probing questions they weren’t expecting—the information you elicit gets them thinking and rethinking, perhaps about potentialities they overlooked. You’re showing them that you have a whole level of understanding they hadn’t imagined, giving you instant credibility. Now they’re more receptive to the message you intended to convey all along.
Information seeking doesn’t always manifest in the form of overt questions. It could be quiet observation, or it could be collecting seemingly irrelevant data that you process in the back of your mind. It could be simple environmental scanning. Salespeople who are open to such inputs are the ones who, once the clues coalesce in their minds, find the right button to push or notice hidden opportunities that turn a minor sale into a major one.
Contrast that with the “old-school” sales approach, in which the sales representative already has his mind made up about what clients want and need and shuts down any chance of engagement. He might be friendly, persuasive, and resilient to setbacks, but his close-minded, inflexible approach leaves money on the table.
Curiosity in sales isn’t a new thing, of course, but simply an attribute that hasn’t always been considered in the applicant-selection process. Recent performance data says it should be. So consider stirring in a little Sherlock Homes with your Glengarry Glen Ross. Or should we call it, perhaps, The Case of the Missing Leads?