Smile or script?

What makes a sales person successful? Is it their personality and charm, or their knowledge and processes? Read on to find the perfect balance for sales success.

What makes a sales rep successful?

Sales is a truly human art. It involves communication on multiple levels, a building of rapport and trust. Good sales people get under your skin and understand what your true needs are, not just the ones you know of. And they make you feel good.

From Pixabay

Does that mean that only the people with charisma at the level of Steve Jobs can be successful at sales? No! Because charm alone may help you open the door, but to close the deal you also need knowledge and processes. After chatting to hundreds of sales leaders in the last months, it is clear that we all agree that to be successful in sales is to have a combination of the right personality, and the right knowledge. What was not clear to me was whether we all agree on the relative importance of either? I decided to put it to the test.

I posted across several forums where professional sales people gather to ask them “How much of a sales rep’s success is down personality/emotional intelligence versus knowledge about the industry, sector, and company and processes?”. Is it 75–25, 50–50, or 25–75? What do you think?

It’s all about personality and charm!

There is something very basic about how the someone comes across when trying to sell you something. You wouldn’t buy from someone looking bored and checking their watch, and you wouldn’t buy from someone who was rude. You would very likely not buy from someone who wouldn’t look you in the eye. To choose to buy something from someone is ultimately a social contract that says “I believe that what you are telling me is true, and I believe your assessment of this product is true”. Sales is a human sport, and as such personality matters hugely.

Personality consists of many angles, but I would suggest that following traits are key for sales people:

  • Emotional intelligence
  • Level of extrovertness, i.e. enjoying talking to other people
  • Curiosity, and ability to listen
  • Empathy
  • Attentiveness
  • Honesty

Many of these traits can be trained and coached. I believe that our social skills are like muscles, they need to be trained regularly to be strong. But without these muscles, the sales rep ain’t going nowhere.

From Pixabay

It’s all about knowledge and process!

Imagine you are hired as a new sales rep in a company. It’s Day 1, and at 10am they put you in front of a client. Here you go, sell! Cue silence. It is impossible to sell without a minimum of knowledge about the product you are selling, but I would go much further and say that to be really successful, you need to have as much knowledge as the founder of the business in your head, and a clear plan of how you are going to approach your conversations.

I outlined my case for a sales process earlier; without a solid sales process you will lose out on predictability, scalability, and the learning that can lead to improvement that comes with a standardised procedure. Coming to a meeting prepared, delivering a clear pitch, and answering the prospect’s questions professionally is what will make all the difference and close the deal.

I’ll have a bit of everything, please (with a caveat)

So what is the best ratio? I had a good response to the poll I put out across my network. Within just a few days, I had over 60 people pick a number. The most popular answer was… drumroll… split equal down the middle, 50–50. While that is perhaps not surprising, a full 84% said that personality was 50% or more of the requirement. Only 16% fancied the importance of knowledge and process higher. In fact, one person said that it was 100% personality, no knowledge required. I’d be curious what that person is selling. Water? Air?

A clear caveat that several voters commented on is that the best fraction of the two sides will depend on what sort of sale you make. Selling highly technical products, a nuclear power reactor, will put a higher requirement on the knowledge and process part, as sales in any regulated industry will. But we can surmise from the poll that the number of companies with high demand on process is in the minority.

Another comment, from Bibhas Roy, was that the choice between personality and knowledge/process was “too binary” and that other factors such as “network, influence, trust, timing and politics etc.” should be taken into account, which I agree with. Charlie Moss added “I would bet on the capability to (1) demonstrate active listen skills, (2) leverage a consultative or provocative selling style (again for a complex sale), and (3) demonstrate the business acumen to be perceived as a strategic business advisor.”

From Pixabay

Why should I care?

So, personality matters and knowledge matters. So what? Well, most start-ups and small business focus too much on personality when it comes to evaluating a sales person’s performance. If they fail, it’s because they “didn’t get it” or “lacked emotional intelligence”. For some years in my first company, I was disappointed with our sales hires. As I shared in a previous blog, they underperformed against my expectations and it wasn’t until one of them was brave enough to tell me they lacked support and resources from me that the penny dropped. I had failed to give them the knowledge and process they needed.

This is also what we want to do with my new business, PeripherAi. We want to gather all the knowledge and processes, combine it with the other data available in the organisation, and serve it up when it matters — during the sales call. As a founder, CEO, or sales leader, this is your job. To ensure that the “knowledge box” is ticked, so that it is down to the charm and personality of the rep to close the deal. Because script + smile = growth.

Dr Kim Nilsson is a PhD Astrophysicist turned serial entrepreneur. Her first business is a data science marketplace and AI-as-a-Service provider. She is the CEO and co-founder of PeripherAi, a SaaS platform to turn sales into a scalable and predictable process in small businesses by integrating human knowledge with data insights. She has been named as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Women in IT in the UK 2018–2021.