Selling and buying are not purely intellectual exercises. Buyers and sellers are emotional human beings, which is why great salespeople are always masters at managing their own emotions. Based upon my observation (and some pretty hefty research in emotional intelligence), highly successful salespeople cultivate the following five emotional traits:

1. Assertiveness

This allows you to move a sales situation forward without offending or frustrating the customer. Think of it as being located halfway between passivity and aggressiveness. For example, suppose a customer is delaying a decision. There are at least three basic responses:

Passive: "Could you give me a call when you've made a decision?"

Aggressive: "If you don't buy right now, the offer is off the table."

Assertive: "Can you give me a specific time and date when you'll make your final decision?"

The passive response puts the sale on hold indefinitely (or give your competitor the opening to outsell you). The aggressive response creates pressure and resentment: Even if it works, you'll be seen as a typical pushy salesman. The assertive approach sets up the specific conditions for the close, without forcing the customer's pace.

2. Self-Awareness

You need to be able to identify your own emotions, understand how they work, and then use them to help you build stronger customer relationships. This is a four-step process:

  • Identify the emotions that you're feeling,
  • Based on experience, predict how those emotions will affect your sales effort.
  • Compensate for negative emotions that might hinder the sale.
  • Expand your positive emotions that might help you make the sale.

For example, suppose you feel furious that an important customer stood you up. You might take a break before your next meeting in order to remind yourself of all the times you've succeeded in the face of challenges. Or you might, as an ice-breaker, tell your second customer that you're having a tough day and why.

3. Empathy

This entails adapting your behavior to the customer's moods and emotions. It begins with listening and observing, but simply knowing what the customer might be feeling is not enough. You must be able to feel what the customer is likely to be feeling.

Suppose, during a sales call, you discover that the customer's firm just announced major layoffs. You could ignore the news and proceed with the sales call as if nothing had changed, or you could focus on your own desire to make the sale and ask your contact who will have buying authority after the layoffs are over.

Both responses to the event make business sense–but if you want to build a better relationship, you'll be empathetic and imagine your contact's sense of fear and confusion. Then, depending on your emotional reading of the customer, decide whether the customer would prefer to commiserate, complain or (alternatively) be distracted from the situation.

4. Problem Solving

The desire to solve a problem helps you create new ways to satisfy the customer's needs, both financial (the ROI of your offering) and emotional–such as the customer's need to be convinced that your and your firm are reputable and reliable. Problem solving is a four step process:

  • See the customer situation as it really is. (Never try to solve a problem before you fully understand it.)
  • Help the customer visualize a more desirable situation.
  • Devise a way to move the customer from the ways things are today to the way the customer would like them to be.
  • Communicate that solution in a way that makes it easy for the customer to make a decision.

While those steps might seem obvious, they're the exact opposite of old-school salesmanship, where selling entails "giving a great sales pitch."

5. Optimism

Optimism helps you maintain a sense of balance when things go awry. It proceeds directly from the (often unspoken) rules that you use to interpret daily events. For example, if the first sales call of the day goes poorly, your performance for the rest of the day will be different if you have this rule...

A bad first call means that I'm off my game this will be a bad day.

... rather than this rule:

Every sales call is different, so the next will probably be better.

Note that both rules are arbitrary responses to the same event, and neither is more "realistic" than the other. Even so, if you automatically jump to the first rule, rather than the second, it will be difficult for you to remain happy.

This principle works on bigger events, too. I've run into about a dozen top salespeople who saw the weak economy as an opportunity to sell even more,and did so, while their colleagues were busy hand-wringing.

In future columns, I'll explain how to cultivate these traits in your day to day life, so stay tuned.

This column is based on an interview with Robert Scher, president of the Scher Group, a sales performance improvement firm. (He used the term "happiness" for what I call "optimism," but it comes out to the same thing in the end.)