Why are the top salespeople so much more successful than average ones? This isn't an idle question. Unlike most professions, sales is insanely skewed toward top performers.

Sales stars often sell 20 times more than anyone else on the team. It's like a baseball team with one player who hits home runs all the time and the rest rarely even get a single.

I recently received an email from Deon Basson, an entrepreneur and PhD candidate who conducted a meta-analysis of existing research (using 200 "traits of top salespeople" articles) and interviewed the following:

  • 200 successful sales managers and sales directors
  • 200 top achievers in sales
  • 200 people who deal regularly with salespeople

Basson asked the question open-ended and collated different terms for the same trait (like "trust" and "trustworthy"). The following graph shows traits that were mentioned more than 20% of the time:

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These traits are defined below, adapted from unprompted verbatim statements from Basson's interviewees:

  1. Communication. Top salespeople have great communication skills. They understand that people differ and sell to different types and different psychological needs. They're affable yet assertive, and have influence and persuasion skills. They have presentation skills and can tell a story.
  2. Empathy. Top salespeople know that empathy is like a magnet for the customer. They have inquiring minds to understand customers and their issues. They have curiosity about the customer and a strategic business understanding of the customer. They understand the customers' needs and even provoke more needs.
  3. Trust. Top salespeople deliver on commitments and have a character of trust. People want to buy from people they trust and if things go wrong, customers want peace of mind. Without trust, you have no business."
  4. Authority. Top salespeople can solve problems and know how to craft a solution for the customer's needs and sell with a value proposition. They possess a strategic business understanding and unbelievable knowledge of their offering. They're willing to challenge the status quo based on their knowledge.
  5. Disciplined. Top salespeople are conscientious about attention to detail and the process. They show up prepared and have both follow-through and follow-up. They know when to walk away and that every sale differs, but will have strict checkpoints.
  6. Hard worker. Top salespeople "go the extra mile." They know selling is no place for a 9-to-5 mentality. They will work hard to wow the customer. They follow a methodology and drive hard to progress.
  7. Ambition. Top salespeople set goals to achieve and work hard to realize them. They're achievement-oriented, have great ambition, and always want to improve. They compete but also know when to not compete. They have a need to grow, personally and financially.
  8. Confidence. Top salespeople have confidence in their own ability, their company, and the offering. They have assertiveness and persistence and are willing to challenge the status quo based on their knowledge. They're not influenced by status.
  9. Attitude. Top salespeople never see problems, only solutions. They have never seen a pessimistic person do well in sales. They realize that attitude communicates confidence and many other factors and they believe that the cup is half full, not half empty.

What strikes me about this list is that the sales behavior stereotypes--like "won't take 'no' for an answer," "outgoing and friendly," and "fast-talker"--are entirely lacking.

What emerges instead is a profile that sounds a lot to me like the traits shared by great entrepreneurs--another career in which the top performers far outshine the average ones.

Published on: Oct 24, 2014
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