November 5, 2012

What’s the Real Driver of Sales Success? (Hint: It’s Not Personality)

Behavioral Sciences researcher says advisors hurt themselves by rejecting sales identity

While it is often thought that the at-ease extrovert is a natural salesperson, a recent study shows that personality does not predict sales success—rather, prospecting does.

The study has relevance for financial advisors, whose practices rise and fall on the strength of their ability to acquire clients, regardless of their savvy as planners or investors.

“It’s not that one shouldn’t be rapport-oriented and listen and build relationships,” says Trelitha Bryant, vice president of field testing and research of Behavioral Sciences Research Press, which carried out the study. “It’s just that when you look at the sales process, you must first have someone to talk to. You must initiate contact with a prospective client and do so on a regular basis,” she told AdvisorOne in an interview.

Trelitha BryantBryant (left) says prospecting is not more important than the other three key steps in sales—“introducing yourself and your company, engaging in an informed discussion about the customer’s needs, then negotiating or influencing them to invest in your product or service”— but it is the most predictive of sales success.

That is because even the best-trained salesperson with the most engaging personality and strong financial incentives cannot be productive without having potential buyers, and prospecting alone can ensure a stream of potential clients.

“Most people struggle with prospecting,” Bryant says. “It’s a myth that salespeople are fearless [and] will contact anyone.”

The problem—and the subject of Behavioral Sciences’ research—is what Bryant terms “sales call reluctance.”

“We were challenged to understand that you can have an organization of people who are trained, motivated and focused, yet few would rise to the top.”

Behavioral Sciences set out to discover what distinguished the most productive salespeople. Together with her company’s founder, author and sales expert George Dudley, Bryant used a special assessment tool to measure 1,627 salespeople’s comfort with and ability to prospect. Half the salespeople surveyed were known for their prospecting acumen, and half were poor prospectors.

After developing a model based on this mixed population, the researchers evaluated a second group of 1,630 salespeople whose attributes were entirely unknown. Based on the second group’s assessment scores, the researchers found they could accurately identify 83% of the top prospectors and 79% of the poor prospectors.

And accurately predicting prospecting prowess is, in effect, predictive of sales productivity, Bryant says. “People who were more comfortable with initiating contact tend to be more successful.”

The problem is especially acute among financial advisors because of a business culture that dissociates itself from sales activity, Bryant says, citing advisors’ embrace of the professional ethos conveyed by the title “financial advisor.”

“Some people will use that title almost as a crutch to excuse themselves or apologize for selling, or promote themselves as being an advisor only, with no sales [aspect of the job]. That’s called role rejection —someone who struggles with the sales identity,” she says.

“The message is: There is something unethical about selling, and somehow we need to go about selling but not promote that we’re selling.”

Bryant insists that advisors should feel no shame in making a sale.

“You’re offering a solution to help meet a customer’s need. Yes, a transaction occurs, but the objective is to meet a customer need.”

Even wirehouse advisors, who come from a more sales-oriented culture and have extensive training, frequently fail to perform as salespeople because of what Bryant calls “inhibited social contact initiation syndrome” or, more colloquially, sales call reluctance.

While there are multiple forms of this sales call reluctance, the most common pattern involves anticipation of failure, rejection and unpleasant encounters with prospects.

“[You’re] always waiting for the right time to make the call and the right time never comes along,” Bryant says, adding that advisors should reframe how they think about the sales experience.

“Learn to not take it personally and move on. Maybe they’re just having a bad day. Maybe their budget doesn’t allow them to make a purchase. Learn to manage your own expectations and not develop negative self-talk. You can learn something about the customer that might help you meet their needs in some way,” she says.

“Not everybody is going to be qualified, but that’s no reason to say nobody will want [what you’re offering],” Bryant adds.

The Behavioral Sciences trainer says there’s no escaping the oft-stated truism about sales being a numbers game.

“That’s just scientifically what we find. The more people you contact, the more [sales]. That’s why sales organizations know what their sales ratios are. [Top salespeople] know how many people [they] need to contact to make a sale.”

Bryant recommends that financial advisors set aside time each day to prospect, and importantly, that they not neglect their current clients, warning that their competitors are always reaching out to them. “Establish a prospecting discipline,” she says.

However, Bryant emphasizes that initiating contact with prospects is just the first critical step. Advisors who struggle with role rejection and sales call reluctance typically don’t progress through other vital steps of the sales process.

Motivation is a key issue. Advisors must have clear goals, and making a sales quota does not suffice. “That’s the company’s goal,” she says. Advisors should focus on their own personal goals, such as paying off a loan.

For advisors hiring sales associates, Behavioral Sciences has psychological assessment that she says is predictive of sales success.

The tool is useful, Bryant says, because it identifies a salesperson’s strengths and weaknesses in prospecting—the attributes her Dallas-based firm has found to be predictive of sales success, unlike the personality assessments many sales executives rely on.

And that is handy information in a field in which some 80% of new hires don’t ultimately perform, she says.

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