It is a debate as old as the hills – are salespeople born or made? Well, take care if you think you have inherent traits that make you a successful salesperson, because extensive work by psychologists, including Stanford’s Carol Dweck, explains that people without any obvious natural ability for a task can outshine those who appear to be “naturals” through sheer hard work and practice. Add to this body of work the new research from Joel Le Bon about luck in sales, which demonstrates that luck is usually provoked by preparation, and we can feel confident that sales really can be learnt. Coaching and development really can deliver better results than finding the elusive “born salesperson”. This is good news for sales managers in a world where selling skills are apparently in short supply.
In sport, there is always room to get better. Remember the enthusiasm which greeted the appointment of the new England cricket coach, Trevor Bayliss. People believed that he could turn around a team that had lost its confidence. Several winning performances later, it is clear that his coaching matters. Of course, the players had to be willing to learn. Even if you are at the top of your profession, failure to learn can lead to erosion of your position or even a dramatic crash and burn if your supposedly innate ability is challenged. Many sales professionals know a colleague who is convinced of their own superior skills, but whose customer sees them differently. No one wants these colleagues to fail, but in the face of a constantly changing business environment, denial or rebuttal will not get any of us anywhere.
The sales professionals who are best positioned to succeed are those who do not believe in natural traits, but believe that they can learn anything and improve with practice. Their key word is “yet” – “I haven’t won that account – yet”. They can be recruited from a variety of other professions. Consider how many engineers, chemists and IT analysts become effective salespeople. People oriented towards their own growth will keep looking for innovative solutions for customers and their employers. They are encouraged by coaches who focus on the process for success – praise effort and the “how” of what salespeople do to win business and they will keep on trying! Just praise for the success itself and they might not analyse what worked and commit to trying it again. A glimpse of the blindingly obvious? Perhaps – but we all need those from time to time.
What sort of things help them? Learners are happy with ambitious goals, and are able to talk about failure and risk and plan for contingencies. They are people who are happy to change their routine, driven by a desire for new experiences which can be a spark for new ideas. Joel Le Bon’s work maps out the importance of gathering intelligence: about customers, competition, markets and supply chains. “Lucky” salespeople are knowledgeable and analytical. I have heard purchasing decision makers express deep respect for account managers who “know our business better than we do”. Keeping a calm focus on the customer’s objectives can create openness to unexpected opportunities. Long-term account planning can help with mapping capabilities to customer needs, but the “lucky” salesperson also needs the tactical awareness to leverage those capabilities at the right time.
In my own research I have noticed the great satisfaction that sales managers derive from developing their sales team members. Facilitating others to sell is difficult, and we all have the potential to get better at coaching, just as we have the potential to get better at selling. A perfect mix of learning managers and learning salespeople can create a buzz of positivity in a sales function which makes the high pressure world of sales more pleasurable and successful for us and our customers.
Further reading: “Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential” by Carol Dweck;
“Why the best salespeople get so lucky” by Joel Le Bon, Harvard Business Review