I hoped to spark a debate, but what I got was agreement from the people who commented. Great salespeople must be able to do it all, have bulletproof personalities that can overcome rejection, and be organized, disciplined, creative, strategic, problem-solving relationship-builders. Christopher O'Hara of Traffiq said "Not only does a great salesperson have to deal with a lot of rejection, but must also be a great communicator, presenter, media planner, account manager, and (often) analyst."
It is no wonder that great salespeople are in such short supply.
I pointed out in February that sales-person-ship does make a difference. The facts that past financial results can be quantified to the penny, and many other company attributes analyzed quantitatively, and financial instruments bought and sold through automated systems, hasn't keep financial market salespeople from being the highest-compensated executive group in the nation. Applying this analogy to selling media in the digital age tells us that salespeople can thrive. But not just any rote salesperson will be able to help her customer achieve more satisfactory results, nor gain profitable market share for her company. Since salespeople like this are in short supply, it might be smart to ask what traits you should look for in hiring, and how you can develop your hires with potential into great salespeople.
Colvin wrote "Talent is Overrated" to divine what separates the great from the rest of us. The title tells us what he found after reporting on a wide range of research across music, sports, and business. The common explanation for why Yo Yo Ma is a great cellist, or why Tiger Woods or Jerry Rice is so good at golf or football is just plain wrong. It's not about the talent, it's about the practice. We, hiring and supporting managers, can profitably take this to heart; the principles listed in "Talent is Overrated" can be applied directly to digital media sales. But few companies invest in the "deliberate practice" with "feedback' and "coaching" that Colvin convincingly shows is what works - for everyone.
For those who are serious about applying this approach to their own business, the inescapable conclusion is to hire salespeople with the drive for success to overcome hurdles, and with the flexibility to listen, learn, and even change what they do.
How Colvin's principles function in practice can be seen from a case history he relates: "In keeping with the findings on deliberate practice, the sales team prepared, practiced and revised their presentations over a six-week period, receiving hours of feedback and coaching from managers. Videotaping provided additional feedback." The training continued, "again in keeping with the principles of great performance, pushing past existing skills with focused effort, repetition and feedback."
Colvin goes on to say, "The results, as a company executive explained to me, were 'astounding.' Sales growth for the product increased from 1.5% annually to 10.5% annually. Before the training about 25% of customers who tried the product converted to it. After the sales team improved their skills - and during the recession year of 2008 - 95% of the customers converted."
Now here is the bad news: it wasn't easy. "There was significant pushback" from salespeople. Many salespeople resist training, and generally don't like to be told how or what to do. I have heard a hundred salespeople stumble over a response in a training session and say "I can't do it here, but I can do it 'live' in my client's office." This is one of the many forms of resistance to doing the hard stuff that results in improved skills.
Then what can you hire for? And what can you train for? As Rick Biros of Innovative Publishing Co. said in the discussion boards: "What's important? All of it! Persistence, caring, creativity, insight, cold-calling, engaging, persuading, relationship building and closing. They are all important and none really can work without the other attributes." The logical answer is simple; if practice, change, and improvement is a requirement, hire people who have the motivation to apply those principles.
If salespeople have a bulletproof determination to succeed, along with the "happy loser" mentality that keeps them trying again and again, they can learn the creative problem solving, your product attributes, the customer's industry, the logic of persuasion, and the relationship-building skills to become great. But if they resist training and feedback, if they think their experience means they don't still have a lot to learn, if they don't believe they can improve and insist that they haven't lost where they could have won -- then it will be impossible to supply them the deliberate practice, feedback, and t coaching to make them better and better until they are, quite simply, great.
In sales, it's not "can you build a relationship," it's how many relationships can you build? Determination and competitiveness matter first, because that is what drives the "deliberate practice" that results in greatness.