What Makes A Great Salesperson In The Automated Age? Some Answers

I just finished the book "Talent is Overrated" by Fortune's Geoff Colvin.  It makes two key points that can help us answer the question I asked in my last column;  "What makes a great salesperson in the automated age?  Persistence?  Caring?  Creativity?  Insight?"  If prices are set and orders placed in automated marketplaces, how do salespeople add value to the process and move the needle for their employers? 

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.

This is not a review of Colvin's book, which I very much recommend.  For that you can go here or here.  But no review I have found disputes the conclusion that deliberate practice with feedback works. 

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.

4 comments about "What Makes A Great Salesperson In The Automated Age? Some Answers".
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  1. Tim Sullivan from Cendyn, September 2, 2010 at 12:43 p.m.

    Hi Dan – Great to see your name in my email box and a great article. Another excellent book that debunks the myth of innate talent and reinforces that practice is the key to mastering any skill is Malcom Gladwell’s ‘Outliers.’ I love how you applied these principles to the selling process. I would add that the in-house practice and coaching should continue in actual client meetings. I have been in several presentations where the salesperson had nailed the dry-run and completely choked in front of the client. Luckily he was not flying solo at the time. Best, Tim Sullivan

  2. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC, September 2, 2010 at 3:37 p.m.

    Dan, nice column. Having nearly 30 years in sales, there is one common denominator in sales and sales people that goes back thousands of years. That is to ask questions and to ask follow up questions to find what the buyer’s needs and desires are. This is even truer today in the automated age. The simplest counter sales or phone sales jobs that exist today require the ability to ask question. However of everything taught in schools today, this is one of the least important tools for life that is not existent.

  3. Sandy Miller from Success Communications, September 2, 2010 at 4:02 p.m.

    Really nice column. You hit a lot of good points. I wrote on my blog at one point the difference between "natural born salespeople" and those that work at it. In the long run I think those that work at it are easier to train and adapt to the constant changes that are happening in the marketplace. You need the complete package these days to cover all your bases.

  4. Tom Bowman from BBC Worldwide, September 3, 2010 at 10:18 a.m.

    Anyone who thinks that Media Sales will one day be fully automated should read this piece (and the book from the sounds of it). Well trained and motivated sales people still produce by far the best ROI in my experience.

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