Want to Hire Great Sales Reps? Start by Avoiding the “Sales Personality” Myth


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Anyone who has managed salespeople has made hiring mistakes. At one time or another all of us have found ourselves unable to resist hiring a candidate who seemed to be a sales superstar, even though our intuition made us uneasy or something in their story just didn’t jibe with reality.

Today, more than at any time in the last 80 years, business success will depend on getting the right people on the sales team and making sure they are doing jobs that best use their innate talents.

Avoid the Myth of the “Sales Personality”

When managers want to hire sales superstars, they tend to hire people with stereotypical sales personalities—people who are outgoing, talkative, personable and gregarious. And because sales managers, for a host of reasons, prefer this personality type for their teams, they convince themselves that customers will prefer them as well.

This so-called “sales personality” is a myth. Belief in this myth may be as responsible for bad hiring and disastrous promotions by employers, and poor performance by salespeople and sales managers, as anything else in the sales talent management equation.

Unfortunately, the traits that make up the “sales personality” have little to do with success in the game of sales. It doesn’t hurt, of course, when a salesperson has a pleasant, extroverted personality; but there are lots of outgoing, talkative, personable and gregarious people in the world with pleasant, extroverted personalities. Some are teachers; some are physicians, attorneys, plumbers and circus performers. But just because these folks share some pleasing personality traits doesn’t mean they have the talent or competencies to succeed as sales professionals.

Get the Right People on the Team

According to the International Personnel Management Association, typical hiring methods are ineffective. If you simply pointed, blindfolded, to one among a group of candidates and hired that person, your hiring method would depend entirely on chance. If your hiring process includes a typical employment interview, your odds of improving over chance increase about one percent.

Unfortunately, the traits that make up the “sales personality” have little to do with success in the game of sales.

If your hiring process includes a standard personality test, you will improve your odds over chance by another one percent. If, along with the interview and personality test you require a candidate to have relevant job experience, your chances of a good hire increase to five percent. If you include a scoreable interview in your hiring process your odds of a good hire increase to about seven percent.

If your company is among a growing number of firms that include validated and objectively administered selection tests in the hiring process, you can increase your chances of a good hire by up to 25 percent. An improvement of 25 percent over chance may not impress you, but that is a whopping improvement of 257 percent over even the best interview processes that lack selection tests!

So, exactly how would a validated and objectively administered selection test help you avoid making hiring mistakes? These tests reveal not only aptitude for performance, but also a candidate’s willingness to perform the duties of the particular sales position.

It isn’t enough that Mary, a candidate all the sales managers love, has the quintessential sales personality. A validated and objectively administered selection test will reveal whether or not Mary has the innate talent, job-related competencies and tendencies to perform on the job. The tests answer two critical questions: Can the candidate do the job, and is the candidate likely to do the job?

Don’t Send Ducks to Eagles School!

Assuming you’ve hired a salesperson based on the results of a validated selection test, it is now imperative to place the new employee in the right position on the team.

I once heard someone admonish sales managers: “Don’t send your ducks to eagle school!” It just won’t work. Unlike eagles, which are skilled predators hard-wired with a hunter’s instinct, ducks are friendly creatures. You send the ducks out hunting, they find a rabbit and they make friends with it! You then yell to the ducks, “No, no, re-read page twenty-one of your hunting manual!”

The same thing happens when you send the wrong salespeople on a hunting expedition for new prospects. They make friends with potential customers, buy them lunch, treat them to sporting events, and shower them with expensive gifts, all in the hope of winning business through friendship. But the new business seldom materializes. In frustration, you yell, “No, no, bring in the orders, close the prospects, close the prospects!”

Nearly 2500 years ago in his essay on The Art Of War, Sun Tzu, the great Chinese military thinker admonished, “Do not demand accomplishment of those who have no talent.” He continued, “Do not charge people to do what they cannot do. Select them and give them responsibilities commensurate with their abilities.” This wisdom has been largely lost on leaders who manage sales organizations.

Talent can’t be trained. You either can or cannot sing like an American Idol. In the world of selling, the characteristics of great strategic account managers—by definition—limit their success in new business development. Likewise, great business development salespeople rarely have what it takes to become great strategic account managers. Both require different skills and different talents! Yet somehow sales leaders believe that talent in one area naturally translates into an ability to perform equally well in other areas.

Coaching Talent

We believe that much of the money spent by business on sales training is spent educating people in roles they should not occupy.

Although you’ve done your best to select the right talent, and to make sure she has the right position on the team, how do you retain her and develop her innate abilities? First, you continually review your employee’s assessment test to remain knowledgeable about her natural abilities and willingness to perform certain job functions. Second—and this is a key to successful talent management—you resist the temptation to place her in a job for which her talent and interests are not aligned.

When it comes to utilizing sales talent, perhaps the biggest error most sales leaders make is promoting great salespeople to the role of sales manager. Most often, when a great salesperson is promoted to sales manager, four things happen:

  • the company loses a great salesperson
  • the company gets a mediocre, or worse, sales manager
  • customers suffer in the transition
  • the stigma of failure prompts the great salesperson to flee to another company

We believe that much of the money spent by business on sales training is spent educating people in roles they should not occupy. At some point companies will demand a better system for selecting salespeople and sales management candidates with the talent and the will to perform up to management’s expectations. For many companies this, and not simply more sales skills training, may become their single most important investment to improve market share and profitability, especially in these challenging times.

Using statistically validated assessment tests in the hiring process, placing salespeople only in jobs for which their talents and interests are aligned and developing career paths that allow employees to expand their natural talents is a win-win for the employees and the company.

Copyright © 2009 Selling Up™. All Rights Reserved.

Steve Chriest
Selling Up
Steve Chriest is the founder of Selling Up™, a sales consulting firm specializing in sales revenue improvement. He is the author of Selling The E-Suite, The Proven System for Reaching and Selling Senior Executives™ and Profits and Cash: The Game of Business™.


  1. Want to Hire Great Sales Reps? Start by Avoiding the “Sales Personality” Myth.
    Steve. The first impressions are the dresses. And these are chnaging all.
    I think you are on the right track when you talk of the myths. We are so used to keeping our collars high that we have forgotten that as the market changes with the youths these days. These youths are wearing jeans and not the formal dresses. Remember one day we had the offices where all had to wear ties. Those days are gradually disappearing mainly because of the casual dresses that are equally comfortable. Ladies coming in the business makes the difference too. These days we have to cut a thin carve between the well dressed and not dressed to the suit the occasion and never rule out that the ill dressed.
    To be honest the computing field had changed the way we dress. We never will be on the table with the PC and dressed in suits. We must remember that in many fields there are little PCs on the table and the employees are more comfortable with the informal dresses. There are no personalities as great salesman unless he shows that he sells and is in the team work. Without team and without the dress codes we have no good salesmen.
    I thank you
    Firozali A Mulla MBA PhD
    P.O.Box 6044
    East Africa

  2. Steve: Thanks for debunking the “sales personality” myth. Your ideas are a great starting point for a discussion. I’d like to add:

    1) Identifying traits that portend success in sales depends on knowing in the first place what a salesperson must contribute to the organization. Asking “what must our sales organization deliver to our company in order for our business strategy to work?” as a top-level question will help uncover the right competencies.

    2) A salesperson’s demonstrated ability to adapt to new conditions, selling situations, and resources is particularly important. Today, salespeople are more likely than ever to experience a major shift in selling process, or will have to manage the impact of a significant economic or market force.

    3) Ego and empathy are two highly-desirable sales personality traits that are often ignored in favor of the other easier-to-identify characteristics that you mentioned. I wrote in an earlier article on CustomerThink that by asking “how does the world look through your customer’s eyes?” an empathetic personality can be identified.

    4) Above all, customer references speak volumes about a salesperson’s abilities. By asking several past customers “would you buy from (salesperson name) again?” you’ll know whether he or she is someone you want on your team.


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