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What Are The 3 Characteristics That Set Great Sales People Apart?

by David Brock on August 23rd, 2010

Last Friday, I had the privilege of being interviewed by an executive on critical issues in buying and selling.  It was a great conversation, but one of his questions stuck in my mind.  He asked me, “What are the 3 characteristics that set great sales people apart from others?”

I responded, “Oh, there are so many……”  He interupted, saying, “Dave, you only get to choose the top 3, no more.”

This caused me to pause, any of us can come up with lists of characteristics of great sales people, sometimes it’s half a dozen characteristics, often a dozen, sometimes the lists go on and on…..  Brian’s question was really challenging, he only allowed me 3 characteristics.  I thought to myself, how can I combine several into one, maybe I can create a giant run-on sentence with all sorts of adjectives describing great sales people.

After a few moments of reflecting, I provided three carefully worded phrases:

  1. Goal directed curiosity and a problem solving orientation.
  2. A genuine interest in helping people achieve their goals and dreams.
  3. An ability to embrace changes and to get the people they work with to embrace and own change.

Let me explain myself.

1.Goal directed curiosity and a problem solving orientation.  Every great sales professional I’ve met is incessantly curious.  They want to learn as much about their products and solutions as they can, they want to master them, so they can present them to their customers.  They are curious about their customers–both their customers’ businesses and their customers as individuals.  they study their businesses, their customers’ customers, their customers’ markets and competition.  Their curiosity is not random, it’s very focused.  The greatest sales people know how they can help their customers.  Their curiosity is purposeful, it’s focused on trying to find problems and opportunities their customers have–that the sales person can do something about.  Great sales people don’t go on random fishing expeditions, they don’t cold call–every call is carefully researched and planned,  they don’t waste their customers’ or their own time.  They don’t fool themselves with wishful thinking, but focus pragmatically–does the customer have a problem I can solve?  Can I present and opportunity that would accelerate the ability of my customer to achieve their goals?   In the end, they are about results–those they help the customer produce and those they produce for their organizations.  The greatest sales people are also curious about their profession.  They are constantly reading, attending workshops and seminars, talking to others they respect.  They know to stay at the top of the profession–to be a top performer, that the bar is constantly being raised.

2.  A genuine interest in helping people achieve their goals and dreams.  Top performers care about their own performance, but they know they only way they achieve their goals is through helping the customer achieve their own–whether it is the overall business goals, their function’s departments goals, or their own personal goals.  Top performers revel in seeing their customer being successful in implementing the solutions they have sold them.  Top sales people never “hit and run,” if things aren’t working, they don’t ignore the customer, they go back in and do everything they can to correct things.  Sometimes they can’t correct things, but the customer knows it isn’t for the lack of trying.  Top sales people care!

3.  An ability to embrace changes and to get the people they work with to embrace and own change.  The greatest sales people in the world know that sales is fundamentally about change.  We ask customers to change suppliers/vendors, to select a different product than they have been using.  We ask people to change their processes, the way they do business–to explore new ways of growing being productive.  We ask customers to embrace a new vision for their organizations, to consider new ways to improve or grow.  The best also realize they are asking their own organizations and the people in their organizations to change–how we hold and value customers, how to create the best experiences, how to retain and grow our customers. new products and solutions we might provide to enhance our relationships and grow our business.   Top sales people realize that people may fear or not understand change.  They realize their role is to help people understand it, to own it, to take it on as their own mission and goal.  The best in sales realized they are change managers and that they must create the same vision and excitement for change, with their customers and within their own companies, that they envision.

There’s a lot more characteristics for good sales performance.  But I think these three set the best sales people in the world apart from everyone else.  Do you agree?  If you had only 3 characteristics to choose, which would you select?

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27 Comments
  1. Warren permalink

    I was all prepared for some typical, classic sales 101 re-worded rip-off from Dale Carnegie. Dang if I wasn’t surprised by a summary that if these aren’t THE top three, they’re pretty damn good! 🙂

    • 😉 Thanks Warren! The classic sales 101 characteristics are table stakes. To be truly great we have to set the bar much higher! Thanks for taking the time to comment. Regards, Dave

  2. Hi Dave,

    I would personally chose slightly differently.

    On any list of traits for a salesman I have to put Hunger as number one.
    If you aren’t motivated and willing to work harder than your peers you will never become a star salesman, sure it is possible to work smarter, but the hungry salesman will try to work smarter for a longer period of time.

    Other than that I agree with you, as I have to take away one I guess it would be your number 3, not because it is unimportant but because I only get 3 options 😉

    • Hunger is a great addition Daniel. I tried to capture a little of that in the “goal directed curiosity.” Thanks for the comment.

      • Hey David, I noticed that it was mixed in a little but in my book it is much to important to be “mixed in”. It has to be a central focus.

  3. Len Butkus permalink

    I have to agree with the responses concerning Hunger. My first manager who hired me after college wrote in his letter of recommendation that I would be successful because I had the one characteristic he considered essential for anyone. He said that I pocessed the Hunger and Desire to accomplish any job or goal in my life.

    • Great input Len. Hunger, Desire, Drive–all critical to the top performers. Thanks for joining the discussion! Regards, Dave

  4. Embracing change and getting others to do it is a great observation. This is actually one of the values at the company I work for: Embrace Change.
    I was thinking “greed” and never being satisfied. I want sales people who want to make more than the CEO but have the other traits you describe and are ethical. They are tough to find, but when you do, they are real assets.

  5. Dave, very nice and realistic. At first I thought your answers were a little pompous from a book-educated armchair quarterback. Having read the detail…..you are right-on. Street smarts educated with compassion and understanding, a very nice combination!
    You address the “hunger” comment in 1 and 2. Hunger can be financially driven, acceptance driven, ego (a big one for most of us), etc.

    Thanks for the enlightenment.

    Jim

    • Jim: Thanks for taking the time to comment. I try to limit the pompousness to Friday posts 😉

      Actually, when faced with the challenge of only 3, I struggled with how do I look at all the things that set truly great professionals apart. The drive, hunger, pragmatism, goal directedness, street smarts, understanding, empathy, ego, ………… All critical, finding the words to connect all of them is a challenge.

      Thanks for joining the discussion. I hope you keep commenting and calling me out on the occaisional lapses into pompousness!

  6. 1. They don’t chase poor prospects (qualifying means more efficiency in time & energy)

    2. They are focused on one goal in every single interaction (whether phone or face-to-face, great sales pros know exactly what the want to accomplish – the classic example of this is the weak rep who tries to sell themselves, their product or company on a phone call, instead of focusing on landing an appointment)

    3. They have GREAT communication skills (do you motivate with benefits or consequences/pain? Today you’d better know how to do both and more importantly, how to identify which direction to take with each prospect)

  7. Dick underwood permalink

    I think the top 3 are Smart, competitive and a strong ability to read people

  8. Perhaps the next three things are the 3-D’s. Drive, Desire, and Discipline.

  9. Nehal Mehta permalink

    Very nicely summarised and phrased, David .

    • Thanks Nehal, thanks also for the great perspective in the LinkedIn conversation. Hope to see you here and commenting further!

  10. Dave,

    I think your comments are right on. I have been thinking and writing about the exact same subject. I am in the midst of releasing a 6-part blog series entitled “Selling Without The Slime”. There is a bit of overlap in what we’ve both written, but you provided a new perspective for me particulary with your thoughts on these:

    “A genuine interest in helping people achieve their goals and dreams”
    and
    “An ability to embrace changes and to get the people they work with to embrace and own change.”

    These are new perspectives that I hadn’t considered. If you’re interested in seeing my take on the subject check out my series on my blog. I look forward to reading more from you.

    • Alan, thanks for the comment. Your series in interesting, I’ll be tweeting it. I look forward to your continued comments here. Regards, Dave

  11. Dave,

    Interesting list. I appreciate the thought behind it and agree with your three, but I would put a different element on top. In my experience, Sincerity is the single most important trait in a successful salesperson, at least in the complex sale that we deal with. Their insides have to match their outsides when dealing with the prospect in every transaction. From an evolutionary perspective, humans are highly tuned deception detection machines, and when a salesman doesn’t sincerely have the best interest of the prospect at heart, the prospect knows it subconsciously. The prospect doesn’t know what is not jiving, just that something is not adding up. The salesman is thinking about paying their mortgage, and the prospect is feeling that something is wrong and covering up. A great salesman in a long complex sale must be able to simultaneously have the clients best interest at heart and need to pay their mortgage, and in my experience, very few people are capable of this. The tiniest hint of duplicity, and prospects start running for the doors. What screws sales people up is that unfortunately sometimes the prospects buy anyway 🙂 Nothing like a little random positive reinforcement to brighten your day.
    My two cents…
    Curt Westberg

  12. Technical knowledge of the product is a must – not so much ‘hunger’. Very often a sales person goes after the $$ because he’s goal oriented. This means that not always the best product is recommended to the customer. During a recent sales trip to China, the customer insisted on buying our most expensive camera, but I sold them a lower resolution, lower cost item because it was the best for their application.
    Understanding their technical requirements allowed me to make suggestions, which they embraced, resulting in a huge order.

    An a-typical sales person would’ve sold anything and say ‘yes” to whatever the customer wanted. Result – more pressure on your engineers to resolve technical issues, which puts more pressure on support, taking your engineers away from projects, leading to frustration.

    Sometimes saying ‘no’ can be good for your company

    • Erik: Thanks for the great comment! Doing the right thing for the customer is the mark of a real professional. Saying no is not only good for the company, but good for your customer and your long term relationship as a trusted advisor. Thanks for joining the discussion! Regards, Dave

  13. Dave and all,

    What an interesting question to pose. I’ll bet we ‘ve all thought a million times about what makes a great sales person. Not many have been asked to qualify the anwser so succinctly. I think you all did an amazing job and over the last 30 years, I have looked for those same qualities . I admit often falling short of my goal – to find the qunitessential sales person! As to which is most critical, it depends. What are we selling? To whom are we selling? What is the culture of the company in which this person will work? Some companies are change adverse;some are less customer -focused than bottom line driven. Some embrace an open and challenging attitude while others are tried and true philosophers. The one attribute I have found to be a solid predictor(ability a given) is a positive attitude. You can coach and teach and train so many skills but if your sales person has a negative attitude, I assure you the battle will be all uphill. It was my number one disqualifier for an applicant to a world class sales force. Thanks for the great discussion.

    • Great insight Veronica–people have the right attitudes–in their views of the job, how they work with customers/peers, how open they are to learning and development. As you mention, without the right attitude, it’s impossible to make progress.

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