A glad-hander with the gift of gab, or the quietly confident introvert—depending on whom you ask—either one may have the traits needed to become a stellar salesperson.
LBM sales managers are divided on the answer to this perplexing question. As far as Bob Eckert, sales manager of Lampert Lumber, in St. Paul, Minn., is concerned, “[great salespeople] are never born … always made. Schmoozers are born, but salespeople are made.” Ernie Villers of Jackson Lumber, in Lawrence, Mass., agrees, but concedes, “it’s an issue we could debate for years.”
Other managers say that a combination of innate traits enhanced by training is what really makes the best stand out from the crowd. Robert McNamara, sales manager for Willoughby Supply, in Mentor, Ohio, is one of them. “[Great salespeople] are born,” he says, “just like great athletes, and then you coach them.”
Some of these innate traits, such as extroversion and empathy, are present from birth, while others, such as ambition and self-confidence, are the psychological effect of environmental conditions.
So what characteristics make a great salesperson?
Managers prize different attributes in their top salespeople, but a consistent trait that most managers observe in their top sellers is empathy—the ability to hear and understand a customer’s concerns. “It’s the old two ears and one mouth thing,” McNamara says. “There’s a reason that old adages like this one stick. We’re supposed to listen twice as much as we talk.”
Empathy is a trait that managers believe is critical to success because it produces better listening skills. The ability to listen rather than just talk at the customer can lead to higher sales volume and happier sales careers. If a salesperson isn’t able to understand how other people feel or to see things from their perspective, then he or she will have a difficult time creating lasting relationships. Empathy is a trait; listening is a skill. Salespeople are born with one and learn the other, but both matter.
Eckert agrees, even though the desire to succeed tops his list of preferred traits in salespeople. “Top salespeople are caring,” he says. “They care about the industry, their company, and other people.” That caring attitude leads them to a deeper understanding of the customer and his needs, enabling the salesperson to better solve problems for customers. The natural conclusion to that is greater customer satisfaction.
As an example, a Lampert Lumber salesperson saw, during a regular visit to his client’s jobsite, that the client was overwhelmed. The salesperson recognized the need to outline when it was time to order products and took the initiative to start scheduling lumber deliveries and pickups for the client. Now, rather than simply seeing that Lampert Lumber salesperson as a vendor, the client considers the salesperson as a peer, integral to his company’s success.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a manager who doesn’t think that self-confidence is essential for sales success. Where there is disagreement is about whether this means that extroverts trump introverts as salespeople.
Some sales managers believe that an introvert can’t succeed in sales. Others consider that view to be outdated, steeped in the old stereotype of the salesperson as a back-slapping, fast-talking extrovert.
These managers say that an introvert salesperson puts customers at ease with his sense of composure and self-control, which helps to build mutual trust and respect with the customer—essential in a consultative sales process. And introverts excel at building long-term relationships, so they do a great job of developing and maintaining customer connections.
The potential problem with sales work for introverts is that they’re uncomfortable putting forward any kind of false front. But they can be highly successful salespeople if they have a genuine conviction about what they’re selling. Irrespective of whether the salesperson is an extrovert or an introvert, self-confidence is essential. How that confidence is expressed will vary depending on which type they are.
For dealers, a good salesperson innately empathizes with the customer. In the case of the contractor customer, these salespeople recognize that contractors not only build for a living, they sell their work, too. Top salespeople have the self-confidence to leap from playing the role of product supplier to project consultant. Through empathy they reveal consultative opportunities that build stronger loyalty and better profitability for their clients.
McNamara works with his salespeople to leverage self-confidence as well as their unique perspective in the market. He links the ability to listen (a common introvert trait) and create solutions to problems as the key to holding margins. If the customer balks at pricing, McNamara knows that his top salespeople will confidently reiterate their value proposition. It takes a high degree of self-confidence to deliver advice to a client who might initially doubt your credibility.
In consultative sales, Jason Behunin, Northwest regional sales director for Dallas-based ProBuild, explains,“there’s a rhythm and cadence that my top salespeople create. This means thinking ahead of the customer, creating a flow with them, and discovering ‘pinch points’ that [the salesperson] can illuminate, mitigate, or remove to produce client profitability.”
The empathetic salesperson who becomes a consultative asset to customers enhances his clients’ profitability, in turn contributing to LBM profitability by improving customer confidence in pricing structures.
But, in certain situations, self-confidence also plays out in a salesperson’s willingness to simply walk away. As Behunin says of one of his top performers, “He is not afraid of ‘no.’”
In an industry where price objections are a daily obstacle, negotiation skills can make the difference between a successful sale and an unhappy customer. To discover the secret behind a quick close, we asked LBM managers to weigh in on the negotiation skills of their top salespeople. Their responses were practically identical: Our salespeople aren’t overly involved in negotiation. The empathy, self-image, solution-selling, and knowledge of the market lead these salespeople to believe that they deserve their asking price.
Lampert Lumber’s Eckert says that his sales performer with the highest margins rarely spends much time crafting responses to price objections. The salesperson doesn’t need to elaborate because his customers know that he schedules deliveries, makes sure that details are covered, does take-offs properly, and even helps his clients design their products. He’s an integral part of their business and considers a price discussion off limits.
The Evolving Sales Archetype
Keep in mind, too, that in sales, the archetype of the ideal performer has shifted. Bob Eckert, of Lampert Lumber, says, “The schmoozer was OK 20 years ago, but that mode of selling is outdated.” The sales professional has evolved from schmoozer to business consultant.
The old-school salesman relied on personality, looks, and the power of friendship. There’s nothing wrong with friendship among business associates, but friendship should be the byproduct of a good business relationship, not its foundation. Ultimately, good business means conducting business competently.
Many experienced industry salespeople today will admit that their entry into sales happened more or less by accident. In contrast, many college students today are purposefully focussing their learning on business matters and will proactively seek a sales career. They’re focused and disciplined, and are comfortable with new technology. Social media and data software are providing them with more sophisticated ways to interact with customers. And this level of professionalism will only continue to increase as technology evolves and sales skills continue to be refined.
Similarly, Villers of Jackson Lumber says that his top salespeople “negotiate not so much by price, but by managing expectations.” This means teaching customers that the price is based on the cost of doing business. “Changes in price require changes in service levels, which the customer never wants. So they pay our fair price,” Villers says.McNamara of Willoughby Supply is passionate about process and competence and says that his top performers will respond to a combative negotiator with: “We earned this price by the solutions we’ve created and the money we’re saving you.”
Top salespeople are pioneers who work well without supervision and push the envelope. But managers seek a balance in their sales staff: a natural inclination toward autonomy and competitiveness paired with the ability to collaborate and foster teamwork.
Several managers cite problems with some of their top (but collaboration-averse) salespeople. “They leave a mess on aisle five for others to clean up,” one notes. Another says, “I’m not so sure our top salesman is profitable.” This begs the question of whether sales volume or profitability should be the greater criterion used to distinguish a top salesperson.
Behunin says that his best salespeople are team players who push those around them to be better. They are leaders without title who create shared accountability and trust between peers. He adds, “If there isn’t trust, it will be evident to the customer. It’s a small industry, and when people talk, we want them to say: ‘I appreciate you guys. I rely on you. I trust you.’” Behunin believes this can only happen in an environment where salespeople collaborate with their teammates.
Villers says, “Team players succeed. Gunslingers tend to lose out because they cross the line and oversell company capabilities. Don’t get me wrong. Our top performers skirt the edges, and that’s OK. But they don’t cross the line. They recognize that you can’t exceed company capability.”
Not Just One Thing
Ultimately, what makes a great salesperson is the potent combination of particular traits and skills, some innate, some learned. To say that successful salespeople are only born, not made, negates the existence of the many top sellers out there who defy existing stereotypes but who, through training and tapping innate traits that may have previously been ignored, grow to become sales dynamos. Whether innate or learned, there’s a balance and interplay between these various characteristics and skills. Top sellers are born ... and made.