This is something I think about a lot. As a media sales trainer I work with a lot of recent graduates who are getting to grips with their first sales role. I always ask them one question: “What made you choose a career in sales?’. Their replies vary, with some saying they just needed a job. But for others – and I hear this quite often – it’s because they were told by friends and family they would be great in sales because “I can talk to anyone”.
Think of a typical sales person and you’ll probably conjure up the image of someone outgoing, confident, charming – a bit flashy or smooth, perhaps. In Ireland, we’d describe that person as having ‘the gift of the gab’. This stereotype is reinforced through recruitment. I recently looked at a selection of adverts for media sales jobs and personality characteristics such as ‘incredibly confident’, ‘charismatic’ and ‘enthusiastic’ are frequently mentioned. These qualities all point towards candidates who are extroverts, and academic studies and research have shown that extroverts are much more likely to be selected for sales roles.
Yet there is absolutely no evidence to support the belief that extroverts make the best sales people.
For many years I worked as an advertising director running media sales teams. Some of the best sales people I worked with actually displayed very few extrovert traits. They were thoughtful, insightful, creative thinkers, great listeners and thorough in the way they worked – not quite the people described in media sales job ads!
So are sales managers missing out on potential ‘Star Performers’ by hiring teams of extroverts?
Because of my own experience I was fascinated by ‘Rethinking the extraverted sales ideal: The ambivert advantage’ by Adam Grant, the first piece of research that explored the potential downsides of extroverts working in sales roles. Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, took as his subject a company with a large sales staff, assessed where each salesperson stood on a 1 to 7 scale of introversion/extroversion, and then charted how much they sold during a three-month period.
His findings exploded the myth of the extroverted sales star. The strong introverts (represented on the left of the chart’s horizontal axis, around 1 and 2) weren’t very effective sales people. No surprise there. But the strong extraverts (those at 6 and 7 on the scale) proved little better. As you can see from the chart, the sales people who performed best — by a wide margin — were in the modulated middle. Known as ‘ambiverts’, a term that has been in use since the 1920s. they’re not overly extroverted and they’re not overly introverted. They’re a little of both.
Why are high extroverts not the best sales people?
If you think about it, it’s not hard to understand why extroverts don’t make the best sales people.
- They are often far more interested in their own perspective than that of their clients. Sales people who are highly extroverted like to be the centre of attention. They are more likely to dominate conversations, bounce from one conversation to another, express too much excitement for their own ideas and inadvertently not consider client needs.
- Extroverted sales people can also turn clients off if they seem overly excited and confident (Judge et al 2009). Clients may interpret this excitement and confidence as a signal that the sales person is trying to influence them and, as a result, the client is likely to become resistant to the sales person’s approaches.
- They can care too deeply about being liked and not enough about doing the tough things that get results.
Introverts have their own challenges. They can be too shy to initiate conversations, and too timid to close a deal – for high introverts sales is probably not the right job.
Ambiverts successfully strike the right balance. They know when to speak and when to listen, when to push and when to hold back. And the good news is that there are lots of ambiverts around.
If you are a sales manager what should you look for when recruiting media sales people?
According to Dan Pink, an expert on business, work and management, you should take a more calibrated approach – look for people who can talk easily but also listen keenly, who know when to turn on the charm but also when to turn it off, who combine the extrovert’s assertiveness with the introvert’s quiet confidence. Just imagine what you could achieve with a crack team of ambivert media sales people!