January 30, 2008
By Dr. Christopher Croner and Richard Abraham
Originally published on Sales & Marketing Management online

If you are like most sales managers and entrepreneurs, you have been burned by hiring a salesperson who looked good at first, but concealed the fact that he hasn’t the talent—nor the desire—to sell.

Despite what they tell you in the interview, many sales candidates lack the hard-wired, emotional drive to succeed as a salesperson. Ultimately, they will break your heart—and, more importantly, your bank.

As most sales managers know, an underperforming salesperson can cost over six figures annually in salary, training dollars and lost sales. To make matters worse, many companies with long sales cycles require 18 to 24 months for a salesperson to prove their worth. In fact, one financial services firm recently calculated an underperformer cost them a total of over $2.6 million.

Anatomy of a Driver

Over 80 years of research in the sales sector has found that the most important trait common to the DNA of nearly all successful salespeople is drive. Drive is the passion that causes great salespeople to get up early, stay up late and make whatever personal sacrifices are necessary to close business. It is the inner fire that determines not just whether a salesperson can sell, but whether they will sell.

Drive is composed of three critical elements:

  1. Need for Achievement

    Top-gun salespeople have a burning need to achieve. They are ambitious, disciplined and focused on advancement. Need for achievement causes people to set tough but achievable goals, take moderate risks, strive for perfection and find innovative solutions to problems. They want to know the score and how they are doing. They set the bar high, jump over it and set it higher next time.

    Psychologist David McClelland noted that sales careers are attractive to achievers because salespeople must make decisions about which prospects to call on, take personal responsibility for making calls, choose moderate risks, find creative methods of persuasion and monitor their success.

  2. Competitiveness

    Driven salespeople are hard wired to be number one. Like a thoroughbred racehorse, they are always eyeing their peers, always comparing their performance to others. They are out to win. In a 2003 study, marketing professor Balaji Krishnan and his colleagues tested 182 real estate salespeople, and found that competitiveness caused salespeople to work harder and, subsequently, outperform their peers. To a competitive salesperson, the sale itself is often a contest of wills with the customer. Essentially, it is a contest between the salesperson’s ability to persuade and the customer’s resistance or inertia, hence the expression, “winning the sale.”

  3. Optimism

    Optimism is the driven salesperson’s ultimate weapon the expectation that he will succeed. Without this expectation, a salesperson will not be driven to perform. Optimism is also the body armor against the inevitable rejections of the selling life. The optimist sees the glass as half-full and thrives under adversity. To a great salesperson, rejection is just part of the game, like grounding out in baseball. He knows the next time at bat will bring a home run.

    Psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues pioneered the study of optimism in salespeople. Over 30 years of research by Seligman and his colleagues with more than one million salespeople have confirmed the importance of this trait. Notably, in 1986, Seligman and Peter Schulman tested 14,000 applicants at Metropolitan Life for optimism. The results of this study showed that optimists consistently outsold pessimists. Additionally in a 1995 study, Schulman went on to compare optimism scores to performance of salespeople across several industries, including office products, real estate, banking, and car sales. The results across all studies indicated that optimists outsold pessimists by 20 to 40 percent!


The Harsh Reality of Drive

In summary, drive is composed of three elements: need for achievement, competitiveness and optimism. All three elements are essential. When only one or two are present, performance is almost always compromised.

Why is Drive so important to successful selling? Because of all professions, sales requires the most intense self-motivation, presents the most rejection and puts the most grueling and constant pressure on self-esteem. In fact, for “hunter” salespeople who must bring in new business, no other sales skills matter without drive. Further, Drive is almost impossible to develop. Drive is hard-wired; either a salesperson is driven or he is not.


The Most Important Decisions of Your Career

According to Peter Drucker, hiring decisions are the most important choices you make as a business owner or sales manager. And when it comes to selling, your company’s performance is dependent on the quality of salespeople you hire and retain. Through proper testing and interviewing techniques, salespeople with drive can be identified, selected and motivated to produce consistently, at high levels, for you and your company.

In closing, take the following two steps as a recommendation:

  1. Require all future candidates to be tested and interviewed for drive (along with all other job-related skills). For a great list of drive-related questions for job candidates, read “Interviewing for Drive” at salesandmarketingmanagement.com.
  2. Examine your current team for drive. Those who are driven but not yet performing can likely be developed to sell more. Those with weak or moderate Drive have likely reached the limit of their sales performance.

Christopher Croner, Ph.D. is co-author of “Never Hire a Bad Salesperson Again.” He is also a Principal with SalesDrive, a cutting edge sales management consulting firm. Richard Abraham is co-author of “Never Hire a Bad Salesperson Again” and author of “Mr. Shmooze: The Art and Science of Selling Through Relationships” He is also a speaker, writer and consultant to many Fortune 500 companies.

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