Book Excerpt: Discover Your Sales Strengths

In the ever-changing world of sales, there is no single, sure-fire, tried-and-true method that anyone can readily imitate to deliver peak performance. Read this excerpt that explains how knowing your own strengths is the key to excellence.

Book Excerpt:
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There are no jobs with a future, only people with a future.

A few years ago we were making our way down Bourbon Street in the New Orleans French Quarter. We had finished our meetings for the day and were in search of a cold beverage. It was late afternoon, and the street was already filling up with visitors. As we stopped at a corner, two boys about ten years of age came up and began studying our shoes intently. Just as we started to move along, one of the boys held out his hand and said, “Wait—I bet you a dollar I can tell you where you got them shoes.”

We thought there was no real chance he could do this since we were from out of town. It would be a million-to- one shot for him to guess where we had bought our shoes, and even greater odds to guess for both of us because we were from different cities. “Are you going to tell us just the city or the store name?” we asked. He stared a bit more at our shoes and held out his own his friend (more like his accomplice), who had some-how become the official money holder for this wager. He said, “I will tell you exactly, and I mean exactly, where you got them.” With that, we both handed over our dollars.

After a few seconds the boy looked up at us and said, “Now, remember, I didn’t say I was gonna tell you where you bought those shoes. I said I was gonna tell you exactly where you got ’em. Right now, you got your shoes on your feet on Bourbon Street.”

With that, they both turned and ran down the street with our money. It wasn’t until that moment—as our eyes were following them through the crowd—that we saw the wizard. He was heading our way down Bourbon Street. He was easy to spot. Dressed in a flowing purple costume with a peaked, purple wizard hat, he pulled a wishing well behind him. Even in the French Quarter, he looked a little bizarre. As he drew closer, we could see a sign on his well that read WISHES OF ALL KINDS GRANTED.

Perhaps we had our own signs painted on our foreheads that said TOURISTS: EASY MARKS, because he stopped right next to us. Intrigued by his appearance, we asked what the going rate for a wish was these days. He eyed us up and down and, taking in our suits, asked, “Is this a business wish or a personal wish?” “Business,” we replied. “Well,” he said, “those are a bit more complicated. Personal wishes are only a dollar, but business wishes are three dollars. Of course, with a business wish, you get a lot more for your money!”

Sure you do, we thought, but what the heck, this still had to be a better deal than spending a dollar each just to be told our shoes were on our feet, so we handed over three dollars. At that point he looked at us and said, “That’s three dollars apiece.” So, we coughed up another three dollars, and the wizard went to work.

He began waving his hands slowly in the air and speaking in a raspy wizard’s voice. He instructed us to imagine clearly the wishes we had in mind. Then he asked us to visualize what would happen when our wishes were fulfilled. As we concentrated on this, he continued his incantation.

When he was satisfied we had clearly visualized our wishes, he said, “Now, think of all the gifts you have. Think about your physical gifts, your mental gifts, and your spiritual gifts. Think about all the different abilities and capabilities you have.” He let us think for a moment as he continued his spell. Then, after a moment, he asked if we had those gifts clearly in mind. We both answered yes. He continued, “Think especially of those gifts and capabilities that would be useful in making your wish come true.” And so we thought about which of our strengths might help us, and exactly how we would use them.

By this time a small crowd had gathered. This inspired the wizard to become even more dramatic. His demeanor became more mystical, his arm-waving more pronounced, and his voice even raspier. For six bucks we had our own Harry Potter Wizard on Bourbon Street. Then he said, “Now, I want you to think of all the people who might be able to help you make your wish come true. Not only people you know, but people you might meet who could help you. Think about what you would ask them to do and why they might want to help you.” So, we thought of all the people who might help us to make our wishes come true.

While we were thinking about this, he threw flash paper into the air, which burst into flames. (Flambé of all kinds is popular in New Orleans.) The crowd was spellbound. Then, he asked us to close our eyes and think of the very first thing we could do to make our wishes come true. As we did this, he handed each of us a small card. “When you have the first step clearly in mind,” he said, “open your eyes and read the card.” In a few minutes we opened our eyes. The wizard was already on his way with his wishing well in tow. The crowd had dissipated except for a few stragglers curious about what the cards said. We read the cards, looked at each other, and nodded our heads in agreement.

Many Wizards
Take away the flash paper, the purple costume, the raspy voice, and what do you have? Well, for one thing, you have a funny-looking man with a wishing well and six dollars of our money! Is this wizard’s advice any good, or is it as worthless as being told your shoes are on your own feet? We were more than a little skeptical because over the years we have run into many self-proclaimed wizards, especially when it comes to advice about improved sales performance, a subject of keen interest to us. More than forty years ago, our researchers became curious about why some people perform their roles so much better than others do. What was different about the very best teachers, managers, or leaders? Although we were interested in all these professions, and eventually studied them, we began our research into job performance by studying sales. This is because, of all careers, sales has the most quantifiable results—ultimately, the numbers tell the most important story of sales performance. Gallup focused primarily on salespeople who were consistently in the top 25 percent of their companies’ sales forces. We found that the best performers sold four to ten times as much as average performers. These performers were not just incrementally better. . . they were a lot better. Customers not only bought more from them, but those same customers did it again and again. These top salespeople produced business with better margins. They tended to stay at their respective companies longer and developed more loyal relationships with their customers. We wanted to know what, if anything, is so special about such performers and why they are able to achieve so much more than their average counterparts.

Over the years we have interviewed more than 250,000 salespeople, more than one million customers, and 80,000 managers. This research produced some surprising conclusions-conclusions that refute many popularly held conceptions about sales excellence.

Dead Wrong
Yes, many “wizards” have written about exceptional sales performance. These books are sometimes big sellers. Just like the newest diet books, they promise spectacular results. But lasting improvement from either kind of book is hard to find. The dieter may lose a few pounds only to see the weight return weeks later. A salesperson may read a new book and her sales may take an upward bounce, but usually her performance quickly falls back to prior levels.

Why this consistent lack of success? Our research indicates that much of what has been written and taught about sales excellence has little to do with what really matters. All too many managers, authors, and wizards are dead wrong about what it takes to be a great sales performer.

Put bluntly, we see a number of myths about sales performance pop up again and again. Unfortunately, these misconceptions have guided the sales management practices of too many companies, inadvertently hindering the productivity of their own salespeople. Throughout the pages of this book we will identify these myths and explain how they can impede your performance. We will also show you the compelling picture of sales success that emerges from more than a quarter of a million interviews and decades of research.

One of these myths is that anyone can sell as long as he has enough desire and training. Recently we worked with the manager of a regional mortgage brokerage company. Frank had been in sales management for many years and believed that as long as someone could walk and talk and had enough desire, he could teach that person to sell. As you might guess, quite a few applicants who came through his door met these criteria.

So he hired them. And he trained them. And more than 85 percent failed in the first year. Frank’s explanation for those who failed was that they just did not have enough desire to succeed.

We came to a different conclusion. The idea that anyone can sell is nonsense. Sales simply is not for everyone because consistent success in a sales career requires the presence of certain talents. In the course of our work we have studied sales forces for some of the best companies, companies that have carefully recruited and selected their representatives. Even in the best companies, we found that 35 percent of the sales force did not have the talents necessary to achieve acceptable results predictably. This rather considerable group—one of every three salespeople out there—is consistently in the bottom half of the performance curve.

Compounding this problem is the tendency among many companies to develop and enforce policies designed for these poor producers rather than establish cultures and practices that support great performers. These policies do little to help poor performers get better and sometimes even drive away the best producers. Having put the wrong people in the wrong jobs, many companies waste enormous resources trying to post-pone their inevitable failure.

In Frank’s case the numbers were even worse than our average. Over two-thirds of the people he hired lacked the talents we see in top performers. He spent much of his time and resources trying to prop up poor performers. Yet to this day, Frank still believes that anyone can sell, and this tenet keeps him from recognizing the rarity of the abilities that his best salespeople possess. Because he fails to recognize the special nature of his top performers, he approaches salary negotiations, territory assignments, and even his own supervisory techniques and practices in a less than optimal fashion. Myths have a way of enduring that defies reason and data.

In our research we have not found any magic sales dust to sprinkle on poor performers to turn them around. Poor performers seem to be immune to both carrots and sticks. On the other hand, this book can show those who do have the potential to be great sales performers how to identify and unleash their potential. The recommendations you’ll find in Discover Your Sales Strengths are about turning good sales performers into great ones, and helping great performers understand how to stay on top.

Why do we focus on great performers? Isn’t it good enough just to be good? Not anymore, and not as we look into the future. Maintaining a successful career over forty years is no easy task.

Even great performers may let their performance slip over time. The results can be an unpleasant midlife employment crisis and a scramble in the last twenty years of a career. Look around your own company. How many senior representatives do you find leaving for a comfortable retirement after a sustained successful career? They are few and far between in most companies. It makes you wonder if this performance slide is inevitable. Do we just get tired of doing the same thing year after year?

Evelyn is a sixty-four-year-old pharmaceutical sales representative. She has been in the same territory for the past twenty-five years. Her biggest fear is not old age, but retirement. This is not because of any financial concerns since she has more than enough money to live out her days in a comfortable style. She can’t stand the thought of retiring because she loves what she does every day. “I will miss this job so much,” she told us. Our research has helped us understand why some people never seem to burn out, continuing year after year with renewed enthusiasm and exceptional results. Even in the short term we found a big difference between the results of great sales performers and the results of those who are merely good. For example, in a study Gallup completed with a group of sales agents, the average agents sold $2 million to $4 million in new business annually, but the exceptional agents sold in excess of $40 million. Great performance isn’t merely twice as good as good; it’s exponentially better.

These differences go far beyond higher sales and even higher profitability. They also include greater job satisfaction and a true sense of engagement in work. In fact, it’s this engagement that produces these exceptional results and directly contributes to building and retaining a core of loyal customers. Our research indicates that the happier you feel about your performance and the greater your satisfaction in your sales role, the more your customers want to buy from you. Salespeople who are merely good may generate acceptable results, but they are less likely to create customer loyalty, and they hardly ever feel the same way about their jobs as Evelyn does. This book is about becoming engaged in your work. How can you accomplish this? We have found three key points: (1) discover your strengths, (2) find the right fit, and (3) work for the right manager. Let’s briefly introduce these concepts.

Discover Your Strengths
The power of knowing your strengths is obvious to some, but the majority of us fail to give this important matter any real thought. In fact, a majority of the people we talked to had limited knowledge of their talents, their innate potential for strength. Trying to build a successful career without this powerful, important information is like trying to drive down a highway with a foggy windshield. If we’re lucky, we will avoid a head-on collision, but we will most likely miss the important signs that tell us when we need to stop, turn, or yield. Why is it so hard to see our strengths clearly? Strengths, those capabilities that enable us to perform well in various parts of our lives, spring from recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that occur spontaneously and become unique parts of our personality as we mature into adults. Since these patterns are such an intrinsic part of us, as natural as breathing, we can take them for granted. People who meet others easily see nothing special about this gift. Empathetic people just assume that everyone reacts to the emotions of others as instinctively as they do. As a result of the spontaneity with which we apply our talents to various situations, we overlook them and how important and valuable they are.

Our human penchant for fooling ourselves can also cause us to have less than accurate assessments of our abilities. In our “plus columns” we often will list strengths we would like to have instead of those we really possess. We might think we’re good with people because we’d like to be. Similarly, we might attribute strengths to ourselves because we believe those in our types of jobs or circumstances are supposed to have those strengths. If we think that successful salespeople are aggressive, or competitive, or disciplined, we might conclude that we must have those strengths because we are successful in sales.

A third reason we can be confused about our strengths is our use of vague language to describe them. One sales representative we interviewed told us that his greatest strength was his “nose for business.” He insisted he could smell a good deal a mile away, that he could smell when it was time to go for the close, that he could smell the fear in a competitor. After a while we felt as if we were talking to Lassie. A nose for business may be a colorful metaphor, but it is not very helpful in understanding how to grow and develop. Realistically, we can’t develop our strengths until we know what they are and can define them in practical terms.

A fourth reason our strengths are obscured is that most of us have been encouraged to focus on our weaknesses instead of building on our talents to create strengths. Every time we ask about strengths versus weaknesses, we find that more people believe that growth comes from correcting what’s wrong rather than building on what’s right. The key to substantially improving sales performance, according to this line of reasoning, is to identify and correct weaknesses. Many companies perpetuate this reasoning and focus performance reviews on “areas for improvement,” which is often simply a euphemism for “what’s wrong with you.” How many of us have walked away from an an-nual review with a list of areas in which we should improve instead of understanding how we can do more of what we do best? Focusing energy on weaknesses might improve performance somewhat, but—contrary to conventional wisdom-great performance comes from strengths. Knowing your talents, understanding them thoroughly, building them into strengths, and seeing how you can put your strengths to work every day is a key to greatness and, our research would attest, the surer path to success.

Our analysis of sales, management, and customer databases showed that the traditional thinking about development was counterproductive. Sales strengths did not spring from education, training, or experience. In almost every company we studied, the best performers and the worst performers were similar in these respects. What set the best performers above the rest was their use of recurring patterns to:

  • build relationships,
  • have an impact on others (and get them to say yes),
  • discover and solve customer needs,
  • drive their individual performance by focusing on meaningful goals and rewards, and
  • find the right structure in which to perform at their best.

Understanding your talents in these areas will enable you to build strengths that you can put to work for you every day.

In a later chapter we will discuss strengths in more detail. We will explain fully how your talents become an integral part of your makeup. We will also talk about how you can use your life experiences to help recognize your talents. And we will give you a vocabulary that will help you build and define your strengths.

Also, purchasing this book entitles you to take Gallup’s StrengthsFinder, a Web-based interview that will help you identify your talents. After all, no one really knows more about you than you. StrengthsFinder is a highly developed methodology that will help you pick out the most relevant talents you have, talents you can put to use every day.

Find the Right Fit
Understanding your strengths is only the first step in enhancing your performance and job satisfaction. The second step is finding a role that matches your strengths as perfectly as possible.

World-class athletes attain their incredible levels of success because they have found exactly the right sport to play-one in which they can excel constantly. Think about Michael Jordan’s success as a basketball player versus his success (or lack thereof) as a baseball player and you’ll understand the importance of fit. No one can dispute Jordan’s athletic talent. In fact, sportswriters voted him the best athlete of the century. But even someone as gifted as Jordan has to be in the right role for his talent to shine.

In our study of more than 150 sales organizations, we have found that sales positions are as different from one another as one sport is from another. The strengths that make someone an excellent pharmaceutical salesperson are different from those required to excel in selling real estate, or jet engines, or strategic consulting. We have seen firsthand many people with exceptional sales talent—but who are in jobs for which they are ill suited, and so they fail to attain exceptional results. In such situations, hard work and perseverance often lead to ever-increasing levels of frustration and disappointment instead of success. While the concept of fit seems so obvious, in practice we find it is misunderstood and misapplied by companies and individuals alike.

Peter graduated from one of the leading engineering schools in the country. After graduation he easily found a job working in his field. After a few years he realized that he didn’t like engineering work nearly as much as he thought he might when he enrolled in engineering school. When we spoke to him, he remembered that even in college he succeeded more because of his discipline than because of any real love for his classwork. This same discipline helped him become a competent engineer, but Peter was deriving little satisfaction from his work. Like many of us, Peter went to work every day doing something he was good at but not something he was great at. When the industry Peter worked for encountered some difficult times, his company had to cut its workforce by nearly 50 percent. Peter was let go. Suddenly, work in his field was extremely scarce.

Almost out of desperation, Peter began thinking about how else he might earn a living. When a good friend suggested sales, Peter decided to try it. With his engineering degree and several years of work experience on his resume, he was able to find a job selling technical products with a company that had an engineering sales force. The sales manager who hired Peter believed he had the potential to become a good salesperson. After two years the sales manager was sure he had made a mistake. Peter’s performance was below average, and the likelihood for improvement seemed remote. When we interviewed Peter, we found that he did have exceptional sales potential. However, his talents looked quite different from those of high-producing reps who worked for his company. His talent profile was more similar to those of salespeople who excelled as stockbrokers than to those who sold technical products. Armed with this information, Peter took a job with a different company selling financial services products. Today he is one of this company’s best producers. Peter finally found a role that was a good match for his strengths.

One of the most common mistakes individuals and companies make about fit is believing that a person’s background, education, or experience is what determines a good fit. Consequently, nurses who want to go into sales may seek jobs in the pharmaceutical or medical device industry. Accountants may try to sell financial products. But fit is not about what we know. Fit is about what we are. Fit is about our talents, not our knowledge. We can acquire new information much more easily than we can acquire new talents. In the chapter that deals with fit we will outline exactly the kinds of questions you should ask to determine if you are in the right selling role. These questions can be valuable tools in helping you decide if a new job is really a better job for you.

Over time companies and industries change. When this happens, it’s not unusual for the role of the sales force to change as well. You may have been a perfect fit for your company or industry ten years ago, but now different strengths are required. You may find it more difficult to achieve exceptional results. Even if you are an outstanding salesperson, small changes in fit over time can have a dramatic effect on your performance and job satisfaction. If you are feeling “burned out,” this may be what has happened to you. Sometimes changes in your company can occur almost overnight. A merger or an acquisition, a new and different product line, or a landmark event (such as a shift in government reimbursement or regulation) can trigger marked differences in sales missions. If that happens to you, your best bet may be to find another company. That’s how important the right fit is.

A representative at a hospital equipment company, Mark shared the competitiveness and independent nature of many of his peers in the sales force. When the company moved to more of a team-selling approach and compensation policy, Mark and his friends at the company were enraged. How could they have as much as 30 percent of their bonuses hinge on the performance of others? The idea seemed preposterous, but the company felt that market conditions gave it no choice but to move forward with this policy. The result: Mark, along with about 25 percent of the sales force, left to sell for a start-up company that sold to individual physicians and medical groups. There an individual rep could still hold sway.

Of course, not everyone has the opportunity or luxury of finding exactly the right job. If that describes the situation you’re in, then you have a different challenge concerning fit. Your challenge is to discover how you can put your talents to best use in your current job. You can reap substantial improvements in your current job by adopting a strengths-based development strategy. Chances are, you may not be getting the encouragement you need from your company to develop a unique selling approach based on your strengths. This is because many companies wrongly believe that a certain kind of selling “style” is essential for success in their industry. However, when we looked at top performers within any single company, we found a variety of selling approaches and styles. In fact, the best sales performers often had little in common with one another. Instead, they had developed styles that suited them well. The best salespeople adapt the job to suit their strengths; they do not attempt to change their strengths to fit the job. (It is much easier to tailor a suit to fit your body than to tailor your body to fit a suit.)

Work for the Right Manager
Finally, our research shows a significant link between great sales performers and their managers. As salespeople, we sometimes take so much of the burden of success on our own shoulders that we underestimate the importance of having the right manager. But when Gallup finds great sales performers, great managers are usually close at hand encouraging and motivating their employees. The best players actually need -and deserve- the most gifted coaches. Salespeople fortunate enough to have the right manager can improve their performance by 20 percent. In many respects, finding the right manager is just as important as finding the right company.

As you read on, we will show you how to get the most from your manager. But beware-mediocre managers can actually stifle your performance, slow your progress, and demotivate you from achieving your best. Worse still, they’ll blame you! Bad managers never realize that they, not you, are causing your poor results and impeding your progress. As a salesperson, you are at your best when you are working from your strengths. A manager will be most effective when he or she is building on those strengths to improve your performance. So, a key to your success will be helping your current manager become more effective in supporting you-or finding a new manager who can help you be your best. However, if you use this information only to find fault with your company or your manager, you have missed the point. We want you to understand how to work with your manager and your company to maximize your engagement.

Focusing on You
We are pleased about making Gallup’s research more public, especially after decades of gathering data. Until now, most of our sales force research has been available only to a very select group of Gallup clients. Over the years we have assisted these clients in identifying and hiring outstanding sales talent. We have helped many organizations create the right environment and management relationships to enable that talent to flourish. As a result, many of these companies have developed world-class selling organizations.

Now we are making the conclusions of our research available directly to salespeople. Everything we have learned about world-class sales forces is as valuable to individual salespeople as it is to the companies that employ them. However, unlike other selling volumes, this is not a book about sales technique. Nor is it a book filled with inspirational stories to pump you up before you face the world each day. It is, though, a book that can significantly improve your performance, your job satisfaction, and your chances of making the right job changes and career moves. You probably already realize that building a successful career is more than just closing an additional sale this quarter or having a banner year. More than anything, this book is dedicated to helping you achieve a truly rewarding and satisfying career. But reaching this goal has never been more challenging. The business climate has been changing dramatically over the last forty years, and even more so in the last ten years. Less than a decade ago authors James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras published their best-selling work Built to Last. In their book the authors identified eighteen corporations they characterized among the best in the world and referred to them as visionary companies. Yet before even ten years passed, more than 50 percent of these companies faced considerable difficulties. Some of these great giants have become unprofitable, and many have had to make substantial reductions in their workforces. Seemingly unshakable enterprises such as Boeing, Ford, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, IBM, and Sony have had serious reversals.

These great companies may well recover, but no matter how good the company you work for is, you cannot put your future entirely in its hands. Even great companies stumble and have setbacks. The days when a sales-person could expect to work for the same company throughout his career are gone forever. Whole industries, which employed legions of salespeople forty years ago, have either disappeared or completely changed the way they sell their products.

As we look into the future, we expect this trend to continue. It’s unthinkable that we will be purchasing insurance, automobiles, business products, pharmaceuticals, or anything for that matter, in the same way that we purchased them in the last ten years. Over 97 percent of the senior executives we queried told us they expected their business to get tougher in the next decade. The Internet, globalization, government regulation, telecommunications, and demographics are driving predictable and sometimes not so predictable changes in the way we do business. Sales forces will undergo incredible changes. You can no longer count on your com-pany (or even your industry) to employ salespeople—or the same types of salespeople-indefinitely. The essence of many sales missions will change dramatically. But at the same time, new opportunities will emerge. Because of these trends, you must take charge of your own career and future. We believe our research can help you meet these challenges, and succeed.

You are the CEO of your own career, and planning your future is critical. No visionary company would base its future on half-truths, myths, or misinformation, and neither should you. As you think about your own future, Gallup’s databased research can guide you and help you make the most of your potential and your future.

Moving Forward
We make no claim to be wizards ourselves. (We don’t look good enough in purple robes and hats to pull off the wizard thing.) We are more like investigative reporters who have examined Gallup’s data-data that point to clear, albeit sometimes surprising, conclusions. If anything, research has made us distrustful of wizards and opinions, theories and conjectures, perhaps because so many of our own opinions about great salespeople fell by the wayside as the research piled up.

As it turns out, the wizard we met in New Orleans made an important point-and we consider our six dollars well spent. Perhaps you are wondering what was printed on the cards he handed us. They simply said, “If you have followed the wizard’s instructions carefully, then your wish has already begun to come true.”

The wizard’s last instruction to us was to think about how to get started. If you want to become one of the world’s best salespeople, we suggest that a good way to start is to turn the page to the next chapter. There we will comment on many of the myths and misconceptions that have become “conventional wisdom” about sales performance-myths that may be holding you back from greater success. More important, we will share insights from decades of intense research, insights that will result in sustained, improved performance.

And, for no extra charge, we will even tell you exactly where you got your shoes.

Copyright © 2003 by The Gallup Organization

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Benson Smith is a consultant, speaker, and author for The Gallup Organization and an expert in the area of sales force effectiveness.

Tony Rutigliano is a Senior Managing Consultant, speaker, and author for The Gallup Organization and an expert in sales force effectiveness, organizational effectiveness, and talent assessment.

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