Salespeople can make or break an organization. Do you have the next big idea? Great. But if you don’t have someone on your team who can sell it, your idea might be dead in the water.

New research from Steve W. Martin, founder of Heavy Hitter Sales, examined the personalities and habits of over 1,000 salespeople to suss out what separates quota busters from those who miss the mark.

According to the study, everything from a salesperson’s communication skills to their level of pessimism -- even whether or not they were an athlete in high school -- can play a role in their success.

The study found that while organizational factors can positively impact a salesperson’s performance, top salespeople possess certain traits that help them stand out anywhere.

“Sales performance is more likely dependent on the attributes of the individual and sales environment characteristics over company-related influences,” Martin wrote in a Harvard Business Review article.

Verbal Acuity

Whether it’s walking potential customers through specific features or talking through their prospects’ pain points, a huge part of a salesperson’s day involves communication -- and being able to do it well.

Using the Flesch-Kincaid test -- a score representing how readable a selection of text is -- the study determined that high-performing salespeople communicated at the 11th to 13th grade levels, while underperformers averaged around 8th or 9th grade.

“[Establishing] credibility requires that messages be conveyed at the recipient's communication level, not too far below the level of the words that the customer uses,” Martin wrote in an HBR article.

You can test what educational level you communicate at using the online tool Readability Score.

Achievement Orientation

Only two things in life are certain -- death and taxes. Salespeople can add a third thing to that list: quota.

According to Martin, 84% of top-performing salespeople are able to consistently crush their sales goals because they rank highly on achievement orientation. These reps are focused on attaining their goals and vigilant about tracking their progress.

This same proportion of top performers played a sport in high school, an experience that Martin predicted makes them “well-equipped to function in competitive environments where self-discipline is a necessity.”

The most successful reps also make sure to use the resources available to them. The study found that more than half are “power users” of the CRM and other internal systems, compared to less than a third of underperforming reps.

Inward Pessimism

Almost all the salespeople in the study described themselves as optimists. However, the research revealed that almost two-thirds of high-performing sales reps actually fell on the pessimistic side of the spectrum.

“Inward pessimism drives a salesperson to question the viability of the deal and credibility of the buyer,” Martin wrote.

High performers use their natural skepticism to qualify leads more thoroughly, according to the research. They’re also more likely to reach out to decision makers directly rather than pursue conversations with contacts who may or may not have influence over purchase decisions.

Sales Management Influence

When it comes to manager-rep relationships, the study reveals that the amount of facetime salespeople clock with their managers has less impact on a salesperson’s success than what they’re meeting about. Around half of all respondents said their managers are invaluable to helping them achieve quota, and that they speak to their managers throughout the day.

But when asked what makes a great sales manager, high and underperformers’ found different aspects of their managers' expertise helpful. Here are the top three traits high and low performers valued in their managers:

  • High-performing salespeople: “leadership and management skills,” “practical experience and sales intuition,” and “communication and coaching skills”
  • Underperformers: “industry expertise and product knowledge,” “communication and coaching skills,” and “fights for the team”

While the best salespeople utilize their managers’ experience to improve their own sales strategies and develop their professional skills, underperformers “tend to use their managers to make up for the product and industry knowledge they lack,” Martin wrote.

Sales Organization Influence

High-performing reps were more likely to rate their sales organization’s morale and standards of accountability higher than underperformers. Almost two-fifths of high performers strongly agreed that their organization’s sales reps were held accountable against their quotas. Slightly less than one-fourth of underperforming salespeople said this was the case at their organizations.

Team morale also plays a role in sales reps’ success. When asked to compare their organizations to sales teams at other companies, more than half of high performers rated their team morale as above average. Less than 40% of underperforming salespeople said the same about their teams.

Interestingly, individual success had no correlation with company growth rate. The study included reps from companies with 20% or more annual growth, 5% to 20% annual growth, no growth, or decreasing revenue. Across all four cohorts, the percentage of high-performing salespeople stayed consistent.

The conclusion? Salespeople who work in organizations with high morale or take advantage of their managers’ experience in sales and strategic knowledge can certainly benefit from these organizational factors. But at the end of the day, it’s who you are that matters for sales success.

What personality traits do you think the best salespeople have in common? Tell us in the comments.

Subscribe to HubSpot's Sales Blog

Originally published Mar 31, 2015 8:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017


Sales Traits