Monday, May 26, 2014

Don't Have the Personality to Sell? Think Again

One of the more persistent myths in the A/E industry is the notion that most technical professionals lack the personality to be effective in sales. You've probably heard the joke about the difference between an introverted and extroverted engineer. (In case you haven't: The introvert looks at his shoes; the extrovert looks at the other person's shoes.) The exaggeration is supposed to make you chuckle. But it also serves to reinforce the stereotype that most engineers are inherently socially challenged, and thus unfit for the sales role.

That's simply not true.

It is a fact that our profession draws more than its share of introverts. Over half of engineers and architects are reportedly introverts, while only one-fourth of the general population is. But being an introvert doesn't disqualify one from being an effective salesperson. One survey of over 100 rainmakers in professional services (including A/E services) found little correlation between personality type and sales success. Both extroverts and introverts where among the very best sellers.

Other studies of salespeople have reached the same conclusion. One meta-analysis of 35 studies of over 4,000 salespeople found the correlation between extroversion and sales success to be essentially zero. The popular idea that successful sellers need to have outgoing, gregarious personalities is a myth. Introverts can be just as successful.

In fact, introverts may have an advantage in our industry. Consider that most of our clients also come from technical backgrounds, with a supposedly similar disposition towards introversion. If there is a connection between personality type and sales success, it is this: Introverted salespeople will generally be more effective with introverted buyers.

Still, many A/E firms make the mistake of hiring rainmakers that fit the seller stereotype. They think that successful sellers have to have the outsized, aggressive personality that we commonly associate with the sales profession. But, in fact, most people dislike dealing with salespeople who display those traits—even the people who hire them! Most people, of course, includes your clients.

The sales personality myth is a comfort to technical professionals who would prefer not to have to sell. I often hear comments such as, "I just don't have the personality for selling." But that's more excuse than explanation. Many in our profession—and other professions—are indeed uncomfortable with selling, not because they lack the personality but because of their negative impressions of salespeople. The good news is you don't have to imitate the classic sales persona (in fact, you shouldn't) to be an effective seller.

So if personality isn't the key ingredient for sales success, what traits are important? The following are the ones I think are essential:
  • Care about people. This is foremost in defining great sellers. We're in business to serve others, so having genuine interest and concern for clients is a required success trait. That's what motivates us to sell.
  • Good listener. We tend to place way too much emphasis on rainmakers being good talkers. The fact is big talkers turn off clients; good listeners gain their trust and are better able to meet their needs.
  • Determined. With sales cycles commonly stretching from 18 months to 3 years, selling is not for those needing instant gratification. Unless, of course, you find reward in helping clients during the sales process.
  • Disciplined. Effective rainmakers have a system, and they don't consign their sales responsibilities to leftover time. They make developing new relationships and business a constant priority.
  • Strong problem solver. The essence of effective selling in this business is advising and problem solving. I fear that many design professionals have neglected their consulting skills, and it shows in the sales process. The best consultants combine abilities in both analysis (breaking down a problem) and synthesis (understanding the problem in context).
  • Adaptable. When it comes to selling, one size doesn't fit all. The effective rainmaker is able to adapt his or her approach to the client's personality, preferences, and priorities. This requires a sensitivity to the feedback—both verbal and nonverbal—you get from the client.
  • Authentic. Being adaptable should not involve trying to be something that you're not. Ever notice how many rainmakers come across as kind of phony? Rather than leveraging their unique personal strengths, they attempt to project the sales persona that they assume buyers expect. It works against them. A far better approach is to be genuine, even if it doesn't fit the classic image of a salesperson.
If you don't like selling, learn to serve prospective clients instead. Your personality is not the real shortcoming; it's a lack of want-to. Once your motivations shift to helping, the how-to comes much easier—and sales success should follow.  

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