Sales – Competency vs. Personality

September 29, 2021

Hiring high-performing employees is the goal of any company’s recruitment strategy. However, sales, both internally and as a service to external clients, is an area where the recruitment and retention of high performers faces unique challenges.

Writing in Forbes, Joe DiDonato, Chief of Staff at Baker Communications explains that while average staff turnover for all industries in 2016 was 17.8 per cent, for sales that average figure is 34 per cent, and for at least ten per cent of sales companies as high as high as 55 per cent. Traditionally this has been blamed on things like poor leadership or poor remuneration. Often, he says, companies simply do a bad job of hiring the right candidates. Dave Kerpen, writing for INC. Magazine on the nine biggest mistakes made when building a sales team agrees. He argues not to go with your gut on hires, and that criteria are essential to score each candidate against.

This is something several sales groups are putting into practice. In 2019, Salesforce’s then-head of recruitment, Ana Recio, outlined its competency-based approach to recruitment. She argued this allowed for a global standardised process and allowed recruiters to rate individuals against specific competencies. But not everyone agrees. The Wall Street Journal detailed last month how some sales managers – in the same way salespeople have gone from cold-calling to problem-solving and being empathetic about peoples’ businesses – have changed their approach to hiring and what they look for in their teams. Mark Cope, Senior Vice-President of Sales at CentralReach, says he looks for ‘curiosity and traits rather than certain experience’.

Personality is a major force behind our habits, behaviours and attitudes and therefore, according to Sherrie Haynie, Director of US Professional Services for The Myers-Briggs Company, personality assessments can be a strong predictor of job performance. However, many tests aren’t designed for the hiring processes. And just because someone has the personality traits that might indicate high performance, or even if they have a track record of high performance, you shouldn’t jump the gun. Harvard Business School’s Frank Cespedes (see this month’s IMO) argues this is because ‘stardom’ is not easily portable in sales. High performance, he says, depends upon the product, processes and internal relationships in a firm as well as external selling skills.

Homing in on key traits…

So, whether companies go for competency or personality-based approach to recruitment, how do they go about determining the traits they deem the most important? In his article for Entrepreneur Europe, titled: ‘How to Hire Superstars’, Alexander Young argues sales is a great example of starting at the end and working backwards by identifying the top salesperson, the determining what it is that makes them the top performer and then using those core characteristics to score other employees. Dave Kerpen disagrees on this. He feels that simply using the traits of top-performing salespeople for judging prospective hires and training new employees may dissuade those workers from utilising their own individual strengths (or ‘superpowers’ as Kerpen calls them). Instead, he urges companies to create a multi-stage sales process and quantify people’s aptitudes for each of those stages.

What those traits are varies depending on who you ask. Volkmar Nass, Commercial Director of Riester, a medical device manufacturer, argues the most important traits to look for are ones you can’t train: empathy (to understand customer problem); charisma (to get conversations going); and drive (for deal-closing). Mark Thacker, President of Sales Xceleration, argues in Forbes that there are seven nuclear level traits that make up the DNA of top salespeople:

  1. An appreciation for the bigger picture
  2. Focused on goals and quotas
  3. Self-leading and self-motivating
  4. Competent, capable and compliant
  5. Personable, relatable, reputable, and trustworthy
  6. Focused on solutions and the customer
  7. Adaptable and trainable – they recognise they can always learn