What sets top performers apart from the rest?

September 29, 2021

We asked Tim Currie (above left), Head of Global Sales at Cloudreach, and Tal Paperin (above right), Vice President of Global Sales for sales outsourcing firm KSW, for their thoughts on the key traits found in top performing salespeople.

Sales has traditionally struggled with high turnover rates of staff, with Tal Paperin arguing this is simply because nobody wakes up and says, ‘I want to be doing sales’, in the same way no one wakes up and says they want to flip burgers, so people naturally want to move on. Tim Currie sees it differently, arguing that it is not necessarily a problem with sales, but due to the personality of many within the industry; in times of hot markets, people don’t want to miss out, and in times of longer play markets, they want to put themselves in the best position to maximise their earning potential.

What are the key traits common to the top performing salespeople?

Tim:  For high performers everywhere, people talk about being competitive and being driven. The two things I think drive a high performer in sales are the need to always win and an inability to accept the status quo. Both can be very healthy but also be very disruptive within an organization.

Regarding the first, I want to deliver on behalf of my customer. What my company decides to sell or how they deliver is not as relevant as what my customer needs. If I can’t be that person for that customer, they’re going to go elsewhere. So, the need to always be winning reinforces that high performer mind-set.

For the second, if someone says, “We sell apples, my customer wants oranges. We should sell oranges. I’m going to go find someone who can get me an orange.” A high performer, as they progress through their career, learns how to challenge, and get the most out of their organization.

So, taken together, it’s that you want to be able to transact. You want to be able to succeed and not have the status quo of your organization be the reason you say “no”.

Tal: There are two kinds of salespeople. The first is a natural. Just as there are natural software programmers who write code brilliantly, or an Elon Musk or Bill Gates who are naturals, the same goes for sales. You’re a natural people person. That method is unsustainable because they cannot train anyone. They cannot go up to ten other people and train them by saying, ‘I’m great, be like me.’

The second kind are people that like sales, and they invest in their own education. They understand that they do not know everything. They are not better than everybody, and there’s a vast sea of knowledge that they need to learn. So, they go to training sessions, they read books, hundreds of books on sales. They’ve read them all. They know all the methodologies and they keep on going to personal trainers and professionals and they’ll learn. So, the key trait is trainability, somebody is willing keep training and change their natural state of behavior.

How do you assess whether both your existing team and the prospective members of your teams have those or other key traits?

Tim: There’s three qualitative things that I look for. First, do they ask questions that are hard to answer? Do they challenge me and the organization to answer questions that aren’t easy to answer?

Second, do they manage up? Do they seek one-on-ones, do they go, “Look, I need these things; I want you to know how I see myself being successful.”

Third, are they intellectually curious about how the organization and the customers do things? There’s a difference between selling and vending. In a large organization, say a global VAR environment, most of their job is finding out what the customers are buying. That’s not selling. Selling is finding the right people and the opportunities at a customer that need filling and finding alternative solutions. That requires you to understand the context and be curious about your customer’s business, so that you can be an asset to them.

Tal: It depends on the position. Sales is like a hierarchy. You have Sales Development Reps (SDRs) at the bottom, then an Account Executive, then a Business Development Representative (BD), then you have a Sales Manager or Team Leader. Above them, you have Regional Sales Managers or Country Managers and then a Vice President of Sales. It depends because each level comes with their own traits.

The one thing in common is trainability. If a recent geography graduate comes for a sales job, first you need to ask why? Is it because you don’t want to be flipping burgers?

Then you examine them even more: What is your learning process is? How do you absorb and implement knowledge? Which sales books have you read? Have you watched any YouTube training? What did they say? Who is Gary Vaynerchuk or Grant Cardone? What about other people? What did you adopt from their teachings? What do you think about what they have to say? In short, we assess for the ability to absorb and implement knowledge and the ability to change.

Would you say that behavioral assessments and personality tests can play a role in determining whether someone can be a good fit for a sales team?

Tim: I think when you get into larger organizations, deciding who might be best positioned to be a sales manager, or other senior roles in the hierarchy where there’s more to a role than just sales, they can help. Because then your job isn’t about how do I do all the things that I just described, right? About managing up and being curious and putting yourself in a position of necessity value to your customer and understanding what that means. Those are all traits that certainly a personality test or a personality evaluation would maybe give you some inkling to.

But how do you manage conflict? Are you empathetic? It is at a management level where those personality tests really help – not all high-performers make good managers. So, there I think personality tests do have a role. But in deciding who’s going to be a high-performer individual contributor, I find them to be a useful data point but not anything I’m going to base my career or paycheck on.

Tal: No, that’s why HR and the hiring process for sales has been failing for decades and will continue to fail.

For example, let’s say a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine manufacturer needs a salesperson. The first question asked is often ‘do you have any experience in CNC machinery’. That question is applicable to an engineer because they need product knowledge; the salesperson needs to understand sales. Companies are making the fatal mistake of trying to get product people into sales. They want a technical background or understanding of whatever is relevant to the product. It takes a few days to train somebody on a product. It takes much longer to train somebody in sales. Hence the failure. If you can sell, that’s great. If not, then the company should have teaching systems in place. Unfortunately, there are no universities that give you a degree in sales. Therefore, somebody needs to be training those guys, so that if somebody comes up with an irrelevant degree you can say, ‘ok, I’ll take you anyway. If you can learn and you can absorb knowledge then that shows me something, now let’s see what you can do in sales.’