I always thought I was an anomaly as a salesperson – I didn’t think I fit in with the stereotype of the extroverted salesperson. I wasn’t part of the in-crowd in school, I generally avoided large social gatherings, preferring to hang out with a small group of friends than go to a large house party. I’d rather read a book than watch a movie. Small talk bores me. However, I’ve done well and have developed a successful career in sales for three decades, with two decades in senior management, and I still love what I do.

In the last firm I worked as an employee of, in the first two months, I assessed the skills and personalities involved in the business. The results so far have made me question why the less extroverted members of the team were performing significantly better than the more extroverted ones.

I did some digging into academic research on this subject. I found a lot of blog posts but not a lot of scientific literature referenced. Eventually by poking around long enough, I found an interesting 2013 paper by Adam M. Grant, titled, “Rethinking The Extraverted Sales Ideal: The Ambivert Advantage”. Grant analyzed the work of 325 salespeople over the course of three months, and found that ambiverts chart a revenue performance of up to 24% over introverts and 32% over extroverts.

This paper tears apart the myth that extroverts make the best salespeople. In fact, they are largely no more productive than introverts. The big difference comes from ambiverts: those people who share the characteristics of both.  Grant’s review of other studies across 3,800 salespeople show a near-zero correlation between extroversion and sales performance.

Now, some of you are saying, “Of course! That’s because extroverts are great at talking and not great at listening.”, and you’d be right. But look at your hiring practices: how often have you chosen that brash young man (gender is a whole other topic that I’ll post on later) over the more thoughtful alternative? How often have we chosen sales managers who fit that table-pounding, chair kicking testosterone-fueled personality – the ones that promise to “fix that lazy sales team” once and for all? Perhaps your problem isn’t laziness – maybe it’s how you’re working with and perceived by your customers.

The reasons for the counter-intuitive under-performance of extroverts are:

  • Extroverts may express so much excitement for their own ideas that they may inadvertently suppress or neglect their customers’ perspectives. They may spend too little time asking questions and listening to customers answers. They might be able to mask these issues through a more formal customer interview process, but ultimately they’re still focused not on what the customer is saying, but what they want to say.
  • Customers may interpret the excitement and confidence of an extrovert as a signal that salespeople are attempting to influence them. Once customers perceive this influence, they are likely to respond by moving to a control-and-protect position, scrutinizing the messages more carefully and devising objections and resisting or rejecting the salesperson’s influence. This is the response to the “hard sell”.

Hold on a minute! Isn’t it every salesperson’s job to influence the customer to buy? In the B2B space that I’ve largely worked in, I find that influence has far less effect than qualification and evidence – finding the person with the problem to solve of significance, qualifying them on their ability and desire to solve the problem, showing evidence that I can solve the problem, and letting them decide whether they want to pay me to make that problem go away. Influence needs to be subtle in this process. Influence comes less from my force of personality and more from the case laid out to support the solving of a problem with a cost of X in exchange for a payment of a fraction of X. You know – the value proposition.

Grant looks at industry-level differences in his paper and points out that extroversion is not significantly related to performance in B2B sales. He also points out earlier research that looks at the pharmaceutical industry that although extroverts do better at selling existing products (but only in the first half of the year!) and have no correlation to selling new products – something that you and I would expect to require a more consultative process. This is where I think the nut of all of this is going.

If you are in a business (like me) where the sale of your product depends on thorough needs analysis (or as I prefer, the SPIN analysis of Situation-Problem-Implication-Need), then you would be better to hire ambiverts versus extroverts. The upside for your sales performance could be upwards of a 30% boost in revenue.

How do you know where you fit? You can take the Big Five test yourself hereShould we be having new hire candidates all be taking this test? Employers need to be careful here – there are legal and ethical considerations for both extracting information on a candidate’s personality and acting on that information. It could be considered both an invasion of privacy and discriminatory against people with mental illnesses (“Are Workplace Personality Tests Fair?”,WSJ Online, 2014). However, I know from experience that this is possible when handled correctly – I know one Top Ten tech firm that does this for every sales candidate they hire by hiring an outside consultant to perform the testing, analyze the data (without sharing the specific results with the employer) and then providing an assessment on suitability. This is one approach to maintaining a firewall between confidential health-related information and the hiring firm.