“Top 3” Characteristics of Truly Great Sales People

In my new book “The 5 Reasons Why People Don’t Buy”, I have dedicated a section to reviewing these 3 characteristics. I cover these in great detail, and honestly really enjoy discussing these with everyone from owners, to managers and of course sales professionals alike. So, if you’re reading this, and remember the TV show “Columbo”, than you’re one of the lucky ones, because this is going to get very interesting. The show was truly amazing, it ran from 1971 to 2003, and had everything to do with sales, selling and closing the deal. Played by actor Peter Falk, Columbo was a detective who without a doubt was the best damn salesman and closer to have ever walked the planet. Why you might ask? Well for starters, Columbo had what I believe to be the top three characteristics you need, in order to close any deal, or solve any case. He was certifiably passionate about problem solving, and a genius at asking the key questions he already knew the answers to. Think about that!

If your job is to sell, than you need to think like Columbo. Sounds a little crazy I know, but I couldn’t be more serious. His sole purpose was to solve the case, and close the deal, as is yours. Would you agree that the purpose of sales should be to solve a particular problem for someone or to make their life or job easier? We spend a lot of money each year in training and recruiting the right people. Trying to find that right person that not only get’s it, but has a passion for people, and problem solving is what we strive for.

Think about the most recent person you hired to sell for you? Sure, their resume looked good and perhaps they had a certain swagger about them or maybe it was just a gut feeling that this person would be a good fit, I get it, but whatever the reason is or was, as to why you hired them they have to produce.  So how do we as leaders get our people to produce? Or better yet, how can we help manage true consistency? In other words, how can we be more like Columbo? The answer is we have to start to notice more. Here’s the number one question I get, from the folks I’m consulting and working with. “Why is my sales rep failing”? There may be a slew of reasons why that person isn’t cutting it, but let me start with this question. First of all, when was the last time you the sales manager were on a sales call with your team, and what did you notice? Fair questions wouldn’t you agree? Here are a few typical answers, I usually get from sales managers.

  1. “I haven’t been on a call with my rep or team in months”
  2. “I’ve never been on a call”
  3. “I usually ride with my rep or team at least once a month”

So let’s think about these answers. It’s your job to manage, mentor and grow sales, so how and the hell are you that busy? If you can’t afford to spend time in the field with your team, you don’t belong. If you are supporting your team in the field consistently, I commend you for that. It’s where synergy is created and where connections are made from manager to employee. However, remember the original question? Why is my rep failing? Here’s my answer to you Mr. Manager, what are you noticing? If you want to know more, than you need to notice more.

If you really want to understand why a particular person is failing, or continues to struggle, than I encourage you to notice more. Better yet, if a particular rep is crushing their sales quota, what are you noticing? What are they doing differently than everyone else? It all boils down to the information they extract, out of a first time meeting with a prospect or customer, and their level of curiosity. How well did they empathize, with a prospect or customer, regarding the trials and tribulations, of running a business? Did you notice that? And lastly, whether or not that sales rep has the instinct to recognize, where the real time opportunities are, and where the gaps are within the customers business. Being able to notice and understand where the “Need” is, and how to switch strategies X’s and O’s wise is all instinct driven.

I’ve worked with over 125 service businesses, and contractors in over twelve countries, and I can tell you, that there are only 3 characteristics of great sales people, these are the people that get it. You might think differently, or even have a few additional ideas of your own, but I guarantee that whatever you come up with, can be dropped in to one of these 3 buckets. Only the best sales people posses these. Let’s look at what it takes to be the best.

Characteristic – #1 (Curiosity)

If you’re tasked with managing, and coaching, and you notice that the individual you’re working with isn’t asking the right questions, that’s a big deal. Lack of curiosity is a sales killer. Let’s say, that the rep does a decent job at asking questions, and extracting some information out of the prospect, well good job, but I wouldn’t get too excited. Why? If he or she never asked what I call the sub-questions, based on the feedback or answers they received from the first round of questioning, they’ll never close the deal. It’s a good start, but really only half of it. Without this trait, we have no idea why the customer is doing the things they are doing, using the vendors they are using, using the products they are using, using the services they are using, or spending what they are spending, simply due to lack of curiosity.

Let’s say I’m selling steel, and you’re in the steel business. Here is a typical question, I might ask. Mr. Prospect, who do you normally buy your steel from? If the prospect responds with, we usually buy all of our steel from Jim Smith Steel, we’ve been using them for years, and I move on to the next question on my list, I am in big trouble as a sales professional. What I should be asking are my sub-questions, the curiosity questions. Why are you buying from Smith Steel? Is it price, quality, or their great customer service and convenience? Maybe it’s because he’s the owner’s brother-in-law? Now I’m joking of course, but you get the point. In many cases, prospects tend to pay more for certain products or services simply because they are too busy to look for other options. If you want to know more, you need to notice more. Can Curiosity be coached? I think that out of all three characteristics, this particular characteristic is without a doubt the most coachable.


Characteristic – #2 (Empathy)

This is a big deal, and certainly needs to be genuine and organic. Having an understanding of how a customer feels, and knowing what they are going through means everything to people. Saying things like, Mr. Customer, I have several clients that have said the same thing, and their worries and thoughts were very similar to yours when we first started doing business together. Did you notice, I said Clients not Customers? How about this, Mr. Customer, with a facility this large that’s a lot to take care of. Are you telling me, you are the only one here with your type of skill set? And in my opinion, the best way to develop sincere empathy is to tell a person a real life story that builds instantaneous “Trust”. People enjoy knowing that they aren’t the only folks out there, who are having difficulty in managing their business. People absolutely love it, when you can convey true life experiences that are paralleled with a business like theirs. Can empathy be coached? In my opinion it cannot. It’s a part of that sales DNA that I discuss in “The 5 Reasons Why People Don’t Buy”.

Characteristic – #3 (Instinct)

This particular characteristic or trait is a difficult one for sure, but without a doubt the most exciting in my opinion. Instinct is a complex pattern of behaviors, which do not vary and honestly are inherent, among the sales professionals that get it. Sales instinct is inborn, it’s natural, and truly a part of the sales DNA I mentioned earlier. It isn’t something that can be coached, and you can’t manage instinct. Having and understanding instinct, from a sales perspective means everything. Understanding body language, human behavior, and recognizing when prospects or customers are ready to buy are all part of instinct. And better yet, knowing when to be quite, when to stop selling, and when to ask for the business.  Instinct feeds off of the Curiosity, and the Empathy, and is something that just happens automatically, because it just feels right. Instinct is triggered by particular situations, within the immediate environment or in this case the sales meeting.

 Most sales people unfortunately pay attention, or are curious about the wrong things, making their job more difficult.

You’ll find that sales professionals, who have that certain instinct, that particular moxie, are also the same individuals, who are honing their craft constantly. The people that are looking for new ways to market themselves, and act on continuing education, and new ways to grow and differentiate themselves from the competition. They have a very specific set of goals set for them, and so on. You or I, cannot coach instinct. Sure, we can help develop the skills of these people, and give them the support, training and tools they need to be successful, but instinct is something you have or you don’t.  

As leaders, we simply have to make time to notice more. If we do that, odds are we can help develop what was just an average sales rep, in to a selling machine. Remember, as leaders it’s our job to show interest in everything under our influence, just like Columbo. Understanding these 3 characteristics, I’m sure will help you better manage the sales process, and hopefully make recruiting that much easier, and a lot more fun. The next time you interview that next rock star sales rep, ask them what they think the top 3 characteristics of great sales people are?

Lastly, and it’s unfortunate, but the majority of the sales managers I have worked with around the world, have never been formally trained in sales and/or management, with some having never made their living in sales at all.  In closing, and I’m sure you probably figured it out by now, these 3 characteristics, should be applied on the management side every day. As managers, if we do not possess these traits ourselves, how can we notice more? How can we be more like Columbo?

Let’s find the time to get you and your team the training that delivers immediate results and leads to sales acceleration. I look forward to working with you.

Sean Samson