Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Don't Have the Personality to Sell?

One of the more persistent myths in our industry is the notion that most technical professionals lack the personality to be effective in sales. No doubt you've heard the joke about the difference between an introverted and extroverted engineer. 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, thus unfit for the sales role. That's simply not true.

It's 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. Consultant Ford Harding surveyed over 100 rainmakers in professional services (including A/E firms) to discover what it was that made them successful. One thing he didn't find was any correlation between sales success and personality type. He found both extroverts and introverts among the very best sellers.

Other studies of salespeople have reached the same conclusion. The popular idea that successful sellers need to have outgoing, gregarious personalities is a myth. Introverts can be just as successful; in fact, perhaps even more so 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 and sales success, it is this: Introverted salespeople will generally be more effective with introverted customers.

Many A/E firms make the mistake of hiring rainmakers that fit the sales stereotype. Years ago, my employer wanted to hire a seller for our California offices. Although I was the corporate business development manager, I was the last to interview the top candidate. He spent an hour bragging on himself, asked very few questions, and then interrupted me when I tried to answer. I was more than unimpressed; I was irritated. Nevertheless, my colleagues on the management team thought that this was just the kind of aggressive, outgoing personality they lacked and we needed. I got out-voted. The guy lasted six months before he was fired.

Here's a test: Imagine you are the client. What kind of impression would you have? Positive or perturbed? Chances are most of your clients will be affected the same way, especially if they come from a technical background. Don't fall for the myth of the sales stereotype. The person who can best connect with the client may well be--you. If you or your colleagues are reluctant sellers, the problem isn't personality, but desire.

In my last post I explored why so many technical professionals are uncomfortable with the sales role. I believe it's largely because of all the baggage associated with the sales profession. To overcome those negative impressions of selling, I suggest shifting the focus from selling to serving. Now if you're uncomfortable serving the client, you're in the wrong profession. Ironically, most reluctant sellers I've known are already in client service roles (e.g., project managers). Show me a technical professional who simply lacks the skills to reach out to a prospective client, and I'll bet he's not very good with clients after the sale either. It's pretty much the same skill set.

So if personality isn't the key ingredient for sales success, what traits are important? Following are the ones I think are essential:
  • Care about people. This is foremost in my mind. We're in business to serve others, so having genuine interest and concern for clients would seem a required trait. That's what motivates us to sell.

  • Good listener. We tend to place way too much emphasis on salespeople being good talkers. The fact is, big talkers turn clients off; good listeners gain their trust.

  • 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 resign 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 stage. The best consultants combine abilities in both analysis and synthesis.

  • Adaptable. When it comes to selling, one size doesn't fit all. The effective rainmaker is able to adapt her approach to the client's personality, preferences, and priorities. This requires a sensitivity to the feedback--both verbal and nonverbal--one gets from the client.

For those technical professionals who recognize the need to be more active in selling in this weak economy, don't use the personality excuse. What's probably really missing is the want to. With that in place, the how to comes much easier--and more success will follow.


  1. Mel:

    Many professionals believe that the ethical standards required for selling are low, that it involves deception; the behavioral standards are unacceptable, that it requires being pushy and self serving; and that the performance standards are unachievable, because of their time constraints and introversion. Seeing selling as serving helps them adjust their view of required behavioral and ethical standards, but what about their view of performance standards?

    Good post.

    Ford Harding

  2. Ford,

    Interesting question. Most A/E firms establish sales goals for business lines and offices, but typically not for individuals. The prevailing metric in our industry is utilization (chargeability), and that is usually monitored at an individual level (as well as collectively).

    Obviously, utilization is dependent upon sales. But since the pressure to meet utilization at an individual level is typically greater, it creates this ironic disincentive to get out and sell more (added to the general discomfort with selling).

    The best way I know to combat this is to budget time for sales just as project time is budgeted. Then there needs to be some accountability for meeting individual "sales utilization" goals. It's not a perfect solution, but it can go a long way toward addressing the problem.

    Pressure to meet sales goals (which might be viewed as unachievable in today's economy) is normally applied to business line leaders and office managers. But the responsibility for meeting those goals is shared. So I don't think there's the direct pressure to sell that exists in other professional service sectors.

    Would you agree?