Project Description

Over the years, chief executive officers and sales managers have asked me what characteristics they should look for in identifying potential top-performing salesmen. Recent research has reinforced my views on the top five.

Visible trustworthiness

Trust is top of mind for customers since the Global Financial Crisis exposed many top companies’ ethics as seriously deficient.

It is not good enough, however, just to be trustworthy — you need to demonstrate it as part of your first impression. Steve W. Martin, who teaches sales strategy at University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, surveyed the personality traits of top performing salesmen and found that 91 per cent of top salesmen had medium to high scores in modesty and humility.

And, remember, this is in America, which — unfairly or not — is credited with creating the egotistical, fast-talking, in-your-face salesman.

The salesman who is successful in the long term has rock-solid ethics which guide all his dealings. This gives him a reputation that creates genuine client loyalty and allows him to push the boundaries in a competitive world without ever crossing the line.


As psychologist Shawn Achor showed in his recent book The Happiness Advantage, salesmen are not so much happy because they are successful as they are successful because they are happy.

It makes sense, really, that happy people are nicer to be around and, so, you would expect them to sell more. But it is more than that. Top salesmen’s fundamental happiness gives them a “high bounce factor” — they bounce back better after failure or rejection.


Once a salesman loses that, you know his best is behind him. Curiosity is what creates the contagious enthusiasm that can easily sour into toxic cynicism.

Curiosity is what causes us to venture beyond the comfort zone. It is what allows us to see the bewildering array of new technology in products, and ways of connecting with our clients, as opportunities not threats.

Curiosity keeps us young. Once you have lost your sense of wonder, you have lost the ability to “wow” a customer.

Strategic thinking

Top salesmen saw beyond the features — even the benefits — and realised there were more important factors likely to influence the sale.

One of these was the systemic fit.  Most people operate in a system that is so powerful that any new addition must fit into it.  Now, this seems obvious in a business environment; but it is just as relevant in the personal sphere.

Years ago, I used to train salesmen who sold upmarket sound equipment. Mostly, this involved selling to a couple, as it was a significant investment.

When it came to the largest, most expensive part of the system — the speakers — the temptation for the salesman was to talk (mostly to the male) about the quality of the sound.

I advised against this, suggesting that the effort should go into checking (generally with the female partner) that the speakers came in a finish that was compatible with the existing décor.  No matter how good the speakers sounded, if they didn’t fit into the home “system”, the purchase would never happen.

Smart salesmen realise that what will derail their sale will often have nothing to do with them, their company, their product or their price — but with some other factor. I have lost sales to transfers, inter-departmental rivalry, divorce and long-standing personal vendettas.

Not as friendly as most

This is counter-intuitive, because you would expect the friendliest salesman to attract and retain the most customers.

Yet it makes sense when you realise what is every sales manager’s constant burden: Most salesmen would rather spend time with the clients they like rather than those with the most potential.

Steve W. Martin’s research showed that top salesmen were, on average, less gregarious than some of their counterparts. Of course they are friendly, but they don’t fall into the trap that many salesmen do of trying to become the client’s “best friend” — compromising their influence and setting themselves up as a target of manipulative clients.