Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 202
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Predicting Sales Performance

Research examines 129 studies searching for patterns that predict sales success.

Salespeople present quite a management challenge, from selection and training to compensation and supervision, and even though there's a little salesman in most business executives, we often wonder if there isn't a better way to manage our sales staff. The problem is the extent to which we depend upon them and the fact that there's so little help we can offer when they have trouble.

Over the years, researchers have weighed in with their best efforts, and one area of research, predicting sales success, was of particular interest to Andrew Vinchur, from Lafayette College. Vinchur noticed disagreement among past studies: researchers could not agree about the personality qualities that best predicted success in a sales position. Time after time new studies appeared which promised to resolve the disagreements, but they failed to do so.

Vinchur is familiar with an infrequently-used research strategy called meta-analytic review. Its value lies in helping to resolve disagreements among researchers and helping to improve predictions. Vinchur thought it might help executives predict individuals likely to have success in sales jobs, and the outcome of his work appears to be very promising.

Vinchur began by identifying all the studies that had been completed since 1918 that had sought to discover qualities that predicted two common indicators of sales success: 1) ratings by supervisors, and 2) volume of sales. He found 129 independent studies which examined a total of 45,944 salespeople. Next he combined the data from all these studies to produce one giant study, and then he searched for patterns.

Many past studies had pointed to extroversion as a personality characteristic that predicted sales success, but the test for this characteristic used in these studies actually had four subcategories: assertiveness, potency, sociability, and gregariousness. Vinchur was able to narrow the analysis of this characteristic to the first two subcategories: assertiveness and potency (interpersonal impact, influence, and energy). It is these two qualities that best predicted both ratings by supervisors and sales volume, so people with these qualities appear to make the best salespeople.

Past studies had also pointed to conscientiousness as a personality characteristic that predicted success, but this test also had four subcategories: dependability, organization, persistence, and will-to-achieve. This time, Vinchur narrowed the analysis to the final characteristic, will-to-achieve. That's the quality that leads to success in selling.

Looking over the list, it seems desirable to employ gregarious, dependable, and persistent people, but Vinchur's findings suggest they don't make the best salespeople. Assertive, interpersonally potent people with a strong will to achieve may not even be very much fun to have around the office, but Vinchur's data suggest they'll sell more of your product than anyone else, that is, if you can select people with these qualities, provide the kind of management support they need, and offer a compensation plan that keeps them on the job working their hearts out for you. That's the challenge for executives.

Two other patterns emerged in more recent studies: people showing strong interest in sales, and people demonstrating superior knowledge of sales principles tended to become highly productive sales people. Also, people demonstrating "rugged individualism" appeared to become good salespeople.

Finally, highly intelligent people and older people (more mature, that is) tended to garner high performance ratings by supervisors, but they did not demonstrate high sales volume. Since we would expect performance ratings to be influenced by sales volume, this result seems puzzling. Apparently, these highly intelligent, older salespeople were able to influence supervisors' impressions of them in other ways beyond sales volume. For example, they may have filled a mentoring function for younger, more energetic salespeople, and this contribution might have inflated the sales volume of these younger salespeople while it limited the volume of the older people. This pattern would lead to higher ratings of sales performance and lower actual volume.

Reference: Vinchur, Andrew J., Jeffrey Schippmann, Fred Switzer III, and Philip Roth (1998). A Meta-Analytic Review of Predictors of Job Performance for Salespeople. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83 (4), 586-597.

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