File this one under the category of things everyone knows that happen not to be true: Extroverts make the best salespeople.
There are all kinds of reasons to think so: Extroverts, by definition, are comfortable not only interacting with others, but at initiating relationships. They’re confident and enthusiastic. They’re forceful and less likely to take no for an answer. Those skills are practically a job description for sales. Therefore, extroverts must be the ideal personality for sales.
Alas, research says otherwise. In a report in the journal Psychological Science, Wharton professor Adam Grant cites numerous studies showing that the connection between extroversion and sales results is, in his words, “weak and inconsistent.” Extroversion was not significantly related to performance in studies involving wholesale manufacturing sales, health-and-fitness sales or business-to-business sales. In a study of pharmaceutical sales, extroverts did better in the first two quarters of the year but not in the last two quarters, and they were only average at selling new products. Overall, there’s only a slight, and statistically insignificant, correlation between extroversion and sales performance. Go figure.
What’s the reason?
Professor Grant suggests two possible reasons why extroverts often fail to deliver superior sales performance:
1. Extroverts may be more likely to focus on their own perspectives than on customers’. Curiously, “people persons” really tend to be more about themselves than other people. They like to be the center of attention and are more likely to dominate conversations. They want the spotlight, when the spotlight should be on the buyer.
2. Their enthusiasm and assertiveness may undercut their credibility with customers. The enthusiasm may be genuine, but buyers feel that they’re being dragged along for the ride, and so push back.
The just-right personality for sales
That analysis rings true, but what choice does a hiring manager have? Introverts may be better listeners, but will they be willing to put themselves out there the way an extrovert would? Will they be enthusiastic? Will they communicate effectively?
Grant suggests that your best bet will be with “ambiverts” — people who fall in the middle of the extrovert/introvert spectrum. They are more likely to strike the right balance between talking and listening, between enthusiasm for what they sell and interest in the buyer’s needs. Ambiverts, he proposes, will be more flexible than extroverts or introverts, and have a greater breadth of communication skills than either.
And the survey says…
Sounds great in theory, but as we’ve seen, great-sounding theories don’t always pan out. So do ambiverts actually sell better?
To find out, Grant ran personality tests on employees from a company that operates outbound call centers selling to new and existing customers. His findings corroborated other studies, finding that extroverts didn’t do well — worse, even, than introverts.
He also found, as his theory would predict, that the top earners were right in the middle of the scale. Over a three-month period, average sales for ambiverts approached $16,000. Those on either end — extroverts and introverts — brought in about $10,000. On an hourly basis, that worked out to $151 per hour for ambiverts versus $115 for extraverts and $127 for introverts.
The implications for hiring are pretty stark: You’ll get your best bang for the buck from candidates who are ambiverts. And it’s pretty easy to screen for them. Grant used an online survey, where people simply rated themselves on 20 items, using a classic five point agree/disagree scale. That’s something you could easily integrate into your hiring process.
Source: Grant, A. (2013). Rethinking the extraverted sales ideal: The ambivert advantage. Psychological Science 24(6): 1024-30.
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