What traits do you look for when you’re recruiting salespeople? A positive attitude? Thick skin? A drive to succeed? Confidence and poise?

One other quality you might want to look for is “coachability,” according to a recent study.

The study, published in the Journal of Marketing Science, borrowed the concept of coachability from the world of sports, where it’s been shown to be a key factor in an athlete’s success. Raw talent gets you only so far; the ones who do best combine that talent with a willingness and ability to take instruction.

Not every player is teachable, as any Little League coach knows. Coaches also know that coachability isn’t synonymous with ability. You might have a nine-year old pitcher who can whiff every batter due to some combination of size, strength and hand-to-eye coordination. But if she refuses to be coached, other kids with less natural ability will eventually leave her behind.

The researchers wondered whether coachability mattered for nonathletic skills like sales. So they took an assessment tool used in sports, adapted it to sales, and tried it out on a bunch of salespeople.

Here are some of the statements on the assessment. (There are 24 statements in all, which you can find in published study.) Reps were asked to indicate how strongly they agreed or disagreed:

  • I frequently read books or magazines about selling.
  • During a sales education seminar, I am willing to try anything to improve my skills.
  • I frequently let my manager know how I am doing in terms of improving my sales skills.
  • I often get advice from my sales team about my selling skills.
  • I frequently read books about famous sales experts.
  • When my manager criticizes me, I don’t usually get frustrated or mad.

Lo and behold, the salespeople who scored highest on the coachability scale were more likely to be top sales performers.

Of course, asking candidates to fill out a self-assessment might not tell you much, since it’s pretty obvious what the “right” answers are. But coachability is certainly something you can probe for in an interview without tipping your hand too much. For example, you might ask questions like these:

  • “What’s the last book on selling that you read?”
  • “What’s the best thing you learned from a sales training seminar?”
  • “What do you do to keep your sales skills sharp?”
  • “Tell me about a sale you didn’t get, and what you learned from it.”

What you’re listening for is evidence that the candidate is “proactively working at getting better at selling,” in the words of the researchers. Specifically, you want people who are willing to work with their sales manager to get better results. There are lots of salespeople who see a manager as a hindrance. Some of them may even be successful. But if they’re not coachable, they’ll never get any better than they already are.

Source: Shannahan K, et al. (2013). Are your salespeople coachable? How salesperson coachability, trait competitiveness, and transformational leadership enhance sales performance. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 41(1):40.

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