Part one of our four-part series on Sales Myths that Just Need to Die tackles a stereotype that dates back to a time before elevator pitches, emails, and cold calls – when a trip down the sales funnel started with a knock. 

The Origin of the “Perfect Sales Rep is an Extrovert” Myth

At the beginning of the 20th century, Samuel Fuller was a top rep for the Somerville Brush and Mop Company. He scraped together $75 and an audacious plan – to build a nationwide network of sales reps selling simple brushes door-to-door. His idea became the Fuller Brush Company. 

The company grew to become more than a multi-million dollar venture – it was the most visible sales team in the United States. Their army of outgoing, charming, and relentless sales reps were the first interactions many people had with a professional salesperson – and they were good. “The Fuller Brush Men”, as they were called, not only made Mr. Fuller a wealthy man – they were pioneers of sales as a career path. 

Imagine the skills it takes to be a “Fuller Brush Man”: knocking on strange door after door, convincing a stranger to let you in their house, and making small talk while stealthily slipping off purposefully one-size-too-big galoshes. 

Though it has been decades since a Fuller Brush Man knocked on doors, and in fact, many of you may not even have heard of the “Fuller Brush Man”, the stereotype persists of the extroverted sales rep persists – even among sales leaders. 

And while it does seem that they are all sales skills that only an extreme extrovert would possess – sales data and science say the idea that extroverts make the best sales reps is simply not true.

The Real Definitions of Extrovert, Introvert and Ambivert…

The personality traits of a true extrovert are people who:

  • Outward-turning, focusing on external stimulation
  • Gain energy in social situations
  • Are easy to get to know
  • Make decisions confidently
  • Play a dominant role in social interactions, steering conversations

While an introvert is a person who:

  • Is inward-turning, focusing on internal thoughts and feelings
  • Expends energy in social situations
  • Perceived as quiet and more difficult to get to know
  • Independent, deep thinkers
  • Play a subordinate role in social interactions, aiming to please

And the middle child of personality types, an ambivert is someone who:

  • Is capable of turning inward or outward
  • Neither socially outgoing nor are they reserved
  • Can be team players, but also work independently
  • Not exclusively dominate or submissive in social interactions

As a sales manager, you are probably thinking the extrovert traits above sound like a recipe for Sales Rep Perfection – people with that personality type sure made Samuel Fuller a pile of cash – but that’s not the case

Sales Myth #1 Busted – Extroverts Aren’t the Best Sales Reps, But This Sales Personality Is…

In reality, studies have shown that there isn’t much evidence for a connection between extroversion and success in a selling environment.

“Psychologists have neglected the dark sides of personality traits, as the very attributes that facilitate job performance can, at high levels, become too much of a good thing.” – Grant & Schwartz, 2011; Le et al., 2011

Being the life of the party is fun – at a party- but extroverted sales reps can be “on” when they really should be “off”. A rep who goes into a long answer to a customer’s “How was your weekend?” story can come off as someone who has little interest in listening – both to a customer’s weekend adventures and their product needs. 

“First, extraverted salespeople may focus more heavily on their own perspectives than on customers’ perspectives. Second, extraverted salespeople may elicit negative responses from customers. As they enthusiastically assert the value of their products and services, extraverts may be perceived as overly excited and confident” – Ames & Flynn, 2007; Judge et al., 2009

So if extroverted sales reps can be terrible listeners who come off too cocky – could it be the sales personality type from the other side of the spectrum, introverts, are best at sales? No. While Introverts are far better listeners, they have been found to be less likely to have the right amount of enthusiasm and assertiveness to keep a deal moving. 

So which personality type is best at sales? A study at The Wharton School concluded the following:

Ambiverted sales reps:

  • Produced 24% more revenue than introverts.
  • Generated 32% more revenue than extroverts

The answer is good news for the general population, the majority of which have a personality type that falls into a third group – ambiverts.

Here’s why studies show ambiverts make the best salespeople:

  • Confident and persistent without being cocky
  • Good listeners who customers also perceive as friendly
  • Emotionally intuitive to customer needs
  • Have the internal drive required to be successful

This also busts the myth that great salespeople are rare unicorns, born with mythical powers. The studies author summed it up well:

“If most people are ambiverted rather than introverted or extraverted, the logical conclusion is that most people are well suited to selling.” – Adam Grant, Rethinking the Extraverted Sales Ideal: The Ambivert Advantage

Think You Know Introverts, Extroverts, and Ambiverts When You Interview? Science Says Probably Not

By this point, you may be thinking – great! I will just staff up my sales team with Ambiverts. However, trying to hire a certain personality type is fraught with dangers. 

The first of those is that as humans, we don’t even wait until someone opens their mouth before we make decisions about whether they are an introvert or extrovert. Studies show, we make judgments of sociability and personality traits based on facial appearance, structure, and expression – and those judgments are often wrong

Imagine these three are potential sales reps. Which is the most extroverted?

Image credit: Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Olivola, 2014

When presented with the above three faces, a study at Princeton found people attributed extroversion to the third image on the right and assumed the first image on the left with introversion. But researchers pointed out, the person on the right could simply be faking a smile, while the person on the left could in actuality be the life of the party. 

This prejudicial thinking has a name – face-ism – and it’s just an important reminder that what we perceive as personality traits may be misconceptions.

Science also tells us that our brains work overtime to confirm our first impressions: 

“People adopt information-seeking strategies that confirm their hypotheses.”W.B. Swann

A bad hire can be costly. Sales leaders looking for certain sales personalities and selling skills and benefit strongly from the administering of a pre-hire sales assessment test because as science has shown us, impressions during an interview can’t be trusted and are fraught with bias.

The Other Side of the Sales Relationship: What About Your Customer’s Personality Type?

Sales leaders focus a lot on the abilities and disposition of sales reps – but it’s easy to forget about the temperament of the person on the other end of the deal. A study just released in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services had the following findings:

  • “The more extraverted customers are, the more they engage with service firms and service employees.
  • The more introverted customers are, the less they engage with service firms and service employees.
  • Extraversion has direct/indirect impacts on customer engagement & relationship duration plays a significant contingent role.
  • Extraverted customers’ interactions with service employees create utilitarian & hedonic value leading to customer engagement.”

So if you have a customer who is difficult to engage, you may want to consider the personality of the sales rep to which they are assigned. An extroverted sales rep could cause an introverted customer to shut down, while an extroverted customer may be too much for an introverted rep to handle.
Check back next week for Busting Sales Myths Part 2: Customer Only Buy From Sales Reps They Like. Have thoughts? We would love to hear them. Reach us @Selleration on Twitter or LinkedIn.