Do Looks and Appearances Matter in Sales?

Looks in Sales - Peak SalesIn a perfect world, appearances don’t have an impact on business, but in the real world, unfortunately, looks seem to matter. Studies have shown that people considered to be attractive earn more money and generate higher sales results. The studies aren’t necessarily conclusive, but I know this from being in sales for many years: buyers do judge  – appearances matter in sales and in spite of any conscious efforts to be objective, this judging is happening at least some of the time if not most of the time.

So that brings us to the question of looks in sales. Do looks matter and how much?

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas in Austin, and author of the fascinating book, “Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful” says that attractive people are likely to earn an average of 3-4% more than a person with below-average looks and that an average-looking worker is likely to make 1-2% more over a lifetime than an ugly worker (his words, not mine). His research also indicates that attractive people sell more.

In the interview he also goes on to say that “While looks can be altered by clothing, cosmetics and other short-term investments, the effects of these improvements are minor. We are generally stuck with what nature has given us in the way of looks.” Not good news if you are judged to have less than great looks.

Other researchers have found similar results. Peter Reingen, a professor at Arizona State University, conducted a survey in the pharmaceutical industry and found that physical attractiveness was correlated with buyer impressions of like-ability, trustworthiness, communication abilities and a salesperson’s adeptness at selling.

So if looks matter in sales, should I hire someone who is not attractive?

Wow. This is a loaded question in every sense. I think only a hiring manager knows who they should hire, but I will say this about high end sales people. We see a lot of very successful sales people who are not what you would consider overly attractive. Part of this has to do with the fact that we are typically engaged to recruit top B2B and complex sales people, who are involved in sales that are higher dollar value (and made over longer periods of time where looks are less of a factor) and where decisions are more cost/benefit oriented and impacted by emotional factors. The studies mentioned above focussed more on sectors with short sales cycles and more face to face selling. There is also the fact that more selling is done over the phone these days than ever before, even for complex sales.

Target Training International, has administered psychometric tests to tens of thousands of sales people since the mid 19080’s in over 90 countries. The company’s founder,  Bill Bonstetter, has this to say about the impact of looks on performance:

As a result of our twenty years of research, development and distribution of assessment tools to measure performance, we have been telling organizations that it is what’s on the inside, not the outside that counts, especially in sales performance. What we are fighting is the myth that hiring people who look and sound good leads to good performance.

While there is no research that proves that looks have a significant impact on sales success in complex sales, there is little question of one thing – that the smartest sales people tend to be the most successful, so that’s where we put our money.

What about interviewing? What appearance-based biases exist there?

Many interviewers suffer from a bias called the Halo Effect, which refers to the act of favorably judging someone’s character, in spite of the facts, if they are attractive. For instance an interviewer might think a person is friendly, which leads to a false assumption that they are also smart and capable. We see this a lot in sales hiring. A charming, good looking interviewee might be considered successful and qualified even if they have not been successful (conversely an aggressive sales person may create a feeling of mistrust on the part of the interviewer even if the sales person is in fact very successful and capable). We know that without the right sales DNA, a sales person won’t be successful, no matter how they look, so every hiring manager needs to be aware of the negative impact of the Halo Effect on hiring results. An objective hiring process and screening strategy helps mitigate this issues (see the Top 3 Reasons to Have a Structured Hiring Process)

So what about my existing team?

As I pointed out, appearance of sales people may or may not be a factor in success depending on the role, but it definitely paves way to the formation of strong impressions – positive or otherwise. Any sales manager should care about the personal grooming habits of the reps on the salesforce for several reasons:

  • Proper appearance gives the impression of professionalism and contributes to trustworthiness and respect
  • Casual appearance indicates a casual approach to the prospect’s needs
  • Proper grooming instills confidence in sales people
  • Grooming can impact the attractiveness of a person and swing the odds for all the reasons we discussed above

Grooming falls into three categories:

  • Cleanliness: Things like hair, teeth, nails, breath, and personal hygiene. Customers notice all of these.
  • Wardrobe: Casual dress is becoming more and more popular, but in most cases it is safe to overdress. If you think your customer will be formally dressed, the rep should dress formally. If the customer will be dressed casual, then properly pressed formal wear usually won’t hurt the rep, however under dressing is likely to have a negative impact.
  • Attitude: Above all, wear a positive and confident attitude on your sleeve. Wear a clean smile that elicits trust.
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Eliot Burdett

CEO at Peak Sales Recruiting
Before Peak, Eliot spent more than 20 years building and leading companies, where he took the lead in recruiting and managing high performance sales teams. He co-founded Ventrada Systems (mobile applications) and GlobalX (e-commerce software). He was also Vice President of Sales for PointShot Wireless.

Eliot received his B. Comm. from Carleton University and has been honored as a Top 40 Under 40 Award winner.

He co-authored Sales Recruiting 2.0, How to Find Top Performing Sales People, Fast and provides regular insights on sales team management and hiring on the Peak Sales Recruiting Blog.
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