Extroversion and Sales

It’s interesting to note that a paper in the American Psychological Association titled “Introverts and Extroverts” published in 1924 ends with a question about whether introverts and extroverts belong to personality types at all.

The paper provides definitions of both terms – an introvert being “an individual in whom exists an exaggeration of the thought processes in relation to directly observable social behavior, with an accompanying tendency to withdraw from social contacts.” An extrovert, conversely, is “an individual in whom exists a diminution of the thought process in relation to direct observable social behavior, with an accompanying tendency to make social contacts.”

Introversion and extroversion have become archetypes in society, but do these generalizations bring any true insight with them, or are they simply a way to classify people quickly without too much thought?

Introversion and the sales persona

It has long been conventional wisdom that extroverts make better salespeople than introverts, however, recent research undermines this assumption and gives hiring managers more to think about than simple generalizations. While extroverts certainly do better socially in situations that are important in many selling processes, it is sometimes the introvert who can gain more trust, demonstrate more competence, and ultimately win the sale. It might be that a healthy mix of introversion and extroversion is the best combination to look for when you’re hiring a new salesperson, in addition to the right sales experience, skills, and DNA.

The challenge is finding those candidates who fit your organization’s unique selling environment. Perhaps it is a candidate who is in the middle of two extremes. Someone who stands out in the interview process by demonstrating confidence, the feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities, yet exhibits that they can think realistically about their own limitations as a sales person, how they are working to transcend these limitations, the challenges presented in your sales cycle, and how their skills and experiences would enable them to overcome these and close deals.

The confidence game

A recent article in Business Life examines the difference between confidence and competence in employees and whether or not they are promoted. The article delivers some interesting findings from the scientific community that  “back up complaints that can be heard echoing in the canteens across the country – that it’s not always the best who get promoted, but the best self-promoters.”

The article pulls from U.K. research on students that shows those who are more comfortable about speaking frequently in a confident tone of voice were perceived as being more convincing in their abilities than those who were actually competent in tests.

In the U.S., similar studies deliver similar results. A Washington Post article, Why Extroverts Fail, Introverts Flounder and You Probably Succeed, cites a meta-analysis of 35 studies of nearly 4,000 sales people that found the correlation between extroversion and sales performance was barely above zero (if you’re really interested in data and analysis of personality traits and job performance, this is a comprehensive study to read.)

the correlation between extroversion and sales performance was barely above zero”

The Washington Post article also cites a study conducted by a Wharton School of Management researcher who studied sales representatives at a software company. The researcher identified introverts and extroverts with standard personality tests and then tracked their financial performance in sales. The group that stood out with the most sales were “ambiverts”, or people who are somewhere in the middle of the scale between extroverted and introverted. In this particular study, ambiverts beat extroverts in sales by 24 percent.

Finding and hiring ambiverts

It can be tempting – and almost seem natural – when hiring salespeople, to gravitate toward the more confident extroverts. Sales departments want and need professionals that project a sense of confidence and possess all the social skills they’ll need to be successful. But if you think about past hires at your company, it’s likely that at least one or two salespeople who seemed great on paper, and even better in person, just didn’t have the right skills after six months on the job.

There’s a lot more to hiring salespeople than personality tests. It’s a process that requires a structured and discipline approach. One of our recent posts, How to Interview and Spot the Traits of Top Sales People, gives an overview of the traits to look for in a job candidate during the interview process, along with tips on what questions to ask during the various interview phases. These tips will help you unearth the traits you’re looking for beyond personality, including a candidate’s level of ambition, confidence, and optimism, as well as their sense of urgency, how they interact with others, how they solve problems and how organized they are; the traits that are indicative of selling competence and success.

Updating the hiring process

The Business Life article makes the point that an interview situation is where an extrovert is likely to shine, while an introvert has a great chance of doing their worst. To battle the stereotypes, the author recommends what we recommend to our clients; that having a highly structured interview process that involves as many stakeholders in the sales and human resources department as possible will mitigate hiring risk by removing personal bias from the interview process. Combine this approach with third-party psychometric testing and your hiring committee will better understand a candidate’s traits – the most important factor in determining sales success.

Similarly, the Washington Post artict-le encourages readers to forget the stereotypes and look for “those who take a more calibrated approach – who can talk smoothly but also listen keenly…who combine the extrovert’s assertiveness with the introvert’s quiet confidence.”

It’s not easy to gain this much insight into a candidate – it takes a lot of experience interviewing to know what the right questions to ask are, how to ask those questions, and how to look and listen for cues from the interviewee. Sales people are usually outstanding in the interview process because they are excellent at selling themselves. We also underscore the fact that the cost of a bad sales hire can range from 75 to 150 percent of the rep’s annual quota, so the return on investment for implementing a structured and rigorous screening process to ensure a candidate’s confidence matches their competence is significant.

[bctt tweet=”The cost of a bad sales hire can range from 75 to 150 percent of the rep’s annual quota”]

Introverts, extroverts, and ambivalent all have something to bring to the table. The tough job is to find out how much they know, how well they learn, and how much they’ll care about selling for your company. Leading organizations pull their resources together and work with their team to define the kind of salesperson the team needs, and what kind of personality will be most successful. Consider working with HR to implement the best testing available, and back up the testing with insightful, open-ended questions and remember that a sales person’s skills, experience, and DNA are independent of whether they are an introvert or extrovert.



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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