Perception plays a major role in sales. And, a customer’s perception of a salesperson definitely influences the sale. But while it’s easy to assume that looks and appearances impact that perception, does the research back it up?
In this article, we break down the correlation between sales success and physical attractiveness and discuss how much weight a hiring manager should assigned to a salesperson’s looks and appearances when sales recruiting.
What the research says:
A number of studies have found that appearance does increase the odds that an account executive will be successful. A 2010 study from the University of British Columbia found, for example, that “more physically attractive individuals were viewed with greater normative accuracy” and “were viewed more in line with their unique self-reported personality traits.” In other words, attractive people have an easier time showing other likable traits, such as trustworthiness, making it easier to bypass gatekeepers. The study’s co-author, and professor, Jeremy Biesanz explained the results to Psychology Today: “If people think Jane is beautiful, and she is very organized and somewhat generous, people will see her as more organized and generous than she actually is.” The study concluded that “people do judge a book by its cover, but a beautiful cover prompts a closer reading.”
Another study, from Arizona State University, found that attractive pharmaceutical reps were more successful. A summary on the W.P. Carey School of Business research blog summarized the results: “For each 1-unit increase in perceived attractiveness on [a 7-point scale] — a move from a score of 5 to 6, for example — the salesperson’s share of product sold increased an average of 1.9 percent.”
While perceived attractiveness serves as a catalyst for further conversations between a prospect and the salesperson, it does not guarantee a sale or a strong relationship. In the first study, good looks made it easier for attractive people to also be seen as trustworthy. In the second, professor and co-author Cheryl Burke Jarvis concluded that “attractiveness itself isn’t what makes the doctors buy,” but is “correlated with perceptions of trustworthiness, likeability and communication skills.”
The effect of appearance on sales is nuanced and somewhat controversial. Clearly, there is a correlation between attractive people and better sales outcomes, but should companies account for looks when hiring salespeople?
What to Focus on Instead of Attractiveness:
Simply put, hiring attractive salespeople for their looks is short-sighted. There are, however, a number of personality traits and qualities, known as “Sales DNA,” that the best sellers possess and that hiring managers should use to screen candidates.
Identifying salespeople with the right DNA is a better indicator than looks as to whether the salesperson will be successful in a given selling environment, particularly in competitive B2B markets with long sales cycles, multiple stakeholders and complex product offerings. Here are three traits common among top performing salespeople that hiring managers should take into consideration when sales recruiting.
A study from TTI Success Insights found that top sellers in the US most often display a utilitarian attitude.
A person with a high utilitarian attitude is driven to make money and will leverage whatever resources he or she has to make that happen. TTI Success Insights, which aligns with our own experiences, concludes that when hiring, the right attitude is a key indicator as to whether or not a salesperson will be successful with a new company.
The most successful sales organizations develop an eye for traits that are difficult to identify, such as a propensity for problem solving and a thirst to make money. And while sector experience is sometimes a requirement, there are a few attributes that almost all top performers have in common:
- They are inquisitive by nature. They seek to understand as much as possible about their customers;
- They are positive in the face of adversity and don’t let rejection deter them from their goals;
- They are focused on how their selling activities drive profitable revenue.
Read more about the DNA of peak perfrmers.
The saying that “beauty is only skin deep” actually proves true over time. The Arizona State study mentioned above found that appearance was helpful in the sales process in the short term but less so over time.
“Where the length of the relationship was “relatively short” the market share changes by 2.94 percent for each 1-unit change in attractiveness rating; but when the length of relationship is “relatively long” market share changes only 1.28 percent for each 1-unit change in attractiveness rating.”
In other words, the longer the relationship or sales cycle, the less appearance matters. For businesses with lengthy sales cycles — enterprise software and service-based offerings to name a few — the takeaway is obvious: hiring attractive people instead of convincing individuals is a mistake.
Mike Schultz and John Doerr of the RAIN Group (PDF) write, “Winners convince buyers that they can achieve maximum return, that the risks are acceptable, and that the seller is the best choice among all options.”
Confidence is one of the key traits of successful salespeople. The primary component of confidence is self-efficacy, or “the belief that you are able to accomplish a particular goal.”
“Self-efficacy beliefs determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves and behave,” writes Stanford professor Albert Bandura. “People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided. They attribute failure to insufficient effort or deficient knowledge and skills which are acquirable.”
Top performers approach everything they do with confidence. For example, people have limited control of physical appearance, but total control over the way they dress. Lorynn R. Divita, Ph.D., a professor at Baylor University, says that “When dress is appropriate for a situation, individuals tend to feel more confident and competent. The reverse is also true.”
The best salespeople dress the part because it makes them better at their job. It’s just one gene in a top performer’s Sales DNA.
Another important factor that influences confidence is training and coaching. Well-trained salespeople feel more comfortable answering questions and objections that are posed by prospects.
A study from the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business (PDF) highlights that the best salespeople are the most adaptive. They are able to adjust their tone, approach and attitude to meet the demands of any customer or situation.
“A key ingredient for effective adaptive selling is knowledge. Salespeople need to “know” their customers. Just as successful advertising strategies require detailed knowledge about target segments, successful selling requires detailed knowledge about different types of sales situations and customers.”
A structured and rigorous onboarding program that compliments top performers existing skills with new ones reduces ramp-up time and increases employee retention.
Go beyond looks when sales recruiting:
Better sales outcomes, great employees and happy customers don’t have to be a pipe dream. The key to building a great sales team is understanding that Sales DNA should trump looks or other surface-level traits candidates may possess.
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