What Makes a Good Salesman

Despite millions of dollars spent on combating the high turnover rate among insurance agents, the rate—approximately 50% within the first year and 80% within the first three years—had remained steady for the more than 35 years preceding the publication of Mayer and Greenberg’s 1964 article. The authors devoted seven years of research to studying the problem of the ineffectiveness of large numbers of salespeople. They discovered flaws in the established methods of selection and revealed the two basic qualities that any good salesperson must have: empathy and ego drive.

Empathy, in this context, is the central ability to feel as other people do in order to sell them a product or service; a buyer who senses a salesperson’s empathy will provide him with valuable feedback, which will in turn facilitate the sale. The authors define the second of the two qualities, ego drive, as the personal desire and need to make the sale—not because of the money to be gained but because the salesperson feels he has to. For sales reps with strong ego drives, every sale is a conquest that dramatically improves their self-perception. In the dynamic relationship between empathy and ego drive, each must work to reinforce the other.

Why did the executives that Mayer and Greenberg studied continue to hire salespeople who did not have the ability to perform well? The companies were hindered in the preselection process by flaws in the prevailing forms of aptitude testing. Test takers could easily give answers they knew the test givers wanted to hear, in part because the tests sought to identify particular psychological traits rather than the personality type most capable of selling.

More than 35 years ago, the insurance industry embarked on an intensive program to solve the problem of costly, wasteful turnover among its agents. Estimates at that time indicated that there was a turnover of better than 50% within the first year and almost 80% within the first three years. After the expenditure of millions of dollars and 35 years of research, the turnover in the insurance industry remains approximately 50% within the first year and 80% within the first three years.

What accounts for this expensive inefficiency? Basically this: Companies have simply not known what makes one man able to sell and another not. As Robert N. McMurry has observed:

A very high proportion of those engaged in selling cannot sell….If American sales efficiency is to be maximized and the appalling waste of money and manpower which exists today is to be minimized, a constructive analysis must be made of what selling really is and how its effectiveness can be enhanced….We must look a good deal further—into the mysteries of personality and psychology—if we want real answers.1

It was the obvious need for a better method of sales selection that led us to embark on seven years of field research in this area. The article that follows is based on the insights we gained as to the basic characteristics necessary for a salesman to be able to sell successfully. Confirming the fact that we are on the right track is the predictive power of the selection instrument (battery of tests) that we developed out of the same research; see the exhibit “How Well an Instrument Measuring Empathy and Ego Drive Predicted Sales Success.”

Our basic theory is that a good salesman must have at least two basic qualities: empathy and ego drive.

Empathy, the important central ability to feel as the other fellow does in order to be able to sell him a product or service, must be possessed in large measure. Having empathy does not necessarily mean being sympathetic. One can know what the other fellow feels without agreeing with that feeling. But a salesman simply cannot sell well without the invaluable and irreplaceable ability to get a powerful feedback from the client through empathy.

A parallel might be drawn in this connection between the old antiaircraft weapons and the new heat-attracted missiles. With the old type of ballistic weapon, the gunner would take aim at an airplane, correcting as best he could for windage and driftage, and then fire. If the shell missed by just a few inches because of a slight error in calculation or because the plane took evasive action, the miss might just as well have been by hundreds of yards for all the good it did.

This is the salesman with poor empathy. He aims at the target as best he can and proceeds along his sales track; but if his target—the customer—fails to perform as predicted, the sale is missed.

On the other hand, the new missiles, if they are anywhere near the target, become attracted to the heat of the target’s engine, and regardless of its evasive action, they finally home in and hit their mark.

This is the salesman with good empathy. He senses the reactions of the customer and is able to adjust to these reactions. He is not simply bound by a prepared sales track, but he functions in terms of the real interaction between himself and the customer. Sensing what the customer is feeling, he is able to change pace, double back on his track, and make whatever creative modifications might be necessary to home in on the target and close the sale.

The second of the basic qualities absolutely needed by a good salesman is a particular kind of ego drive that makes him want and need to make the sale in a personal or ego way, not merely for the money to be gained. His feeling must be that he has to make the sale; the customer is there to help him fulfill his personal need. In effect, to the top salesman, the sale—the conquest—provides a powerful means of enhancing his ego. His self-picture improves dramatically by virtue of conquest and diminishes with failure.

Because of the nature of all selling, the salesman will fail to sell more often than he will succeed. Thus, since failure tends to diminish his self-picture, his ego cannot be so weak that the poor self-picture continues for too long a time. Rather, the failure must act as a trigger—as a motivation toward greater efforts—that with success will bring the ego enhancement he seeks. A subtle balance must be found between (a) an ego partially weakened in precisely the right way to need a great deal of enhancement (the sale) and (b) an ego sufficiently strong to be motivated by failure but not to be shattered by it.

The salesman’s empathy, coupled with his intense ego drive, enables him to home in on the target effectively and make the sale. He has the drive, the need to make the sale, and his empathy gives him the connecting tool with which to do it.

In this discussion of the relationship of empathy and ego drive to successful selling, we will treat these dynamic factors as separate characteristics. Indeed, they are separate in that someone can have a great deal of empathy and any level of ego drive—extremely strong to extremely weak. Someone with poor empathy can also have any level of ego drive. Yet, as determinants of sales ability, empathy and ego drive act on and, in fact, reinforce each other.

The person with strong ego drive has maximum motivation to fully utilize whatever empathy he possesses. Needing the sale, he is not likely to let his empathy spill over and become sympathy. His ego need for the conquest is not likely to allow him to side with the customer; instead, it spurs him on to use his knowledge of the customer fully to make the sale.

On the other hand, the person with little or no ego drive is hardly likely to use his empathy in a persuasive manner. He understands people and may know perfectly well what things he might say to close the sale effectively, but his understanding is apt to become sympathy. If he does not need the conquest, his very knowledge of the real needs of the potential customer may tell him that the customer in fact should not buy. Since he does not need the sale in an inner personal sense, he then may not persuade the customer to buy. So we frequently say in our evaluations of potential salesmen, “This man has fine empathy, but he is not likely to use it persuasively—he will not use it to close.”

Thus, there is a dynamic relationship between empathy and ego drive. It takes a combination of the two, each working to reinforce the other—each enabling the other to be fully utilized—to make the successful salesman.

It calls for a very special, balanced ego to need the sale intensely and yet allow the salesman to look closely at the customer and fully benefit from an empathic perception of the customer’s reactions and needs.