What are the 7 Personality Traits of Top Salespeople?

November 8, 2018


The Harvard Business Review published an article in 2011 by Steve W Martin where he discussed findings from his research into the personality traits of highly effective salespeople.  After administering personality questionnaires to 1000s of salespeople and then comparing the results of the top performers against average and below average performers, Steve was able to compile the 7 personality traits of the top performers.

The seven traits are discussed below, however, with trait-based personality profiles the scores range from very high to very low, as opposed to a typology-based approach where respondents either fall into a “type” or they don’t.  The psychological research generally supports a trait-based approach for personality and behavioural profiles.

  1. Modesty: High scorers on the modesty trait are humble, modest and self-effacing, whereas low scorers feel superior to others and are seen as arrogant and conceited by others. Steve’s research found that 91% of top salespeople had medium to high scores of modesty and humility. Some people may find that result surprising as the popular image of a salesperson is a pushy in your face sort of person.  Whilst that may be the stereotype of salespeople, it doesn’t mean that approach is effective, indeed, this research suggests the opposite.  Highly effective salespeople are humble and modest people who work well within a team environment.
  2. Conscientiousness: High scorers are well-organised, reliable, disciplined and focused individuals, whereas low scorers are careless, lackadaisical, unreliable and disorganised. The research found 85% of top salespeople had high levels of conscientiousness, whereby they could be described as highly reliable and dependable and take their responsibilities seriously. This finding seems self-evident and would apply to success in most fields, however, it was borne out in the research and a stronger work ethic predicts greater success than just ordinary or average levels.
  3. Achievement Orientation: High scorers are ambitious, goal-oriented, and enterprising, whereas low scorers are complacent and aimless. Eighty-four percent of the top performers tested scored very high, not just high or above average, but very high, in achievement orientation. They are almost obsessed on achieving their goals and continuously assess their performance in comparison to those goals.  They plan and consider the people they are selling to and how the products or services meet the needs of those people and their organisation.
  1. Curiosity. High scorers are inquisitive, intellectual curious, and open-minded, whereas low scorers lack curiosity and have a narrow range of interests. The top salespeople scored in the extremely high range for intellectual curiosity, with 82% of the top performers scoring in that range.  High performers were significantly more curious than their lesser performing peers.  Being highly curious translate into being an active presence during conversations with clients and an heightened awareness of the client’s needs.
  2. Outgoingness: High scorers are gregarious, social and prefer the company of others, whereas low scorers are introverted and prefer privacy and solitude. The findings from the research were surprising and perhaps counterintuitive, as the top performing salespeople scored 30% lower for outgoingness than average performers.  This finding has also been replicated by Adam Grant, Professor of Psychology at Wharton, University of Pennsylvania.  Professor Grant’s research found that ambiverts, those who scored half-way between introversion and extraversion, are more effective salespeople than extraverts.  Ambiverts are more flexible and variable in the way they engage customers, achieving a better balance between talking and listening, and not dominating the conversation.
  3. Emotional Reactions: High scorers are prone to worry and get upset in stressful situations, whereas low scorers are calm, even-tempered, relaxed and do not get upset easily in stressful situations. Less than 10% percent of high performing salespeople were classified as having high levels of emotional reactions, and conversely, 90% percent scored in the low range for emotional reactions.  The top performers can handle emotional disappointments, cope well with the inevitable rejections of sales work and bounce back quickly and mentally prepare themselves for the next opportunity.
  4. Social Concerns: Social concerns, or self-consciousness, is the measurement of how easily someone is embarrassed. High scorers are shy, inhibited and self-conscious, whereas low scorers are socially confident and self-assured. Less than 5% of top performers had high levels of self-consciousness. Highly effective salespeople are comfortable dealing with difficult customers and are not deterred by obfuscation and outright rejection. They are thick-skinned and do not take rejection personally and will bravely cold call new prospects.

These seven traits squarely map onto the Five-Factor Model of Personality, sometimes referred to as the “Big 5”.  The Five-Factor Model is the dominant model of personality across the globe and has been for many years.  The methodology for the research cited in this article used the Five-Factor Model as the measure for determining what were the key traits for highly successful salespeople.

These traits can be measured during the recruitment phase for your next salesperson, or for a professional development activity, using the NEO-PI-3.  The NEO-PI-3 was developed by the, Costa and McCrae, the two researchers who are credited for the development of the Five-Factor Model.

These seven traits would not be the only variables to consider when hiring or developing high performing salespeople.  General intelligence and verbal fluency would play a role, as well as the culture of the organisation and the ongoing support and training sales staff receive.  However, measuring personality traits and cognitive abilities is reliable and straightforward and is the starting point in your journey towards building a team of superior sales staff.