I was having the same conversation with my managers each month when we got to our talent review meeting. Every month, we stacked ranked the team in three categories, “Outstanding,” “Successful,” “Developmental.” It was an hour-long meeting that took a lot of thought as we carefully evaluated each person on the team.
When you think of what makes a truly great sales rep, what traits come to mind? Common answers like grit, tenacity, or hard work come to mind. Others may think of emotional intelligence or a gregarious personality. While these attributes can certainly be helpful, they’re well-trodden territory; any book or seminar is likely to mention them as the markers of successful sales professionals.
In my experience, there are two entirely different attributes that don’t get mentioned enough as strong predictors of how well a sales rep will perform: agility and curiosity.
Agility is a crucial trait for sales reps for several reasons. For one, an agile mind helps salespeople to think on their feet and make quick decisions or changes in order to make a sale. In a marketplace where buying behaviors change and no two customers have the same needs, the most effective sales reps are the ones who can quickly adapt their tactics or their talking points to get the best results in any situation.
But maybe, more importantly, mental flexibility allows sales reps to roll with the punches and keep looking forward. Sales jobs are very black-and-white in one key way: at the end of the quarter, you know whether you’ve succeeded or failed. When things aren’t looking good, it’s easy to get flustered or to lose confidence. Agile sales reps have the ability to take control of their stress levels in the face of uncertainty and adapt to bounce back after failure so that they can keep pushing toward a goal.
When I’m hiring a salesperson, curiosity is one of the most important markers I look for in candidates. A track record of continuous growth and learning— whether in past jobs or in their personal interests— tells me so much about whether someone will be successful on the job.
Curious people are driven by a desire to continue growing and learning, meaning they’re less likely to become defensive when presented with an opportunity to improve. This makes them coachable and far more likely to ask questions about how they can develop their skills to be more effective. In their day-to-day job performance, curious salespeople tend to do well with talking to prospects and asking useful questions to move the sale process along.
How to become curious and agile
Paradoxically, these two traits are best developed by just practicing them whenever you can. To become curious, ask questions; to become agile, put yourself in situations where agility is needed. Here are some examples of simple habits that can strengthen these attributes:
Do things you don’t know how to do
Try to put yourself in a situation where failure is possible (or likely) as often as you can. These don’t always have to be high-stakes situations; something as simple as trying a new recipe or testing out a new word in your vocabulary will do. Whatever you choose to try, exposure to uncertainty can increase your comfort with it and teach coping mechanisms to help you steady yourself when things are up in the air.
Ask a lot of questions
When you’re out in the world interacting with people, take time to notice things and ask about them. Restaurants and coffee shops are great places to practice this, since they’re social environments by design, but not all of your questions have to be directed toward a person; with all of the world’s knowledge accessible from the computer in your pocket, you can get answers from experts to any question that comes to mind.
Learn a little bit about as many subjects as you can
The more you learn about seemingly unrelated topics, the more you’ll find interesting intersections that may pique your curiosity and drive you to ask more questions. One way to do this is to read a different section of the newspaper than you’d normally gravitate toward. You can also look around in a bookstore or library (or even browse on Amazon) to find a book on a topic you don’t know much about.
There’s no need to become an expert on anything in particular (unless your curiosity drives you to learn more); getting a quick overview of the important concepts is generally enough to help you create the scaffolding for unexpected connections between subjects.
Even if these traits don’t come naturally you, trying out these tactics will help you strengthen the mental processes that can turn you into an adaptable and intellectually-engaged person. Being able to ask thought-provoking questions and maintain your cool when things don’t go as expected are valuable skills for sales professionals— and not just at work. These two traits are useful in so many aspects of modern life, and taking the time to build them will make the world a little easier to navigate.
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