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Are the Best Sales People Introverted or Extroverted? The Answer May Surprise You.

06 July 2012

I just finished reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Most of us already know if we tend toward introversion or extroversion based on whether we feel drained or energized after networking events, days full of meetings, or even dinners out with friends. If you want to know for sure, take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (R) test. An INFJ pretend-extrovert myself (a personality type I apparently share with the late Ronald Reagan,) I was eager to delve further into Cain’s research and discover how, if any, the data on extroverts and introverts is relevant to sales performance. Much to my delight, Cain makes several specific references to sales in her book. You may be surprised by her findings.

Introverts Outperform Extroverts in the Call Center

When most of us are asked to describe the best sales people, we typically use words associated with extroverts: persuasive, outgoing, high-energy, gregarious.  Citing a study on personalities of call center employees conducted by Wharton professor, Adam Grant, Cain calls these notions into question. She quotes Professor Grant:

“The extroverts would make these wonderful calls…. but then a shiny object of some kind would cross their paths and they’d lose focus.” The introverts, in contrast, “would talk very quietly, but boom, boom, boom, they were making those calls. They were focused and determined.”

It turns out that in high-volume call center environments, persistence, a quality typically found in introverts, was more important to success than social prowess, often attributed to extroverts.

Top Salesperson’s Success is not Tied to Extroverted Qualities

Cain uses the example of top salesperson, Jon Berghoff to illustrate how introversion helps rather than hinders his sales ability and references the work of Professor Avril Thorne at University of California, Santa Cruz, to help explain this. What qualities make Jon so successful?

  • He easily adopts the role of advisor rather than persuader
  • He asks a lot of good questions
  • He listens closely to the answers

Cain quotes Berghoff:

“I discovered early on that people don’t buy from me because they understand what I’m selling….they buy because they feel understood” and “A lot of people believe that selling requires being a fast talker, or knowing how to use charisma to persuade. Those things do require an extroverted way of communicating. But in sales there’s a truism that “we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionately.’ I believe that’s what makes someone really good at selling or consulting – the number-one thing is they’ve got to really listen well.”

Makes good sense, no? This is just one more example of how challenging traditional thinking in sales can open up new possibilities…and improve your results.

For a lot more on how Cain’s ideas and calls to action have applicability outside of sales, watch Cain’s TEDTalk, which I had the pleasure of seeing live earlier this year at the TED conference, or read her Manifesto (#s 3, 12 and 15 are my favorites. What are yours?)

Is your sales team made up of extroverts, introverts or both? Who are the best performers? How can you apply these findings to your future hiring practices in sales?