Learning to Sell: Talent or skill?

Learning to Sell: Talent or skill?

Talent or learned skill

Is sales an innate ability, or something everyone can learn to do well?

The idea of innate talent has been taken out in the shed and kicked around plenty, but it never dies. Its longevity is due in part to the advantage of beginning to develop certain skills early in life, and in part to there still being research to do.

The 10,000 hour rule is a heuristic which states that to become an exceptional performer in virtually any skill requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. The rule is a generalization of a lot of research packaged for mass consumption by Malcolm Gladwell in his best seller Outliers. At about the same time Geoff Colvin published his Talent is Overrated based on much the same material and targeted for the business community.[1] However, neither were the source of these ideas.

The credit for this research belongs to Dr. K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues. Ericsson developed an early interest in skill development and studied Mnemonists (people demonstrating exceptional feats of memory) and proposed, along with his colleague Bill Chase, the Theory of Skilled memory to explain it. His work built from there into a study of the relationship between expert performance and deliberate practice in musicians, and then to professional development in exceptionally skilled professions such as surgeons.

We certainly aren't born knowing how to perform surgery. If we can be taught to do something so complex with a life hanging in the balance, certainly we can learn to do something as simple as finding someone who needs our expertise and convincing them to give us a chance.

The question is, what are the skills of the salesperson? Whether we seek mastery, or simple competence, we must identify individual skills and structure deliberate practice to develop them.

Sales competencies, expert performance in the field of sales

There is debate on whether or not the ability to sell is innate or learned. Some people who do not identify as natural salespeople have learned to sell and say of course you can learn it, and others have watched aspiring salespeople struggle and opined that they lack some essential capability to excel.

In my research so far Dave Kurlan and the Objective Management Group (OMG) has the most data driven perspective on what makes a top salesperson. They have developed a theory of 21 core competencies through their assessment and analysis of well over 1 Million salespeople. Through their research they have a better than good idea of what it takes to perform at the highest levels of the sales profession.

Within their 21 core competencies they have identified 6 key traits that they call Sales DNA. Sales DNA are raw abilities and personality traits that are found in exceptional salespeople. As much as drive and determination matter they suggest that people lacking the proper Sales DNA are going to struggle to perform at the highest levels in the sales profession.

Their Sales DNA traits are:

  1. Not needing approval
  2. Control of emotions
  3. Belief they can sell
  4. Helpful expectations about buying
  5. Comfort talking about money
  6. Handling rejection well

On a first look these don't seem at all like skills. They seem like social gifts possessed by relatively few people, but let's think about this in a broader perspective of learning and skill development.

Learning and skill development in sales

It is clear that some kids possess certain social abilities at an early age and use them to get what they want from parents, teachers, and other kids. Think back to someone you knew as a child that had these gifts. Now compare their ability as a child to their ability as a young adult. Did they improve over time? I'd just about guarantee that they did, in fact I would suggest that looking back to their amateur manipulations as a child you might find it funny that anybody ever fell for it.

From our own experiences (and maybe the Theory of Multiple Intelligences) we can see that some start life with greater abilities in one area or another. Praise for such a natural ability early in childhood can lead to years of practice on skills that use that singular natural ability. Whether we had a great ability to read someones emotional state early on or not, most people will develop the skill to do it before long and with deliberate practice can become exceptional. Heck, I didn't learn calculus in elementary school but I was pretty good at it by the end of college.

I'll admit, I need to do more research on this topic, but if people who are gifted in early childhood can become better over time, than why not everyone else?

Good enough, selling as a freelance business owner

More than the possibility to improve our Sales DNA, I think the important thing for us to remember is that we are NOT all trying to be professional salespeople operating at the highest levels of sales performance. We do not need to close multiple million dollar deals every quarter to be successful as freelance business owners or solo-entrepreneurs.

If it takes 800 attempts to land your first customer it will matter very little in the end because most of your business will come from referrals by happy customers. Learning the core sales skills that are most teachable combined with determination to build your business, that is good enough to be an effective salesperson.

  1. Gladwell's purpose is to inform and entertain and he is great at it, Colvin is more focused and drives home the message that it is deliberate practice that makes the difference in the acquisition of exceptional skill. ↩︎