There are a variety of traits that are prevalent in successful salespeople – tenacity, loquaciousness and determination, for instance.
But one quality that shouldn’t be under-estimated is emotional intelligence (EI).
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Bob Apollo, managing director of Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners and a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales, notes: “It’s commonly suggested that customers buy emotionally and justify their decision rationally. I’m not sure it’s as black-and-white as that - I think that we always need to achieve a balance between the rational and the emotional in all our communications with our customers. We also need to recognise that different prospects process information in different ways, and adapt our approach to each of them accordingly. EI is critical to achieving this.”
Indeed, salespeople that have higher emotional intelligence are at a distinct advantage over those that are not so blessed.
As Apollo explains: “Sales people with weak EI tend to react to what the customer asks for or says at face value; sales people with strong EI are always curious not just about what the prospect has said, but also why they have said it, and what lies underneath the surface of the communication.”
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that research has found that salespeople tend to have higher emotional intelligence than other professions. When comparing more than 2,500 salespeople to 28,000 respondents from nine other job sectors, a study by JCA Global found that the sales sector scored higher than average on emotional intelligence (+1.25% above mean average).
However, the research also found that emotional intelligence is declining in sales, and has been falling since 2009. Given the advantage that higher EI provides, there is a need to arrest the decline. So how can salespeople develop and improve their emotional intelligence? Let’s look at the main components of emotional intelligence and how they can be trained.
The starting point is an understanding and awareness of your own emotions. Without this, it is nigh on impossible for a salesperson to develop their emotional intelligence. Sean McPheat, managing director of MTD Sales Training, calls this ‘self-awareness’, and provides the following advice on developing it:
- Be aware of how you feel before you carry out a task.
- Label any emotion you experience when you are in different situations.
- Identify if there’s any pattern in how you feel (e.g. before any sales meetings, or when you have to make a prospecting call).
- Consider the messages these emotions are sending you.
Once you have a growing awareness of your emotions, the next element to develop is the management of the emotions.
The next stage after becoming aware of these emotions, is learning the ways to manage them.
McPheat explains: “One way to improve your self-management is to understand what triggers you to feel the way you do. How do you react when someone cuts you up in traffic? What do you experience when you are put under stress? What do you say to people when you feel you have been harshly-treated?
“Knowing how you react or respond to your ‘emotional hot-buttons’ can take you a long way in determining how you deal with situations that create emotional responses.”
McPheat suggests that an immediate response that salespeople can count on to improve thier self-management is to force themselves to consciously stop in any situation where progress is being impeded and ask themselves some questions.:
- “I wonder why they think that way?”
- “What’s their purpose in doing that?”
- “Where is this conversation going?”
- “Is the relationship with the buyer more important than the sale here?”
- “Why am I feeling this particular emotion?”
This will give the salesperson that detachment and breathing space to respond effectively rather than react inappropriately.
McPheat also recommends that salespeople:
- Decide what you want to do with the messages you are getting.
- Decide what would be the best response to those messages so you choose your response rather than being controlled by them.
- Create a plan on what emotions support you and which ones disempower you.
- Deal with the emotions as they occur and be in control of what you will do with them.
By being responsive to the needs of others, this aspect of emotional intelligence can be the most influential in building confidence in the buyer for you and your services.
McPheat suggests that to develop social awareness, salespeople should learn to:
- Listen intently to the messages prospects and clients are telling you.
- Be slow to judge and quick to decipher messages coming from others.
- Focus your attention on the buyer and their needs more than your products and services.
- Resist the temptation to try and look good to others at the expense of your own integrity.
- Overcome fear and anxiety of trying to be overly impressive or overly-concerned about what others think about you.
- Pass the perspective of control over to the other person.
- Build confidence in finding solutions for the other person’s challenges.
- Create significance in the relationship by building value in everything you offer.
As a final component of emotional intelligence, McPheat emphasises the importance of being able to develop relationships – something that is second-nature to emotionally intelligent people, and represents an important attribute of successful salespeople.
To help develop relationship management skills, McPheat advises that salespeople consider, and work on, the following:
- Build the relationship solidly through helpful attitudes and keen understanding of their points of view.
- If sales objections occur, analyse the reasons why they came up, rather than immediately try to solve them.
- Learn from mistakes you make with clients so they are lessons rather than failures.
- Build reasons for clients to be loyal to you by covering all bases and increasing the value you offer to the relationship.
Managing the chimp
An alternative view of improving emotional intelligence comes courtesy of renowned psychologist Steve Peters, and his book The Chimp Paradox. He describes how different parts of the brain contain different characters that control how we act.
Firstly, there is the part of the brain that Peters calls ‘the Chimp’, which is quick to respond and does not need a lot of fact or confirmation.
Business psychologist Lance Mortimer, a fellow of the Association of Professional Sales, writes: “The Chimp is constantly vigilant for attack. It is paranoid and irrational, worries a lot, and acts accordingly to try to protect itself. It is very fast and strong, and can take over our emotions before have a chance to stop it.
“For example, someone cuts in front of you whilst you are driving and comes a little too close. Do you shake your fist and blow your horn,? It is simple to see how the Chimp can take over.”
Then there is another part of the brain that Peters calls ‘the Human’, which is more controlled.
Bryan McCrae, managing director or Sales Motivations and a fellow of the Association of Professional Sales, writes:
“If it was cut up in traffic, the Human would sit back and think about why the other driver acted that way. Maybe they are late for an important meeting? Perhaps there is an emergency at home?
The Human is more rational, logical and puts things into perspective. It likes to have evidence and facts before acting, and is happy to change its mind if the argument allows. It likes plans and actions, but is not as powerful as the Chimp, so can often get over-ruled.”
While you cannot change the nature of the Chimp, you can become more emotionally intelligence by managing it.
Managing the Chimp can take various forms:
- Divert the Chimp. If you feel tense and realise that the Chimp is stirring and about to explode, then play some competitive sport, where losing is not so important as losing a big deal.
- Exercise the Chimp. Have a ‘safe buddy’ you can sound off to. The other person does not take offence, but acts as a sounding board as you let them have both barrels. This lets the Chimp wear itself out, so it can go back to sleep.
- Box the Chimp. Tell yourself that the actions suggested by the Chimp are only suggestions, not commands. This is a skilful way of acknowledging the Chimp’s needs and trying to manage them. One way of boxing the Chimp might be to ask it if it wants to deal with the anxiety and stress that its preferred course of action will cause. This can help it to calm down and understand that alternative courses are preferable.
Seizing the initiative
However salespeople choose to develop emotional intelligence, the key is that there is clarity around the kinds of actions required. Some skills may require development over a long period of time, while others may require only awareness or minor behavioural change.
Whatever the challenge, salespeople can seize the initiative and start developing their EQ immediately – there is no need to wait for sales managers or trainers to crack the whip.
Higher emotional intelligence provides salespeople with a better toolkit to deliver commercial success, while ensuring that behaviour is appropriate at all times, and thereby minimising the risks of any damaging misunderstandings.
And while other traits may be more commonly associated with salespeople, few are as impactful.