What role does emotional intelligence play in building the sales force of the future?

15th Jan 2018

In our fast-changing world, the pressures faced by sales professionals are constantly evolving. Now sales teams have to compete not just with one another but with the growing power of online sales and the increasing demands of consumers.

But sales professionals have the advantage of being able to present a personalised approach still far beyond the reach of machines. To develop loyal customers and move away from the one hit sales approach, sales professionals need to focus on longer-term relationship building.

This is why Emotional Intelligence (EI) – the ability to understand and manage emotions both in ourselves and others – is becoming more vital to effective sales.

Our recent research paper, “The Emotional Intelligence of the sales sector, 2007-2017”, showed that salespeople are more emotionally intelligent than the average businessperson, challenging the stereotype of the cold, pushy sales executive.

In comparison with over 28,000 respondents from nine job sectors, the sales sector scored higher than average on EI (+1.25% above mean average). Self-employed people have the highest EI (4.5% above the mean average) with graduates and non-managerial positions the lowest (-3.25% below the mean average).

Salespeople scored higher in five aspects of EI indicating that they tend to be more task focused (Goal Directedness, Personal Power), tough minded (Self-Regard, Emotional Resilience, and Assertive), and able to form close connections (Connecting with Others). This suggests that salespeople are more self-motivated, stronger at dealing effectively with set-backs, and make decisions confidently.

However, the same research showed they can be more rigid (Low Flexibility), guarded (Mistrusting), have unrealistic expectations (Over Optimistic), be potentially volatile (Emotionally Under Controlled), confrontational (Aggressive), and less collaborative (Over Independent). Considering this in light of their strengths, you could say that the typical salesperson may be more individualistic and less team oriented.

With a wealth of information and research at their fingertips thanks to the internet, today’s customers are becoming more demanding and expect salespeople to be more knowledgeable and understanding of their specific needs. And yet actual selling time has dropped to just 36% of the average week.

Areas of strength and improvement

So, salespeople are up against it. They need to do more with less time and in a way that is not sustainable - not just commercially but emotionally. This is where strengths seen in dealing with tricky situations (Emotional Resilience) and being in control of their actions (Personal Power) should be recognised and capitalised as a means to develop in areas they are weaker in. For instance, using their ability to build rapport with people more effectively not just for short-term hard sells, could help salespeople to build more trusting and collaborative long-term relationships.

Focusing on the scales of EI that salespeople are stronger and weaker in may seem obvious, but doing so is not without value. Our research suggests that 90% of these scales correlate with sales performance and given that this makes up nearly two thirds of the elements of EI that we measured, surely it’s time to pay attention to EI when building an effective salesforce.

Typically, EI improves with age and job seniority, but the sales sector tends to plateau after the age of 39 and at senior management and director levels, with EI falling after the age of 50.

Our study highlights important differences in EI between age groups and job levels within the sales sector. Typically, EI improves with age and job seniority, but the sales sector tends to plateau after the age of 39 and at senior management and director levels, with EI falling after the age of 50.

There is also a significant gulf in EI between non-mangers and managers, suggesting that many sales people may struggle to make this transition. So, what could this be telling us? EI from our perspective is something you ‘do’ rather than something you ‘have’, therefore it could be argued that salespeople should be given the opportunity to develop their EI at the beginning of their career as well as part of their continued professional development. This should then minimise the gap seen between non-managers and managers’ EI, and the plateau seen at senior levels.

But building the salesforce of the future doesn’t mean starting again, instead leaders may need to become better at developing and leading their existing team. While this may feel easier said than done, in terms of our results, senior managers and directors already demonstrate some elements of EI that are considered important for effective leadership. However, these strengths are typically around aspects of Personal Intelligence, whereas being less demanding and tough on people in terms of Interpersonal Intelligence is what requires improvement.

Overall, our research has highlighted both areas of strength and improvement in salespeople’s EI, that can be built on and addressed respectively. EI can be developed, but it takes practice. Noticing and managing our attitudes, emotions and behaviour in changing contexts is a continual process. Through commitment to improving EI, it is possible to boost individual and company sales performance in line with new market demands.

Based on our experience in EI training and development with companies worldwide, an EI-inspired business culture can create up to 20% more engagement and performance in team members and for the whole organisation (Maddocks 2017). In the fast-changing competitive world of sales, never has this been more important.

To find out more about developing Emotional Intelligence (EI) in your salespeople download free from JCA Global’s website now: “The Emotional Intelligence of the Sales sector 2007-2017” by Jo Maddocks, chief psychologist and Poppy Boothroyd R&D consultant, JCA Global.

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