The Enigma of the Sales Performer – Deon Basson

Enigma – A person or thing that is mysterious or difficult to understand. (Oxford dictionary)

Sales – The activity or business of selling products or services. (Oxford dictionary)

Since the beginning of mankind the enigma of what great sales people do differently has been around. Even in the early days before formal training there were people that just stood out in trading success. They had something different that differentiated them. Turning the clock to the present time shows exactly the same phenomena. Even with all the training taking place today we still see the same. This reality immediately makes us wonder and some questions come to mind :

  • Are sales people born or made?
  • Can anyone be trained to become a great sales person and if so what should the focus of training be?
  • Is it the company that is enabling the sales or is it the company that enables the sales people?
  • Is it the offering?
  • Do the sales tools make a difference?
  • Is luck involved?
  • Is this question of top sales people an enigma?

Harvard Business Review did research on “the three rules for making a company truly great”. The research was unbiased investigating thousands of companies. The focus was to find the most common denominators amongst the companies that were sustainably successful over a long period of time. The research revealed the following rules:

Rule 1 – Better before cheaper – Sell the value, not the price.

Rule 2 – Revenue before cost – You can’t cut your way to success, but you can sell your way there.

Rule 3 – There are no other rules.

This research shows that it is mostly about sales. Without sales you have no commercial company. You can have the best product, the best services and the best solutions. Without sales there is no company.  So if sales differentiate the top performing companies then all companies need to have their sales effectively in place.

So what differentiates the top performers (individuals) in sales? – A question that has been asked by all people / companies involved in sales.

Everyone involved in sales (directly or indirectly) have seen sales people who work very hard, know their offering, know the customer’s problems or issues and follow a good process, yet who do not deliver the results. Other sales people doing the same thing under the same circumstances significantly outperform them.

If you google “traits of top sales people” as a search on Google it returns over 11 million articles (see above). No one has the time to read all of that. On top of that most articles are there to represent and promote the “view” of the person, company or offering, e.g.:

  • The social media company – great sales people utilize all forms of social media
  • The methodology sales training company – great sales people use a formal process
  • The presentation skills company – great sales people have great presentation skills
  • The CRM software company – great sales people use a system
  • The Emotional Intelligence company – EI is critical in sales
  • The coaching company – it is all about sales managers coaching the sales people
  • And the list goes on….forever

We are not saying the above individual traits are not important; however we are looking for an unbiased view of the key traits of the top sales people.

So how do we really find out what the key traits of the top sales performers are? …..

Deon Basson has been doing his doctoral studies on what really differentiates the top sales people from the average. As part of this study, Deon asked for the 3 key traits of top sales people. He asked that question to the following :

  • 200 successful sales managers and sales directors
  • 200 top achievers in sales
  • 200 people dealing with sales people
  • 200 random articles from the search “traits of top sales people”

The idea was that even though most articles and people are biased, the law of large numbers will average out the real differentiators. And interestingly, it did average out. The results of the research are set out below and further explanation follows:

Notes :

  • Some interesting observations … many people would think Attitude should be higher or that Trust should be number 1.
  • The answers were not predefined options. Classification of the answers was done to have common names for traits. For example trust and trustworthy would be classified together. The classification resulted in 31 traits from 1658 unique descriptors, e.g. trust and trustworthy are 2 unique descriptors. The above represents traits mentioned by 20%+ of the people/articles.
  • The scoring above represents the percentage of people/articles that mentioned that trait.
  • Some descriptors, such as listening would fall into more than 1 trait, e.g. Communication, Empathy and Trust.

Below are more relevant detail on the traits. The 3rd column in the table below sets out just 5 verbatim statements per trait (there were hundreds per trait) made by the interviewees.

  • Great communication skills
  • They understand that people differ and sell to different types and different psychological needs
  • Affable yet assertive
  • Influence and persuasion skills
  • Presentation skills and can tell a story
2Empathy (to  understand another’s situation by putting yourself in that situation)
  • Empathy is like a magnet for the customer
  • Enquiring mind to understand customer and their issues
  • Curiosity about the customer
  • Strategic business understanding of the customer
  • Show empathy and understand the customers’ needs and even provoke more needs
  • Deliver on commitments
  • Character of trust
  • People want to buy from people they trust
  • If things go wrong, customers want peace of mind
  • Without trust you have no business
4Authority (displays and makes the other person believe in their capabilities in their field)
  • They can solve problems
  • Knows how to craft a solution for the customer’s needs and sell with a value proposition
  • Strategic business understanding
  • Unbelievable knowledge of their offering
  • Is willing to challenge the status quo based on their knowledge
  • Conscientiousness through attention to detail and the process
  • They show up prepared
  • Follow-through and follow-up
  • Knows when to walk away
  • They know every sale differs, but will have strict checkpoints
6Hard worker
  • Hard worker
  • They go the extra mile
  • They know selling has no place for a 9 to 5 mentality
  • Will work hard to wow the customer
  • Follows a methodology and drive hard to progress
  • They set goals to achieve and drive hard to realise them
  • Achievement orientated
  • They have great ambition and always want to improve
  • Competing yet knows when to not compete
  • They have a need to grow, personally and financially
  • They have confidence in their own ability, their company and the offering
  • Assertiveness
  • Is willing to challenge the status quo based on their knowledge
  • Not influenced by status
  • Persistence
  • I have never seen a pessimistic person do well in sales.
  • Optimism is a key trait
  • Our attitude communicates confidence and many other factors
  • Never see problems, only solutions
  • Cup is half full, NOT half empty


In this research we did not ask people what they thought the top traits should be, but rather what traits they actually observed in top sales people. The only real indicators are what the performing people do. It is ….

  • not what the psychologists say,
  • not what the people would like them to be,
  • not what people with vested interest say,
  • not what HR would like them to be,
  • not what the training company says,
  • not what the different personalities would like them to be.

We are not saying that the traits in this article are the only traits or that they will guarantee success. What we are saying is that sales development must critically look at the combination of the top traits in sales as it will contribute to improvement in sales.

Our next couple of articles will address the following questions :

  • Does the above differ depending on the offering and company?
  • How do we measure the traits in people?
  • How do we develop the different traits?
  • Where does the sales process fit in?

Deon has 28 years’ experience in sales, sales management, sales director roles and as CEO. He is currently the CEO of 2interact with it’s flagship training “The Psychology of Sales”. Deon holds a B.Sc Hon (Computer Science) as well as an MBA. He is currently pursuing his doctorate.

Deon does the talk “The aggregation of marginal gains wins sales”, which addresses many of the points in this article.

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