Last week’s Theory Thursday examined the surprising relationship between extraversion and sales. Today I investigate the interaction between intelligence and social skills in salespeople. Which brings in more revenue – IQ or EQ?

A common perception of a good salesperson places emphasis on personality over brains. However, as today’s increasingly complex market places both cognitive and emotional demands on salespeople, there may be more to the story. In fact, experts like Lynette Ryals and Javier Marcos argue in the Harvard Business Review that today’s sales reps need both relational skills and cognitive skills to succeed.

So what does the data tell us?

An intriguing study conducted in 2008 by Professor Verbeke and his colleagues examined the relationship between general mental ability (IQ), people skills (EQ) and sales performance. To no one’s surprise, they found sales reps higher in people skills achieved higher sales volume. The unexpected finding was the data revealed that intelligence also had a positive relationship with sales volume but only for salespeople who were also high in people skills.

SalesSocialThis counterintuitive interaction means salespeople with high levels of intelligence and low levels of people skills had the lowest sales performance. Why might that be? Similar to Professors Casciaro and Lobo’s concepts of “competent jerks” and “lovable fools,” brainy salespeople who lack social skills may come off as unlikable know-it-alls, or they may overload customers with information while not paying enough attention to their needs.

The simple takeaway here is that, as always, hiring salespeople with both IQ and EQ is the best option. However, if you must choose, it’s better to prioritize social skills over intelligence.

Stuck with a bunch of salespeople who are bad at dealing with people? There may still be hope. The researchers state, social competence “is learned through training and personal experiences.” This means that the social skills that predict sales success can not only be assessed for pre-hire, but they can also be developed through on-the-job training.

These types of surprising data-based insights should provide you with the basis for more thoughtful and accurate sales hiring decisions.

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Ji-A Min

Ji-A Min

Head Data Scientist at Ideal
Ji-A Min is the Head Data Scientist at Ideal. With a Master’s in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, Ji-A promotes best practices and data-based HR. She writes about trends and research in talent acquisition, people analytics, and workplace diversity.
Ji-A Min