Why Hiring Salespeople Based On Intelligence Is Dumb

Decades of research across multiple professions has found intelligence (i.e., cognitive ability) to be the strongest predictor of job performance. So when it comes to hiring salespeople, just hire the smartest ones and call it a day, right? Not so fast. Let’s take a closer look at the data.

Is hiring salespeople based on intelligence the smart thing to do? intelligence-hiring-salespeople-ideal-candidate

What the data reveals about intelligence and sales performance

A meta-analysis by Vinchur and colleagues of 45,944 salespeople examined which personal characteristics were correlated with sales performance. Results found that intelligence was correlated with sales but only for manager ratings of performance. For objective sales performance, the correlation with intelligence was effectively zero.

This means that although managers perceive smarter sales reps as better performers, the actual sales numbers don’t bear it out.

So what’s going on?

Why intelligence doesn’t always lead to more sales

An intriguing study conducted by Verbeke and colleagues provides us with some clues. These researchers examined the relationship between intelligence, people skills, and sales performance. They found that intelligence had a positive relationship with sales volume but only for salespeople who were also high in people skills.SalesSocial

What to hire salespeople on instead

The same meta-analysis by Vinchur and colleagues found the strongest predictors of objective sales performance were:

  • Conscientiousness: Especially a person’s drive for achievement.
  • Extraversion: Research suggests that ambiverts – those with a moderate level of extraversion – sell more than both extraverts and introverts.

Additional research has shown the other traits that are important for sales success are:

  • Emotional intelligence: Training sessions increased sales revenue by 12%.
  • Learning orientation: Salespeople with a desire to learn and master challenges worked harder and smarter.
  • Adaptability: Adaptable salespeople not only achieved higher sales numbers, but they were also better at gaining and leveraging the competitive intelligence provided by their customers.

The bottom line

Hiring salespeople based on their intelligence doesn’t seem to hurt, but it doesn’t necessarily help your sales numbers either. The smarter strategy is to hire for intelligence only if the salesperson also has the right personality and motivation.

Did you find this post useful? Please share if you did.

Share on LinkedInShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Email this to someone
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 in data-based recruitment. She writes about research and trends in talent acquisition, recruitment tech, and people analytics.
Ji-A Min


  • So, Ji-A-Min, I’m guessing you find Vinchur’s data from 1998 to be applicable to today’s selling environment, 16 years later? After the introduction of the Internet and a deeper excursion into the Information Age? I can’t challenge that assumption with data today, but I think that’d be a study worth repeating. And while the rate that someone is able to learn (or unlearn and learn) may or may not not correlate directly to overall cognitive intelligence, I’d at least place a bet on a hypothesis that the ability to learn, and possibly to learn quickly and absorb information, is becoming more of a factor. I would also bet that we might see differences across industry verticals and based on the level to which reps are selling (such as complex B2B sales to senior executives). Any thoughts on that?

    • Definitely, I’d love to see if the differences in today’s selling environment are borne out in the data. The study I cited by Verbeke et al. was from 2008 and they found salespeople high in both cognitive ability and social skills were indeed the best performers. And I think you’re likely right about the ability to learn – I recently read an article stating complex problem solving has been identified as a crucial 12st century skills by OECD. I’m excited to see the research being conducted on these potentially new important characteristics related to success.