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.
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.
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.
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