Why Personality Testing Often Comes Up Short

Companies spend millions trying to find the right “sales personality.”

Recruiting and selecting salespeople is not for the faint of heart. With every hire, sales leaders are gambling that new sellers will be worth the time, effort and money spent on training them.

Across industries, 80% of all new sales hires wash out in the first year. What’s more, the sudden and drastic increase in unemployment has led to a surge in applicants for sales positions. Singling out potential top producers from the pool of superstar wannabes is now more high-risk than ever.

The Cult of Personality

To help tip the odds in their favor, many sales leaders and hiring professionals turn to personality-based testing to gauge talent. Urged on by consultants and “gurus,” they may gravitate to candidates who score high in traits such as “empathy,” “optimism,” “toughness” and the ever-pervasive “extraversion,” counting on those traits to be markers of success. The lure of defining a reliable “sales personality”—and successfully identifying those who bring it to the table—is strong. That’s why companies spend an estimated $500 million per year on personality testing.

Yet despite the overwhelming popularity of those tests, a wide and costly gap chronically looms between scores and performance. Often, sales leaders find themselves backing the wrong horse only to soon find that something doesn’t fit. Why can’t personality tests consistently pick the winners?

“Conventional wisdom drives many people to look for extraverts for their sales teams. But research has consistently shown little to no association with extraversion and sales success.”

Conventional wisdom drives many people to look for extraverts for their sales teams. But research has consistently shown little to no association with extraversion and sales success. Conscientiousness is the only trait that is consistently associated with job success.

As a result, personality researchers have openly acknowledged: “Broad personality traits may not capture the strategic and tactical behaviors involved in specific aspects of sales task performance.” According to the study The Big Five Trait Taxonomy: History, measurement, and theoretical perspectives, this limitation is related to the nature of personality traits which were designed to be “primarily descriptive rather than explanatory” or predictive.

Measuring What Matters

A lot goes into being—and hiring—a successful salesperson. Aptitude, education, drive, as well as personality, are all important. So are sophisticated training methods and attractive financial incentives. They all play a role. But before any of these things can make or break a potential top producer, one simple fact must come into play: Salespeople need people to sell to. Initiating contact with people moves them closer to the career and organizational goals that are important to them—whether that is prospective new customers or existing ones.

The link between consistently contacting prospects and customers (“prospecting”) and meeting sales objectives is longstanding and rock solid. Numerous studies have concluded that the ability to prospect for new business is a key competency needed for sales success. It’s not the only competency and it’s not necessarily the most important, but it simply comes first. And if a salesperson you’re interviewing isn’t willing or able to get in front of prospective customers, wouldn’t you like to know that before you offer flashy incentives or invest in expensive training?

In 2012, our research team set out to predict prospecting activity in salespeople. Our sample of 1,627 U.S. salespeople from a variety of sales settings was split equally between those known to generate high levels of prospecting activity and those who demonstrated very low prospecting activity. We used a specialized psychological assessment called SPQ*GOLD® to measure the sellers’ level of comfort and willingness to prospect for new business. We administered the same test to an entirely different sample of 1,630 salespeople whose prospecting levels were unknown to us. From the test scores of the first group, correlated with what we knew about their actual prospecting behavior, we created a statistical model—a snapshot of high-level and low-level sales prospectors. Then we applied that model to the salespeople in the second group and, based on their scores alone, attempted to classify them as either high-level or low-level.

The results? We correctly pegged 83% of the high prospectors and 79% of the low prospectors in the second group. Simply from what they said about contacting prospective buyers, we successfully predicted what the majority of them actually did in the selling arena.

It’s What Salespeople Do That’s Important

When you can accurately predict sales prospecting, you are in effect predicting sales success. The logic works this way: Prospecting doesn’t guarantee success. Even the most productive salesperson may sometimes make calls all day without selling anything. But no one can sell without customers to sell to, and that takes prospecting.

That’s why initiating contact comes first and always has. Even with new “sales enablement” departments and technologies, bigger markets and sophisticated lead generation systems, the most successful salespeople continue to be the ones who contact prospective or existing buyers consistently. Once they do, their personality, skill and experience can help them excel. But not before.

If you want to identify and hire high-producing salespeople, make sure you look at everything your candidates have to offer. And don’t forget what every successful seller has to do first. Our current situation is radically different from the recession of 2012 and it’s more important than ever to back the right horse who will jump out of the gate and get in the race.

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This article is written by Suzanne C. Dudley, CPA, who is a president and CEO of Behavioral Sciences Research Press. She is also the co-author of BSRP’s latest book Relentless: the Science of Barrier-Busting Sales. For more than four decades, BSRP has been helping organizations and individuals create sustained sales improvements through real science with real results.