In 1964, three years after McMurry fired his salvo against the sales industry, two young academics, David Mayer and Herbert Greenberg, refined his ideas. On the basis of seven years of field research, much of it among insurance agents, they wrote that successful salesmen must have two qualities, empathy and ego drive: enough empathy to listen and understand what is in the customer’s head, and enough ego to close the sale.
Here lies the challenge in finding good salespeople. You need excellent empathizers who aren’t so empathetic they can’t close a sale. And you need people with strong ego needs who can still take a moment to figure out what another person wants. They must be aggressive enough to close, but not so aggressive they put people off. Too much empathy and you’ll be the nice guy finishing last. Too much ego drive and you’ll be scorching earth everywhere you go. Not enough of either and you shouldn’t be in sales at all.
Experience, the researchers consluded, was a trivial predictor of success at selling, as was a “good front,” or fine appearance. Much more important were these “inner dynamics” of empathy and ego. People with these attributes could be made into even better salespeople through training. But those without them would always struggle, no matter how many training courses they went through.
If you’re considering a job in sales (or hiring salespeople) and don’t have access to a fancy test for empathy and ego drive, what easy-to-identify quality gives the biggest hint to whether you have what it takes?
Of the 1100 questionnaires Seligman sent out to the salespeople of Metropolitan Life, 169 were returned completed. Ninety-four of these came from salespeople with established track records, which could be used to test the validity of the ASQ in predicting performance. Despite the small data set, the results turned out to be compelling. Agents who scored in the optimisitic half of the explanatory style scale sold 37 percent more insurance than those in the pessimistic half. Those in the top decile sold 88 percent more than those in the bottom decile. A positive attitude turned out to make you a much better salesperson.
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