Why salespeople need Emotional Intelligence now more than ever

October 13, 2017

Working in sales has, and always will be, competitive. But over the last 10 years, the rate of market and organisational change has accelerated and as a result, demands on salespeople have increased dramatically.

The Sales sector itself has moved from a Transactional sales model to focus more on building long-term relationships with customers to secure repeat business. This change in focus has resulted in only 36% of the working week now being dedicated to actual selling time according to research (Angelos et al, 2016).

Consequently, different skills and traits are required of the modern salesperson. In addition to understanding the product they are selling, they need to understand the wider environment in which their customers trade, providing thought leadership on where the next opportunity or future trend will come from.

Today’s salespeople need both cognitive intelligence (IQ) to act as ‘knowledge brokers’ and Emotional Intelligence (EI) to understand and connect with the needs of their customers. And this is what interests us at PSI, how EI can help strengthen the salesperson, their team, company culture, individual and collective performance.

So, we analysed 10 years of Sales sector data and research to look at what it takes to be a great salesperson, what different skills are required now, and how improving EI can help.

Changes in the Sales sector

2,868 individuals working in the Sales sector have completed our renowned PSI’s Emotional Intelligence Profile (EIP), an online EI self-report questionnaire, between 2007 and 2017.   

One of the main findings we found from analysing this data, was that on average salespeople have higher EI than other businesspeople, reflecting the need to build close and lasting relationships with their customers.

Within the study, we compared 28,000 respondents from nine different job sectors as diverse as Financial Services, Health and Social Care and the Self-Employed. Despite the above average finding of salespeople’s EI, the sector is far below the Self-Employed and HR sectors, and overall from 2009-2016 the EI of the sector has steadily fallen. Although a stark increase seen this year so far may indicate green shoots of recovery.

Nevertheless, the general decline could be down to a number of reasons. Consultancy firm, Accenture, claims the “age of distraction”, information overload from digital services, has led to a 5% drop in sales productivity and has reduced sellers’ performance by 14%.

Other reasons our research explores include the new demands of the market moving from Transactional sales to Enterprise sales, requiring more interpersonal skills and higher EI. A lack of talent development from non-managerial to managerial levels is also a potential contributing factor and why the sector needs to invest in EI now to help salespeople get back in the driving seat.

The Emotional Intelligence of the salesperson

In contrast to the comparison group, salespeople scored relatively higher in certain aspects of EI: Self Regard, Emotional Resilience, Personal Power, Goal Directedness, Connecting with Others and Assertiveness, indicating that salespeople tend to be more task focused, tough minded and able to form close relationships, all great qualities for their job.

However, other findings suggest they are also less Flexible, more Mistrusting, Over Optimistic, Emotionally Under Controlled, Aggressive and Over Independent, reinforcing certain stereotypes of salespeople; such as being more guarded (in negotiation), having unrealistic expectations (ambitious target setting), potentially volatile (pressure and stress of targets), confrontational and self-sufficient (competitive).

Compared to other job sectors, salespeople score relatively higher for Personal Intelligence whereas Interpersonal Intelligence is average. Personal Intelligence includes aspects such as self-motivation, dealing effectively with set-backs and making confident decisions. Interpersonal Intelligence relates to behaviours such as placing trust in others, team working, and managing confrontation constructively.

Surprisingly, the Sales sector scores below average on several Interpersonal aspects of EI. Exploring this more closely, a higher score on Connecting with Others (forming close relationships) but a lower score on Trust and Interdependence (collaboration and teamwork), suggests the typical salesperson may be more individualistic and less team oriented. This could therefore be an area for development, particularly when salespeople progress to become team leaders.

Room for improvement at the top

Unlike other job sectors, where EI improves with age and job seniority, the Sales sector tends to plateau after the age of 39 and at senior management and director levels, with EI falling after the age of 50.

At the top level, senior managers and directors score higher on many aspects of Personal Intelligence (Self Regard, Self Awareness, Emotional Resilience, Goal Directedness, Authenticity, Balanced Outlook – Realistically Optimistic) suggesting they have developed some elements of EI that are important for effective leadership (Siegling et al, 2014).

However, this seems to be counteracted by lower scores in Interpersonal Intelligence. For example, directors score lower on Regard for Others and are more Aggressive, suggesting that at this level they are tougher and more demanding.

For your sales team to capitalise on the increase in EI seen this year and reverse the general downward trend, now is the time to invest in EI training and development. The study has highlighted both areas of strength that can be enhanced and areas for improvement in salespeople’s EI that need to be addressed.

Increasing EI is an ongoing process where changes in attitudes lead to changes in behaviour. Through a commitment to improving your employees’ EI, our experience suggests an increase of up to 20% in productivity is possible. If you want to boost your company sales performance in line with the new market demands and increase long-term career development for your salespeople, get in touch with us now.

 To find out more about developing Emotional Intelligence in your salespeople download our free Research Paper: “The Emotional Intelligence of the Sales sector”.