Some skills can be learned, but poor attitudes are tough to change and can poison your whole organization.
Recently while reviewing Aristotle's characteristics or virtues of the good man, I found myself reflecting on the qualities that define good salespeople. What are the characteristics that make them successful? What role does training and education play in helping to develop good salespeople? Are store owners at the mercy of sheer luck as to whether their salespeople are good or not?
The best salespeople certainly possess all three of the basic skill elements of selling, namely: attitude, product knowledge, and selling skills. This article will limit its discussion to the first of these... good attitude.
The first thing to note about attitude is that it is entirely a matter of personal will. It is unlike product knowledge, in that knowledge is entirely a matter of the mind. Selling skills, on the other hand, are a matter of both the mind and the will: they must first be learned and then be practiced. The second thing to note about attitude is that unlike one's product knowledge or selling skills, it can fluctuate in an instant from good to bad and from bad to good. A third thing to note is that neither product knowledge nor selling skills are passed on from person to person by osmosis, so to speak. Instead, the attitude of one salesperson definitely tends to affect the attitude of another and vice versa, as every owner and manager knows.
Back to the main question: what do we mean when we say a salesperson has a good attitude? I believe that good attitude can be defined as the salesperson's habitual readiness (willingness) to help customers make the best buying decision (to borrow a thought from John F. Lawhon). In more familiar terms, the good salesperson shows up every day to work.
Because attitude as we said, is entirely a matter of the will, there is little that owners and managers can do to change the attitude of those salespeople who are habitual gripers. This follows an ancient adage that states that habit becomes second nature. Apropos to this, I remember my mother saying that the wolf changes the color of its hair but not its habits. That being the case, owners and managers should take the time and attention to continually improve and master their hiring skills. Amazingly few do; For those of you who want to start developing your hiring skills, a good place to start is by reading Martin Yate's "Hiring the Best," a book in which he warns that "those managers who do not hire the right people, cannot manage appropriately, and ultimately get the ax." I can think of nothing that affects whether salespeople are right or not as much as their attitude. After all, you can always teach salespeople selling skills and product knowledge. Attitude is another matter.
With Brian Tracy, I believe that the salesperson's attitude affects how well he or she sells even more than product knowledge and selling skills. We've all witnessed examples of new salespeople practically void of product knowledge who manage to 'start out with a bang' simply because of their good attitude. True, they soon tend to 'go out with a whimper' unless they acquire specialized product knowledge. Why their initial success? I imagine it is because customers will forgive any failing in a salesperson except a bad attitude. Nothing else makes them more mad, more sad, and more scared. As important as a salesperson's product knowledge is, customers tend not to care about how much a sales-person knows, until they know how much the salesperson cares.
We all agree, I'm sure, that the ideal would be to have salespeople with excellent product knowledge, excellent selling skills, and an excellent attitude. This combination comes about rather infrequently, even after years of experience. As one author wrote: "Enthusiasm and experience are seldom found in the same person!"
What remains a mystery to me is why store owners put up so long with salespeople who have a habitually poor attitude, especially with those Lawhon calls "the Losers in the Lounge." For nothing attacks the very soul of a company more insidiously than that cackle amidst the wheat; those habitual complainers who delight in finding fault with every aspect of their company. Theirs is a contagious disease that often contaminates the viscera, so to speak, even of some of the most positive salespeople.
How I wish it would be as feasible to deal with these grumblers as it was for Ulysses who according to Homer's epic poem, used his wooden staff to beat down upon the shoulders of Thersites, that everlasting grumbler in the ranks of the Greek soldiers.
Lately, I have come to the sad conclusion that in the case of the habitual grumblers, all the training and education tend not to change their attitude one jot. So habituated are they to see only the dark side of things, they are like the pessimist who when told by the optimist that this is the best possible world, replied: "I'm afraid you're right!"
In my unpublished novelette, "Alice in Furnitureland," I took aim at this seeming inability of grumblers to change. There in the episode which depicts how the Losers in the Lounge are punished in the Underworld, Alice, led by her guide Magic Marker, comes upon the losers who are housed in the most comfortable quarters in which they daily feast upon the most sumptuous tables. Alice remarks that she doesn't see how they are being punished. Magic Marker replies: "Oh, they're being punished all right. They still don't know how good they have it!"
My old fishing partner, now deceased, a man of little formal schooling but full of the wisdom of common sense, had the habit of chiding any grumbler he came upon with the words. "You'd complain even if they hanged you with a new rope."
I'd like to conclude this article with some simple advice to owners and managers who do the hiring. Pay close attention to all of the qualities you're looking for in a good salesperson, but use the very jeweler's eye when you're looking for those with a good attitude if you are to succeed in hiring gems. For it takes a jeweler's eye to discern the gems from those who pretend to be such in order to be hired. For in the words of one of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas: "Things are seldom what they seem; skim milk masquerades as cream." Make sure you hire the best.
Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at firstname.lastname@example.org.