The Key Quality of Great Salespeople

If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know that I value “good thinkers” over “good talkers” when trying to predict whether someone can be a great salesperson.  This time, I’d like to examine one particular aspect of “good thinking.”  I’ve worked with literally thousands of salespeople in one capacity or another in my career.  Many have been good, few have really ascended to greatness.  For those who did, it seemed that there was one common trait that separated them from the “good” salespeople.

That trait is:  intellectual curiosity.  I define “intellectual curiosity” as “the need to continually gain knowledge, identify problems, and solve them.”  The good salespeople acquire new knowledge (training, questioning, researching, etc.) because it’s part of their job, and they have disciplined themselves to do so.  That’s okay.  We can make a lot of money with these salespeople.  The truly great salespeople, however, acquire new knowledge because it’s as essential to their character as breathing.  In sales, intellectual curiosity brings with it several beneficial activities.  “Curious” salespeople are driven to:

  1. *  Continually train and learn their jobs:  Sales is not a static activity; what it means to be a competent salesperson has changed radically over the last fifty years.  New techniques, new ideas, and new thoughts have made obsolete the old “slap the back, shake the hand, and tell your story” salesperson from most industries.  Those that are still around hang on by a thread.  The intellectually curious salesperson continually seeks out sales knowledge on his/her own and applies it.  The non-curious salesperson gets left in the dust.
  2. *  Continually learn more about their customers:  Product knowledge used to be king.  As I explain in my book, “Sell Like You Mean It!”, customer knowledge is now king.  The intellectually curious salesperson uses their time with the customer to continually discover more information about the customer’s present and (more importantly) future needs.  That knowledge helps you to position yourself as the customer’s long term solution.
  3. *  Ask good selling questions:  Most salespeople ask narrowly structured questions designed to lead the customer toward a purchasing decision.  They may get an order here and there, but by keeping the focus of the sales call narrow, they likely miss opportunities to penetrate new areas, anticipate future needs, and build real lasting customer relationships.
  4. *  Listen:  This is simple.  Too many salespeople treat the customer’s speaking time as an opportunity to plan their next selling tactic, rather than as an opportunity to learn.  When customers are speaking, words are coming out.  Those words tend to be important, and the curious salesperson wants to hear what their customer has to say.
  5. *  Seek opportunities to move beyond their contact’s office:  One of the great joys (for me) of industrial sales used to be the opportunity to tour different manufacturing plants.  I enjoyed seeing how things were made (I’m mechanically inclined), and I also liked seeing our products perform in a live environment.  Many times, I was able to solve problems on the plant floor that I’d have never discovered in my prospect’s office.  The intellectually curious salesperson seeks every opportunity to see their customers’ work being done, with an eye toward helping them improve their work.
  6. *  Have new ideas for their own company and their customers:  Ideas are the currency of today’s business environment, and the curious salesperson uses new ideas to benefit themselves, their employer, and their customers.  They are able to do so because they consume information from a variety of sources (again, because they want to).  By consuming information, they can then provide ideas, referrals, etc. that help everyone within their sphere of business.

In short, the non-curious salesperson views the sales conversation as a narrow sphere focused entirely upon their “stuff” – the products and services that they sell, and they restrict discussion to that narrow sphere.  Problems that can’t be directly addressed by their “stuff” will go ignored.  The curious salesperson wants to know as much as possible about the factors that cause their customers to succeed or not to succeed – then they use their knowledge to benefit their customers, either by selling their own stuff or by referring them to other sources of help.  I don’t have to tell you which approach builds stronger relationships.

Here’s the paradox:  Many salespeople have their intellectual curiosity stifled by training that is overly product-centered and heavily scripted.  By doing that, companies and trainers deny their salespeople the opportunity to become GREAT.  What would you rather have (or be)?

Troy Harrison
About the Author
Troy Harrison is “The Sales Navigator,” helping companies improve their bottom line by building better sales forces. He is the author of Sell Like You Mean It! Also, both hiring and coaching are well covered in his Unconventional Guide to Sales Management audio course For information on booking speaking/training engagements, consulting, or to sign up for his weekly E-zine, call 913-645-3603, e-mail, or visit