The professional field of sales is sometimes viewed as a cutthroat world where only the most driven, and arguably ruthless, survive – Darwinism in a suit and tie setting. But anyone with on-the-job experience can tell you that sales aren’t about being the fiercest, the strongest, or the most persuasive. Often, in fact, it’s about being quite the opposite.
Emotional intelligence. It may sound like hippy dippy fluff, but it is, in fact, a key skill that the finest salespeople work hard at developing – and it may hold the key to your long-term success in the field.
To understand emotional intelligence (or emotional quotient/EQ, as it’s otherwise known) and the role it plays in sales, we spoke to some of Australia’s leading tech sales professionals, and heard how they’ve used emotional intelligence to evolve and excel in their careers, how they’ve honed their skill set, and how they identify EQ in sales up-and-comers.
So, without further ado, let’s learn all that a sales professional, whether they’re selling face-to-face, remotely, B2B or B2C, need to know about emotional intelligence.
What is emotional intelligence, and why is it important in sales?
First thing’s first – what is emotional intelligence? In short, it’s the ability to recognise, understand and manage both your own emotions and the emotions of others. An often-cited emotional intelligence definition was outlined by Daniel Goleman in the 1990s and sees it grouped into five main competencies.
- Self-awareness: The ability to detect, identify and understand your own emotions and their potential impact on other people.
- Self-regulation: The ability to emotionally adapt to changing situations, and control your feelings and impulses in order to prevent disrupting and negatively affecting other people.
- Socialisation: The ability to build rapport and maintain meaningful connections with other people.
- Empathy: The ability to determine and appropriately respond to other people’s emotions.
- Motivation: A person’s drive, will, morale, or enthusiasm to take on or complete work.
In a professional setting, emotional intelligence allows a person to use emotions as a tool to achieve a goal. EQ plays a key role in understanding needs, identifying pain points, motivating action and achieving a result.
Arguably no role in modern business is as reliant on EQ as sales. “Emotional intelligence is super important when dealing with potential customers,” says Ben Major, Head of Sales at OpenAgent. “A compelling product or sales pitch is usually not enough – customers want to buy from people who understand them and their needs. Emotional intelligence gives salespeople a better chance at understanding the customer and building trust and rapport with them.”
“Some people ooze aspiration and ambition. They’re driven by a sense of purpose beyond just ‘smashing a target’. They talk about the difference they make – to their customers, to their organisation, to their community. They believe in what they’ve done and what they can do, and they’re genuinely excited about what they can help others achieve.”
“When hiring sales reps it can be dangerous to focus solely on what has been considered typical sales traits like hunger, ambition, confidence, and a win-at-all-costs attitude. Honing in on just these ‘alpha’ traits, which can imply on a surface level quick wins and ramp time, may have a cumulative negative effect on the wider team and business if personal success is the primary driver. Too many managers focus on the short term at the detriment of the long term.”
EQ & adaptive selling
In the past – particularly in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s – the ‘hard sell’ was in vogue. The intent was to put pressure on a buyer to force a purchase decision, essentially bullying a customer into a sale. Thankfully, as our understanding of the role of EQ in sales has developed, the greed is good world of Gordon Gecko has largely been left behind (in tech sales, at least). The focus is now on adaptive selling.
Adaptive selling can be defined as ‘a complex process that emphasises customised solutions to fit each buyer.’ It’s the process of monitoring both your own emotions and those of the customer, and adapting your behaviour to suit the situation, customising solutions to fit the customer’s needs.
While the skill set demanded by adaptive selling is broad, the investment of time and money in developing this ability is more than worth it. A number of studies have found that adaptive selling behaviours are key in turning a salesperson’s emotional intelligence into sales performance.
Major from OpenAgent agrees, identifying empathy and self-awareness as the keys to adaptive selling. “You have a much better chance of matching a product to the customer’s needs if you can see the world through their eyes, and it’s much easier to adapt your style to suit the person you are speaking to if you have a good awareness of your own thoughts/feelings/preferences/biases.”
Harrison Deck, Head of Sales and Marketing at contactSPACE, also notes that effective selling in the modern era comes down to authenticity: “Being authentic is crucial. Whether it’s a customer or colleague you’re interacting with, it’s going to be difficult to build relationships if you’re abrasive, impatient or indifferent. People tend to like dealing with people that can relate to them.”
Emotional intelligence and leadership in sales
Daniel Goleman – coiner of the five competencies of emotional intelligence – was the man who really brought the idea of EQ into the business world. His research found that a slightly above average intelligence – one standard deviation above the norm, or an IQ of 115 – was all that was required to master the technical knowledge needed to be a lawyer, doctor or high-flying business executive. What, he then wondered, is the difference between those that make it to the top of their chosen profession, and those that don’t?
The answer, it turns out, is emotional intelligence. Where the intelligence and technical ability of two professionals is the same, EQ accounts for around 90% of what moves people up the ladder. To become a leader in any field, not just sales, you’ll need above-average levels of EQ and teamwork skills. This is understandable, as the higher you climb, the more people you’ll have under you, and the more collaborative your role will usually become.
“As a sales leader I spend a lot of my time working out what motivates my sales consultants,” Major confirms. “People are motivated by different things, and if you can help them understand the connection between the things that motivate them and the work they are doing, they will be a lot more fulfilled.” Sales success is simply a happy by-product of this fulfilment.
How to hone a high EQ
So EQ is not just key to modern sales, but to getting to the top of any professional field – but how does one develop their emotional intelligence?
Kahler feels the key to becoming a high-EQ sales leader is to learn from high-EQ sales leaders. “Find a manager who is invested in your development. Your first role in sales is going to be tough, and you need all the help you can get. I’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of sales professionals entering their very first sales role, and I treat it with the utmost responsibility. Find a manager who will ensure [your first experience] is as positive as possible.”
When asked how to improve emotional intelligence, Dane Cowley, Growth Team Leader at OpenAgent, says that on the job experience is vital. He explains that asking a manager or skilled team member to help you review different sales calls from your day will help you to understand the emotions that were at play, when they arose and what you did to navigate the situation. As you collect a library of experiences, you’ll become better at identifying the emotions, knowing when they might arise, and understanding how best to deal with them.
Other ways to up your emotional intelligence, as described by Colleen Stanley, author of Emotional Intelligence for Sales Success, include:
- Set aside downtime: Take time out to clear your head, whether with meditation or less structured relaxation. A sound mind is the foundation of solid emotional intelligence.
- Cultivate empathy: Get in the habit of putting yourself in the shoes of your customers to see things from their perspective. This will allow you to prepare for the likely conversations you’ll be having with them in the future.
- Delay gratification: Chasing quick and easy sales will have negative long-term effects on both your customers and your career. The most emotionally intelligent salespeople understand that success is earned, and will put in hard work now, knowing it may not pay off for years.
- Know yourself: What gets you frustrated? What motivates you? Which tasks do you dread, and which do you love? Knowing yourself is perhaps the single most important skill in EQ. You need to know the situations that trigger you and have a plan to react professionally when they arise. You should also learn how to use the things you love as incentives to do the things you dread.
Emotional intelligence is one of the most important soft skills. But while EQ can be acquired, this can’t be done by simply picking up a book or listening to a lecture. Rather, cultivating EQ demands serious investment, and requires both lived experience and dedicated after-hours development.