Do You Really Need Talent to Succeed in Sales…or Can You Learn It?


You hear two stories from people in sales:

  1. I’m a natural salesperson – my biggest client is a group of Eskimos I sell igloos to every year
  2. Sales simply requires dedication and commitment for success

Our friends at Objective Management Group decided to put this to the test. They wanted to study how talented salespeople stack up versus determined, but unskilled, business people.

Here’s how the test was set up:

  • People at a certain OMG business partner were divided into 5 teams required to sell the same overpriced luxury product door-to-door in the same market over 3 days
  • The 5 teams were scored on various aptitudes
  • Team 1 had the best natural talent for sales
  • Team 2 scored the best in terms of desire and commitment
  • Teams 3-5 had similar scores to each other for sales talent and desire and commitment
  • Each team got exactly the same initial training (2 coaching sessions)

The results went like this:

  • Team 1, high on talent, sold at the best rate, but stopped selling the minute they made quota
  • Team 2, loaded with desire and commitment, made the most attempts (3x that of the next highest team), but sold at lower rates than Team 1
  • The team with the lowest desire and commitment score missed one of the initial coaching sessions

According to this case study, sales talent clearly plays a role in success. Desire and commitment also help, but sales people high in either of these qualities alone won’t necessarily be your best salespeople.

So, you want to hire those salespeople with an innate skill for sales and a high level of commitment (even that gets tricky to identify).

A Salesperson’s Ability to Learn Significantly Impacts Their Success

While OMG’s data supports the conclusion you do need natural talent to sell, they also say hard training helps people in sales become the best they can be.

One statistic from OMG that supports this comes from this post:

At the time, they had analyzed more than 400,000 salespeople. 99.5% of the top 5% (the best performers) were “trainable and coachable.” This was their second strongest trait, following closely behind a “strong desire for sales success.” 100% of the top 5% had a strong desire to succeed.

Now compare that to the bottom 5%. Of those, 0% were “trainable and coachable,” while 0%  had a “strong desire for sales success.”

That’s conclusive data! 

And Here’s the Big Catch…Most Companies Suck at Hiring the Best Salespeople!

For example, this post discusses research from Chuck Martin that shows the main factors managers consider when hiring:

  1. Likability
  2. Skills
  3. Track record
  4. Knowledge of their business
  5. Diversity

While these traits certainly play a role in predicting future success, they lack a critical component. Most managers do not know how to predict a particular candidate will succeed in their unique environment.

And they also don’t analyze what truly qualifies as “success.” For example, is a salesperson that doesn’t quit or get fired a successful hire?

What if they just barely meet or miss quota?

Don’t you want a whole sales team that consistently beats quota?

Conclusion: You Must Have a Natural Talent for Sales to Succeed, But Learning, and Many Other Characteristics Are Important Too

And this makes sense. After, all, if you’re not incredibly fast, agile, and tall, you can’t make it in the NBA or any other professional sport. No one can teach you those things – you must have a certain natural gift for that sport in the first place. From there, learning, training, coachability and many other factors (like these) make a big difference in your final success.

It works the same way in sales…why would sales be any different?