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Is Likeability Overrated in Sales Hiring?

In a very interesting Harvard Business Review article – “Fool vs Jerk: Whom Would You Hire?” the authors studied how two criteria – competence and likeability – affect hiring decisions. In survey after survey, Hiring Managers chose competency over likeability. This preference didn’t hold up when the choice went from theoretical (survey) to the real world (actually working with competent jerks). To quote, “We found that if someone is strongly disliked, it’s almost irrelevant whether or not she is competent; people won’t want to work with her… if someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer.” In today’s blog, I’m going to share my own experiences with how “likeability” may be an overrated factor in B2B sales hiring.

In my 20 years of sales recruiting I’ve learned that likeability is highly correlated with hireability. The old adage “people buy from people they like” extends to sales hiring. Unfortunately, tracking our sales hires over time has shown me that likeability is far more positively correlated with hireability than with actual sales performance. With aggressive (hunter) roles, our experience has shown me that likeability is often negatively correlated with sales performance. Putting it another way, the best hunters aren’t always that likeable. Looking at likeability in bosses, I see a different dynamic at play. It’s very difficult to recruit sales reps out of a company if they love their boss. However, when it’s time to choose between two offers, the average sales rep usually chooses the best offer (instead of the likeable, potential boss). Hmmm…

Given a choice, all of us would love to work for a super likeable (and competent) boss or lead a team of super likeable (and competent) reps, if you’re the boss. The fools and the jerks? We could do without either. Complicating the matter, as B2B sales professionals, our pay is linked to competence (actually selling stuff) causing us to tolerate the jerks more than the fools. My own experience with getting likeability right starts by considering the type of sales role and the amount of contact you will have with your potential rep or boss. To be clear, we’re going to avoid the total jerks and total fools.

Some roles simply require a high degree of likeability. Think of a dedicated Account Manager that works very closely with your company’s largest account. Your AM’s likeability may be the only factor that saves the day after your delivery team drops the ball for the 3rd time. On the other end of the spectrum is our high-activity, transactional hunter. The rep needs to get in, close and move on. Fearlessness, confidence and raw work ethic are far more important qualities than likeability. In fact, a high percentage of the successful, transactional hunters I’ve met are edgy, restless and motivated by the kill. Not exactly likeable qualities. Likeability then can be a factor that you look for in the “Can Do” part of sales vetting as explained in our eBook on Hiring Top Sales Performers. Below is my rough guide to likeability in sales hiring for different types of sales roles and working environments.

When Likeability in Sales Hiring is Important:

  • Account Management (retention)
  • Broker / Channel Managers (relationship driven sale)
  • High Touch / Ongoing Customer Relationships
  • Collaborative / Team Sale
  • Office environment = High touch between rep, manager and teammates

When Likeability in Sales Hiring is Less Important

  • 1-2 calls to Close
  • High-Activity Prospecting
  • Lone Wolf or Remote Role = Low touch between the rep and manager

I’ve blogged extensively on the topic of spotting under performers (incompetent fools).  In an upcoming blog, I’ll tackle how to avoid hiring or working for a total jerk.

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Chris Carlson

My name is Chris Carlson and I’m the founder and President of Sales Talent. This blog grew out of my desire to document and share what I’ve learned in my two plus decades of sales recruiting and leading Sales Talent. Our posts are aimed at sales professionals and leaders that speaks to talent selection, team building, or career advancement. If you have a topic that you’d like my take on, please reach out to me.

You can find Chris Carlson on LinkedIn or contact him directly at:
[email protected].