Over the years, chief executive officers and sales managers have asked me what characteristics they should look for in identifying potential top-performing sales staff. Recent research has reinforced my views on the top five:

1. Visible trustworthiness

Trust is top of mind for customers since the global financial crisis exposed many top companies’ ethics as seriously deficient.

It is not good enough, however, just to be trustworthy. You need to demonstrate it as part of your first impression.

Mr Steve W. Martin, who teaches sales strategy at USC Marshall School of Business, surveyed the personality traits of top performing sales staff and he found that 91 per cent of them had medium to high scores in modesty and humility.

And, remember, this is in America, which — unfairly or not — is credited with creating the egotistical, fast-talking, in-your-face sales staff.

The salesman who is successful in the long term has rock-solid ethics which guide all his dealings. This gives him a reputation that creates genuine client loyalty and allows him to push the boundaries in a competitive world without ever crossing the line.

2. Happiness

Like psychologist Shawn Achor showed in his recent book The Happiness Advantage, sales staff are not so much happy because they are successful as they are successful because they are happy.

Happy people are nicer to be around, and so, you would expect them to sell more. But it is more than that. A top salesman’s fundamental happiness gives him a “high bounce factor” — he bounces back better after failure or rejection.

3. Curiosity

Once a salesman loses curiosity, you know his best is behind him.

Curiosity is what creates the contagious enthusiasm that can easily sour into toxic cynicism.

Curiosity causes people to venture beyond the comfort zone. It allows people to see the bewildering array of new technology in products and ways of connecting with clients as opportunities not threats.

Curiosity keeps people young. Once you lose your sense of wonder, you lose the ability to “wow” a customer.

4. Strategic thinking 

Top sales staff saw beyond the features — even the benefits — and realised that there were more important factors likely to influence the sale.

One of these was the systemic fit. Most people operate in a system that is so powerful that any new addition must fit into it.

Now, this seems obvious in a business environment, but it is just as relevant in the personal sphere.

Years ago, I used to train sales staff who sold up-market sound equipment. Mostly, this involved selling to couples as it was a significant investment. 

When it came to the largest, most expensive part of the system — the speakers — the salesman is tempted to talk (mostly to the male customer) about the quality of the sound. 

I advised against this, suggesting that the effort should go into checking (generally with the female) that the speakers came in a finish that was compatible with the existing décor.

No matter how good the speakers sound, if they do not fit into the decor, the purchase will never happen.

Smart sales employees realise that what will derail their sale will often have nothing to do with them, their company, product or price, but with some other factor. 

I have lost sales to transfers, inter-departmental rivalry, divorce and long-standing personal vendettas.

5. Not as friendly as most

This is counter-intuitive because you would expect the friendliest salesman to attract and retain the most customers. Yet it makes sense when you realise what is every sales manager’s constant burden: most sales staff would rather spend time with the clients they like rather than those with most potential.

Mr Martin’s research showed that top sales staff were, on average, less gregarious than the other sales staff. Of course they are friendly, but they do not fall into the trap that many sales staff do of trying to become the client’s  “best friend”, compromising their influence and leaving themselves open to manipulative clients.