It's All in Their Heads


Why are some people better at sales than others? Marketing research infused with neuroscience shows it’s all in their heads.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — You've had the experience. You walk into a store, didn't plan to buy a single thing and, before you know it, a salesperson is chatting you up, suggesting purchases you never imagined. And there you are, loading up your trunk with stuff you never intended to buy. Driving home, you wonder: "How'd he do that?"

Or maybe this happened: You've been saving for weeks to buy some highly coveted item. You walk into the store and the salesperson ignores you – or worse, says the wrong thing and irritates you. Suddenly, you don't want that product after all. That jerk behind the counter ruined everything. You walk out, empty-handed.

How is it that some people can get you to buy anything—while others can't? Are certain folks born to be salespeople while others just don't have the gift? What, exactly, goes on inside the mind of a sales professional? Ross marketing professors Richard P. Bagozzi and Carolyn Yoon were part of a team that found some answers to that question. The study's other co-authors, from Erasmus University in the Netherlands, were researcher Roeland C. Dietvorst; Professor of Sales and Account Management Willem J.M.I Verbeke; Marion Smits, M.D.; and Aad van der Lugt, M.D., a professor of radiology.

The team developed a new scale for measuring the ability of salespeople to read, process, and act upon subtle cues of their customers, and validated it by using brain scans from functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. The study, one of the first to test the legitimacy of a new scale using insights from neuroscience, is detailed in the paper "A Salesforce Theory of Mind Scale," published in the Journal of Marketing Research in 2009.

"We found the areas of the brain that control these abilities are more active in salespeople who score higher on tests that measure those interpersonal skills than in those with lower scores," says Bagozzi, who also is a professor of social and administrative sciences in the College of Pharmacy.

It's an important area for business research because, as the authors note in the study, "The imperative for salespeople is to immerse themselves into the nuances of the customer's organization and pay special attention to subtle cues communicated by customers. In this way, salespeople can put themselves into the shoes of the members of the buying center and mentally simulate what customers indicate or say they want and why they want to buy."

Duke University Professor Joel Huber, editor of the Journal of Marketing Research, says the paper "raises the bar for thoughtful structural analysis of survey data and linking that to fMRI. It will have strong impact."

Out of Left Field

The study is the latest step in Bagozzi's ongoing research into the psychology of sales professionals. It was inspired by, of all things, autism research. People diagnosed with autism have trouble inferring the beliefs and desires of others, a process that occurs automatically in the non-autistic brain. Neuroscience has shown that areas of the brain that control these processes are not as active in those with autism.

"The ability we have to infer what the beliefs, desires, and needs are in other people happens for us naturally," says Bagozzi. "In autistic people, they're missing that information. I read that research and it was the inspiration for this whole study. Would this general principle work with non-autistic people?"

Bagozzi, Yoon, and their co-authors tailored tests for non-autistic people, and specifically for sales professionals. They wondered if the same principles used in autism research could be fine-tuned to distinguish sales professionals with better interpersonal skills from those with less ability.

They also wanted to see if the fMRI exam, given to salespeople subjected to audio stimuli, would reveal differences in the three areas of the brain that control what they call "interpersonal mentalizing." There was no guarantee the study would detect such fine differences.

"For us, this was a really risky thing," Bagozzi says, "because we know in studies that it's much easier comparing autistic people to non-autistic people and getting a difference in the experiments. In our case, we were comparing normals to normals, so we had no idea if it was going to work."

Do You Mind?

First, the researchers used the Theory of Mind -- the ability to read and act upon another's desires and beliefs -- as a base to develop a more specific Salesperson Theory of Mind, or SToM. They formulated a scale pulling together ideas from neuroscience, communication, and sales force studies.

Test results showed sales professionals exhibit different degrees of interpersonal mentalizing in four areas. Those dimensions were identified as building rapport, the ability to process non-verbal communication, taking a bird's eye view, and the ability to shape interactions with customers in a positive way. The next phase of the study showed that the four dimensions of the Salesperson Theory of Mind correlate significantly with job performance. Third, the researchers developed validity scales using statistical measures.Finally, salespeople who scored the highest and the lowest on the SToM scale were given fMRI scans while subjected to audio recordings of sales scenarios and questions. 

The authors had a hunch that salespeople who scored high on the scale would show greater activity in specific regions of the brain than those who scored lower on the scale. The hypothesis was largely confirmed.

"The fMRI machine for us is like a validation, proving that the scale is doing what we're claiming it's doing, as best as one can," Bagozzi says.

Nature or Nurture?

An open question is whether interpersonal mentalizing, much of which is automatic or subconscious, can be learned. The authors believe it can be. In a practical sense, the research can be useful to sales managers seeking to enhance performance in the field.

The "paper and pencil" tests developed in the study can be used to evaluate new hires, customize sales training, and aid in placing salespeople on certain accounts.

"There are some real implications here," Bagozzi says. "Take the ongoing management of the sales force and coaching them. A sales manager, a trainee, and a seasoned salesperson might record an interactive scenario. That videotape could be analyzed with a good analyst looking for the interpersonal mentalizing." Bagozzi also thinks the results should spark further research on the topic. "We really wanted to know what's going on in the minds of salespeople and decision makers," he says. "This is the first study, we hope, in an ongoing effort."


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