Don’t Hire Ugly Salespeople


Does Attractiveness Drive Sales Results?

Like it or not, the unequivocal answer is yes. Most of us are much more open to a sales message when the messenger is hot.

You know it’s true. Of course it’s better to be pretty or handsome if you are in sales. If you (like me) are among the legions of average looking people, and you had a choice to be exceptionally handsome or beautiful, would you turn it down? Of course not. Because being hot comes with many benefits. And one of those benefits is that people are more willing to listen to you. The hard truth is that they are actually more willing to believe and trust you. Although there is some research that seems to indicate it is possible to be too attractive. Apparently, if you are extraordinarily perfect, people find this to be somewhat suspicious. So we should all strive to be handsome and beautiful, just not too gorgeous.

This is more than just a personal perception. The issue has been recognized and studied for decades. Recently Cheryl Burke Jarvis, a marketing professor at the W. P. Carey School of Business, and two other academics decided to examine the link between attractiveness and sales performance. The team used research conducted by the W. P. Carey School’s Peter Reingen, a marketing professor, as the kickoff point for their own studies.

They found that buyers judged physically attractive salespeople to be more adept at selling. Buyers are more cordial to good-looking salespeople and buy more from them. People also donate more to attractive charity solicitors.

What are you looking at, Doctor?

Recently a research team focused on doctors’ perceptions of pharmaceutical salespeople, measuring the number of prescriptions written by the doctors based upon interactions with highly attractive salespeople vs. their average counterparts. The research team reports in a paper partially titled, “If Looks Could Sell.” The researchers felt that the frequent contact gives doctors enough familiarity with salespeople to assess several characteristics, including attractiveness.

Of course one would hope that doctors would make their prescription recommendations based upon the patient’s needs and the capabilities of the drugs being prescribed. But it turns out that the attractiveness of the salesperson has a significant impact on the Doctor’s prescription pattern.

The results were “a little scary,” Jarvis says. “Of all product categories, this is one that should not be influenced by a salesperson’s attractiveness, but it was.”

Pretty payback

To measure the doctors’ buying patterns, Jarvis and her colleagues evaluated how many new prescriptions each doctor wrote for one branded drug in a highly competitive drug category dominated by four major brands. During the three-month evaluation period, the average number of prescriptions written for this drug group was 342.

Nearly three-quarters of the doctors participating in the study were male, and the average number of years in practice was 16.3, making this sample representative of physicians prescribing the type of medication being evaluated. Each doctor answered a series of questions that allowed the researchers to evaluate how the physician felt about his or her detailers’ looks, communication ability, expertise, likeability and trustworthiness. Participating doctors expressed their views on these salesperson characteristics using a 7-point Likert scale, anchored by “strongly agree” on the high side, with “strongly disagree” earning a score of 1.

Did perceived good looks raise sales? Yes, they did. For each 1-unit increase in perceived attractiveness on the Likert scale — a move from a score of 5 to 6, for example — the salesperson’s share of product sold increased an average of 1.9 percent. These results held true regardless of the genders of physicians or their detailers. In fact, 68 percent of the doctor-detailer relationships were gender congruent: men working with men or women working with women, the researchers note.

Time made the effect of good looks among detailers less dramatic. Where the length of the relationship was “relatively short” — one standard deviation below the mean of 1.13 years — the market share changes by 2.94 percent for each 1-unit change in attractiveness rating; but when the length of relationship is “relatively long” — one standard deviation above the mean of 6.39 years — market share changes only 1.28 percent for each 1-unit change in attractiveness rating. In summary, the effect of salesperson attractiveness is significantly lower for longer relationships than it is for shorter relationships.

The researchers also uncovered some insight into why this occurs. Results indicated that physical attractiveness was correlated with perceptions of trustworthiness, likeability and communication skills. Jarvis calls these “mediating factors” because attractiveness itself isn’t what makes the doctors buy. Rather, it is these ancillary beliefs, which are affected by attractiveness, that open wallets and prescription pads.

Jarvis notes that her team may not have identified all the mediating factors that were operating. “We also found a direct effect — just the fact that salespeople were attractive had an impact,” she says. “What that means is that there may be something else out there affecting the relationship between attractiveness and performance that we weren’t testing.” The only factor that didn’t seem to affect sales performance was expertise, and Jarvis suspects this is linked to a belief among doctors that all the detailers have a high level of competence and knowledge.

At bottom, though, attractiveness was significant. The difference between a 4 and a 6 attractiveness rating could translate into 600 new prescriptions per month for a salesperson covering the typical 140-doctor territory, the team maintains. “Relative to the mean market share of 20 percent, the size of this effect is likely to cause sales managers to take notice,” their paper states.

Hire the hottie?

Despite the results of this study, Jarvis doesn’t advocate using looks to sway sales hiring practices. “The takeaway from this paper is not to go out and hire attractive sales people,” She says. “That’s imitable: it’s something other companies can copy. You’re not going to get an edge on the market by hiring more attractive sales people.”

Rather, she recommends sales managers learn from the mediation process operating and capitalize on it. Buyer perceptions of trustworthiness, likeability, and communication skills may have been affected by a salesperson’s looks, but such traits can be cultivated by anyone.

At the same time, Jarvis notes that her results point to the importance of longstanding buyer/seller alliances. “Sales managers need to be aware of the importance of maintaining relationships,” Jarvis says. “Reducing turnover” and “keeping salespeople with the same customers” are two moves she feels could “attenuate the effects of attractiveness.”

Jarvis said that although there is no legal protection against discrimination based on “lookism” at this time, the courts review cases concerning this issue from time to time and some level of protection for certain physical traits that involve appearance (such as obesity) may become case law eventually. For now the researchers recommend that managers stay knowledgeable about the legal, ethical and business implications of hiring based on appearance. “It’s sensitive and complex,” Jarvis said.

Bottom line:

  • Looks did make a difference for physicians responding to the attractiveness — or lack of it — among pharmaceutical salespeople.
  • Attractive salespeople were perceived to be more likeable, trustworthy and adept at communication than their plainer colleagues.
  • Sales were higher for attractive salespeople. Moving from an attractiveness rating of 4 to 5 on a Likert scale increased sales an average of 1.9 percent.
  • The effect of attractiveness on sales figures is significantly lower for longer relationships than it is for shorter relationships.

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