Is Your Sales Force Hot or Not?

29 May 2013


Hot or Not?

Each quarter the Sales Management Association publishes a scholarly research article from The Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, the most important academic journal wholly focused in sales. In the future, we plan on featuring these articles – and other academic research work – with content that “translates” research findings in a fashion more digestible to practitioners and our non-academic audience. Here’s our first attempt, on a topic we found irresistible (primarily because we had this Zoolander photo lying around).

We caught up to the authors of this quarter’s academic article, The Effects of Facial Attractiveness and Gender on Customer Evaluations During a Web-video Sales Encounter, for a brief interview on their experience with this research topic. Authors Rodd McColl and Yann Truong of ESC Rennes School of Business, Rennes, France answer questions, below, about how the Web-video interface represents a fundamental shift away from traditional selling atmospherics where the facial appearance of sales personnel replaces many traditional dimensions of service quality.

What prompted your interest in researching salespersons attractiveness

Many researchers around the world are studying how new technology impacts the way we do business. Our school, for example, has a center devoted to technology and innovation management – and within that center we have published many empirical studies using data provided by industries. This particular study was triggered by our observations of the growing use of video-chat systems such as Skype and Windows Live Messenger that are now frequently used in sales and to deliver after sales service. For example, Lands’ End and Home Depot offer live video-chat to demonstrate products and to provide after-sales support. Traditionally, salesperson attractiveness has been just one of many elements that can impact a sale; however anyone who has communicated via Skype is aware of how one’s focus can be drawn to a person’s facial characteristics, as well as how one can look slightly different on Skype versus in person. As such, in this study we wanted to see whether facial attractiveness could affect outcomes of a sales interaction.

How important is attractiveness in relation to other ways salespeople make an impression on customers

This is an excellent question. Obviously the most important elements of selling are what is actually said and how it is presented. These areas are what sales role-plays and negotiation training seek to address. However, non-verbal cues such as through body language, clothing, age, race, gender and physical attributes often communicate as much information as (if not more) verbal expression.

We are not aware of any studies that have attempted to evaluate the relative importance of all of these elements. Doing so would be difficult given the many different kinds of selling circumstances that exist. Instead, researchers generally try to isolate certain elements one at a time in a controlled experiment-like setting.

Even so, the old adage that says ‘your face is your fortune’ has been supported by scientific studies. In most walks of life, attractive people do better than those less attractive by societies standards. For instance, attractive people are more likely to be chosen as group members for teams, to receive a loan grant, and to be treated more positively during an employment selection process (and receive higher starting salaries due to the attractiveness factor). The reason is that we attribute personality traits to people based on their appearance. For example, most perceive individuals with attractive faces to be more dominant, sexually warm, mentally healthy and socially skilled than less attractive people. Mature faces infer traits of coldness, physical strength, shrewdness and cunningness, whereas most view baby-faced adults as warm, physically weak, naive, honest and submissive. Personality traits admired in salespeople such as competence, credibility, trustworthiness and confidence can be inferred on the basis of facial appearance. One potential drawback to attractiveness is that in some circumstances beauty can raise expectations of performance beyond a person’s true capabilities, yet for the most part research has shown attractiveness to be a considerable asset.

Your research focused on Web-based communication environments. Does that suggest implications for other selling modes

Comparing Web-based interactions with other selling modes would make an interesting study; however we would argue that in traditional selling, facial attractiveness is only one of several elements observed by a customer and that any initial impact (positive or negative) would evaporate over time. The findings from our study are therefore limited to Web-based interactions.

Making management decisions based on salesperson attractiveness seems fraught with peril! Has your research made it more or less so in your opinion
In the movie industry when sound was added to produce talking movies, many of the stars from silent movies didn’t make the transition because they had unusual voices that were unappealing to the public. The change to virtual communication within the last decade is so fundamental that old assumptions based on traditional sales interactions should be revisited.

What implications should management take away from this research? Based on what you have learned, what advice do you have for managers who are considering using attractiveness as a criteria component for making decisions

Our findings show that a salesperson’s facial attractiveness can affect a customer’s level of satisfaction with an after-sales experience, even more so when the gender is mismatched (e.g., male seller/female buyer or vice versa). It is very unlikely that we would have found these results in a face-to-face selling circumstance; there would be many other factors (e.g., personality traits) that would influence the sales outcome.
Consequently, sales managers should be aware of the different nature of Web-based interactions compared to face-to-face ones. When salespeople communicate using Web-camera technology, nonverbal elements such as the facial appearance of the salesperson play a more important role than in a typical face-to-face sales situation. However, rather than altering sales recruitment strategies to only consider fashion models, companies should invest in training sales staff to effectively leverage communicative technology. Facial appearance in using virtual communication tools can be affected by the angle of the camera, lighting, as well as the background behind the speaker. Managers should initiate video-interface sales training programs that take into account these and other factors, including the importance of voice characteristics and facial expressions. Having said that, of course it still doesn’t hurt to have a nice looking face that is pleasant on camera.

If you would like to read the published study, download it here.

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