“Personality” assessments have been positioned as business tools for many years. From Myers-Briggs, to DiSC, to the briefly popular Colors, these supposedly help us better understand and communicate with others—including sell to them. Before covering why such tools are often counterproductive in selling, I want to address their unintended darker side.

Blinding with Science

People are often attracted to these tools because they’re based in science. The idea of using something scientific seems more powerful than relying on our personal skills. And yet, most of those who like the idea of using these science-packed tools have very little training in using them appropriately.

The good news is most people using these tools in business are not in position to hurt anyone other than themselves. Acting on the belief they’ve identified a prospect’s personality as “blue” is no more likely to hurt that prospect than supposing he’s a Libra. (And goodness knows we can easily identify those Libras, right?) Unfortunately, this limitation may not protect others from an even darker aspect to these tools.

Personality and Prejudice

These tools supposedly help us assess another person’s personality during even brief conversations; including how they think, make decisions, and their emotional state. The providers encourage us to believe we can know a lot about an individual based on what they say and how they say it.

In other words, these tools encourage us to make assumptions about people based on surface impressions—these tools encourage stereotyping.

Too harsh, you say? You think that doesn’t happen because these tools are meant to provide private insight for personal development?

The Self-Assessment Scam

It’s true these tools are often positioned as being for self-assessment, but that’s just the entry point. After completing their own test; managers, sales reps and others are taught to identify other individuals’ personality “types” or “indicators” and how to use that information.

In fact, when used in group settings, it’s common for managers to be given reports on each team member, but their own test results are not often shared with that team. Job candidates may be required to complete an assessment but they’re not given the results, much less told what DiSC type applies to the interviewer, or that being a Myers-Briggs INTJ is desirable.

Those common uses belie using these tools primarily for personal growth. So now let’s turn to why they don’t work well in sales.

Too Little Information

Let’s pretend these tools do what they say they do. The first reason these tools don’t work well in selling is because prospects aren’t taking the test!

Think about that. Barely-trained laypeople (sales reps) are supposed to be able to use hints to make the very same assessment the supposedly sophisticated tool does?

The second reason these tools don’t work well and can easily backfire is because they encourage sales reps to guess. Using these tools, sales reps are more likely to interpret what prospects say and do, when they should instead dig in with more questions if things aren’t clear.

For example: Instead of interpreting clues about how a prospect makes decisions, reps should ask, “Tell me about your decision process for things like this. What is it, and who is involved?” Which brings us to reasons three and four these tools don’t help us in sales.

A prospect’s behavior, word-choice, and apparent mood can be driven by things outside of the sales conversation, so using that to guess at how they think and make decisions is rolling the dice. Even when our typical sales conversations are lengthy, we’re still getting just a partial picture of our prospects.

What’s more, we’re often selling to more than one person. Having a sense of how one prospect makes decisions—or a sense of how each prospect makes decisions—isn’t enough. We need information about how they plan to make a decision as a whole.

It’s far more effective to ask questions than try to psych prospects out. As for doing both…

Too Much to Do

There’s a lot to do when selling. Remember which questions to ask, come up with more questions, have the courage to dig in, pay attention to the answers, understand how products and services can meet the prospect’s wants, needs, and interests, remember and manage a flow for the conversation, position benefits and value and get feedback, qualify, prevent objections and handle the rest, and identify and discuss appropriate next steps. These are the fundamentals.

Trying to use a personality tool means analyzing a prospect’s personality, and then shaping your own words and approach based on that analysis. Whether the tool works or not, doing both in real time requires tremendous focus and effort. This focus and effort is layered on top of handling the fundamentals.

People who have less sales experience, or feel uncomfortable with selling, have trouble handling all of the above. Faced with too much to do at once, they often skimp on the fundamentals (especially qualifying), which leads to less success with selling.

We can only handle so much at once. Applying sales fundamentals is far more effective than trying to get inside a prospect’s head.

Summary of Reasons Not to Use Personality “Tests” in Selling

The idea you can see past what a person says to more accurately perceive their thinking, motivations, and emotions should give you pause. This is no different from making assumptions based on what people wear, their body language, their apparent race, gender, and so on. I trust this is not how you want to conduct yourself, but we’re all human—don’t open the door for this too wide.

The most effective way to gather information is to ask questions. This includes asking more questions for clarification and/or to ask prospects to share more about their deeper thoughts and motivation.

Effectively applying sales fundamentals already requires a good deal of skill, focus, and effort. Layering something on top of this should not be done until you have the fundamentals down.

Use Mirroring Instead

Instead of trying to access your inner therapist while selling, use mirroring. Mirroring includes using a prospect’s body language (e.g., sitting back in your chair if she does) and matching their speaking pace (i.e., speaking as slowly or quickly as they do).

The basic and most powerful mirroring technique involves using a prospect’s words and phrases, which works very well when meeting in person, via video, and when speaking on the phone.

To use mirroring, make note of the words and phrases a prospect uses to describe their wants and needs and problems, in particular. And then use those same words and phrases:

  • In questions you ask to dig further into the issues
  • And as you position benefits and value

For example: Prospect mentions wanting to change the “end game.” You have no idea what the heck he means so you dig in with, “Walk me through the end game as it stands now.”

His reply illuminates what he’s looking for. When you later talk about how your services meet those wants and needs you say, “Here’s how we can help you change the end game…”

Using mirroring is quite effective. Mirroring is also relatively easy to layer onto the fundamentals; however, it’s still best to get those fundamentals down first.

When These Tools May be Useful

I have a degree in psychology, including training in personality assessments. If these tools truly helped us understand another person’s personality, I would acknowledge that. They do not. However, in the right situation, their precepts may shed light on someone’s typical communication style.

For these tools to be useful we must communicate with the individual many times over many days or months or years. We need this in order to spot trends in the person’s communication. We also need this to be able to experiment with what we say, to see how it helps (or not).

Ideally, the communication is in person because we and the other person pick up on more that way. Video call comes next, then phone. As for email: these tools do not work at all.

With the above in mind, these tools may help improve communication in the following situations:

  • In your personal life
  • In account management/customer service
  • To improve communication with your team, and vice versa. If you actually use a “test” for this, it’s vital to share your results with your team. If you want to improve communication among an entire team, results should be shared team-wide. (If there are concerns about any of this, that’s often a sign using a testing process is likely to hurt more than help.)
  • A tool may help when you typically have many sales conversations with prospects over extended periods of time. Do not add a tool unless and until you are skilled with sales fundamentals, and do not use the precepts in place of the fundamentals.
Personality versus Communication

Almost all of the tools out there use marketing that mentions communication and personality, which may make you wonder: what’s the diff?

Looking at how someone communicates keeps the focus on what they say, not why they said it.

Focusing on why attempts to get into another person’s head–their personality.

This is the last time I’ll harp on this point: trying to use these tools to assess personality is problematic. Fortunately, none of them actually do that. They use “personality” in marketing because it grabs more attention.

If You Go Shopping

If you decide to shop for training in one of these tools, look for a provider who (a) downplays or avoids the whole analyze-personalities-crap and (b) has the expertise to train on the complexities of communication, not an oversimplified version.

Please Note

No Libras were harmed in the making of this article, and I don’t actually know how to identify Libras or any other humans based on zodiac sign. (In case you’re curious, I’m a Leo.)