A client called recently with a major worry. “We have a big problem with our customer service representatives not getting along with our salespeople,” she said, explaining that the company’s CSRs were not being supportive of the newly hired sales associates. “If our company is to survive, we need these new sales associates to be motivated and productive, and I’m worried they may quit. Can you do anything to help?”

Ah yes, the old customer service vs. sales professional smackdown—a frequent source of headaches for many business owners. So why does it happen and how can it be resolved?  

The simple answer to why these breakdowns occur relates to behavioral style. Behavioral styles are the natural ways that individuals process information, make decisions, solve problems and relate to one another. We all have behavioral preferences and there is no such thing as a “right” or “wrong” style. That said, certain styles do have competing preferences and, unfortunately for my client and others like her, clashes in behavioral style—particularly between sales and customer service professionals—are common and can be detrimental. 

One tool for assessing personal behavioral preferences is the DISC assessment. It is the brainchild of William Moulton Marston, an American psychologist and comic book writer who created the Wonder Woman character, and who also created an early prototype of the lie detector test. Fascinated with the way our personalities affect workplace performance, in 1923 he developed an inventory of personal behaviors and classified these behaviors into four basic categories: Dominant (problem solvers), Influencer (people oriented), Supporter (team players), and Controller (process oriented)—hence the acronym DISC.  

Seventy-five percent of successful sales professionals are either highly Dominant, Influencers or some combination of the two, according to Target Training International, Inc. (a company that has developed a commonly-used DISC assessment). These behavioral preferences make them wonderful at what they do—they are friendly, establish relationships easily and are confident, enthusiastic, articulate and strategic. They are also competitive, extroverted, have a high sense of urgency and are able to handle adversity with optimism. This makes them natural-born sellers. They also are not detail oriented, and require frequent change and personal interaction to be happy.  

On the other hand, most CSRs are natural Supporters and Controllers, opposites of the Dominant and Influencer types. CSRs are organized, structured and methodical. They are logical thinkers, detail oriented, good listeners by nature and are very private. They don’t like change, are introverted, have a low sense of urgency and need time to process information and make decisions. They are the ones that get things done.  

And this is where the conflict arises. While the sales professional has a high sense of urgency and is willing to take risks, the customer service representative is committed to processing all that is on his or her plate in an orderly fashion. The CSR is naturally risk averse and is made uncomfortable by the fast-acting, fast-talking sales professional.

Despite these differences, the two rely upon each other. Without the vitality, confidence and energy of the sales professional, there are no orders and revenue. And without the CSR’s eye for detail and commitment to process, sales professionals would be forced to execute their own orders—something they are behaviorally ill-equipped to do.  

Fortunately, there are some things business owners can do to help bridge these differences and ensure their teams function well: 

1.  Understand style. Most conflicts that exist between salespeople and CSRs relate to behavioral preference, not personal animosity. The CSR’s lack of urgency isn’t because he or she doesn’t care, nor is the sales professional’s “dump and run” an act of disrespect. Instead, each is simply hardwired to be this way. By understanding these traits about each other, your team can begin to appreciate both the differences and strengths that each behavioral type brings to the company.  

2.  Appreciate differences. I have yet to meet a CSR who would be happy prospecting for new clients. Likewise, few sales professionals would be fulfilled by the detail work required of the CSR position. Try to change the dialogue from conflict to appreciation. When sales and CSR teams have opportunities to express their appreciation of each other, it leads to deeper recognition and improved morale.

3.  Learn to flex. Encourage your teams to flex to accommodate each other’s style. How can your CSR accommodate the sales professional’s difficulty with details? How can sales people accommodate your CSR’s seemingly low sense of urgency? They can’t change each other (despite their greatest efforts), so they should learn to accommodate each other.   

4.  Repeat steps 1-3. Don’t make conversations about behavioral style a one-time occurrence. Use them every time important conversations occur—either in conflict or in celebration.  

Understanding style is a powerful management tool. With a better appreciation of behavioral strengths, weaknesses and differences, your sales and customer service teams will experience improved communication and increased productivity.


Q&A With  Claudia St. John

Q  We are rolling out a new performance management program. Is there one that you prefer?

A While I don’t have a specific program to recommend, I confess that I remain underwhelmed with the vast majority of them. The annual process of setting goals and then reviewing accomplishments 12 months later is fraught with challenges. Annual conversations are hardly sufficient to truly manage performance. Often the goals change throughout the year, but the performance goals usually don’t, meaning that employees are evaluated based on out-of-date criteria. And there is always the problem of forgetting about the accomplishments or failures early in the 12-month period and putting added weight on the performance in the months and weeks leading up to the annual review.

Instead, I prefer quarterly goals that require ongoing feedback and communication. And if you want to tie performance to some sort of incentive pay, be sure that:

  • The criteria upon which the incentive pay is based are transparent and understood by the employee
  • The employee legitimately has the ability to affect results
  • The incentives are aligned to the employee’s unique motivators
  • The program is easy to administer
  • The financial incentive is meaningful

Q  We have always verified a candidate’s previous salary history early on in the hiring process by asking for a copy of a pay stub or the candidate’s previous year’s tax filing. Is there any problem with that practice?

We don’t recommend this practice. First, a pay stub and/or tax return contains revealing information that an employer shouldn’t have pre-hire, such as age, number of dependents, marital status, social security number, garnishments, miscellaneous deductions on pay stubs, other deductions on taxes (think medical costs, child care, etc.). Obtaining this information post-hire is acceptable but not pre-hire.  

In addition, a few cities and states have moved to prohibit employers from asking for previous salary information altogether and even more prohibit asking for W-2s and tax returns. The main reason for these laws is for equal pay reasons. People (primarily women) who were underpaid at previous jobs cannot find pay equality if future employers know what they made before and base their offer on that information. Asking for salary history perpetuates inequitable pay.

Instead, we recommend companies focus on what they want to pay for the position and make sure they offer the same regardless of sex, age, etc.  


Claudia St. John is president of Affinity HR Group, Inc., PPAI’s affiliated human resources partner. Affinity HR Group specializes in providing human resources assistance to associations such as PPAI and their member companies. Learn more at www.affinityhrgroup.com.