Beauty and the Sales Commission: Looks Can Boost Performance

May 10, 2006

You wouldn't expect to see a scrawny, spectacled, beak-nosed Chippendale dancer any more than you'd expect Hooters to hire an obese waitress. But, surely, looks don't matter for the highly educated and trained sales professionals that pharmaceutical companies send to doctors' offices. Or do they?


As it turns out, research shows that looks do make a difference, even when the salesperson is selling something as serious as medication to someone as scientifically-minded as a physician. Perceived trustworthiness, communication ability and likeability also come into play.



Attractive advantage


The power of a pretty face has been recognized and studied for decades. "We've all seen the TV news magazines where they put an attractive girl and a homely one out on the road beside a car with a flat tire," recalls Cheryl Burke Jarvis, a marketing professor at the W. P. Carey School of Business.  "Who gets the help?" she asks.


When ABC's "20/20" ran an experiment along those lines, only a few people stopped to help the plain Jane who had run out of gas -- and all they gave her were directions to the nearest gas station. For the girl who looked like a supermodel, more than a dozen cars stopped, and half a dozen drivers actually went out of their way to fetch fuel.


The bias toward beauty holds up in many contexts, Jarvis says, adding that "lookism," or discrimination based on appearance, has been found to affect sales performance, hiring decisions, jury judgments and more.


It was sales performance that Jarvis and two other academics decided to examine, and 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. Reingen, writing with co-investigator Jerome Kernan of George Mason University, found that buyers judged physically attractive salespeople to be more adept at selling. In his experiments, buyers were more cordial to good-looking salespeople, bought more from the lookers than the average Joes, and donated more to attractive charity solicitors than to those less physically favored.


What Reingen hadn't examined was when attractiveness made the difference, how did it work its magic and what might moderate the clout of comeliness. Jarvis joined forces with Michael Ahearne at the University of Houston and Thomas Gruen of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to answer those questions.



Just what the doctor ordered


The research team focused on doctors' perceptions of pharmaceutical salespeople --known as "detailers" in the industry -- and measured the number of prescriptions written by the doctors under scrutiny. They chose this audience for several reasons: First, every physician has a unique identification number assigned by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, so the prescriptions each doctor writes are easy to track. Second, doctors generally have longstanding relationships with their detailers. "Company records indicate that, on average, the representative calls on the physician approximately 26 times per year," the 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.


What's more, the team thought doctors might assess medications they were prescribing with objectivity every bit as pristine as a freshly laundered lab coat. An expert audience choosing a high-risk product should be highly motivated to process and evaluate marketing information, relying on product factors rather than irrelevant message cues such as the attractiveness of the salesperson, the team maintains. This reasoning explains why the team felt physicians would present a strong test of how significantly salesperson looks affect buyer behavior.


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.