The traditional response to the need to improve sales performance is to reach for training in skills and techniques: “My sales people need help in solution selling / story-telling / consultative selling.” (Delete as applicable). Until recently, this was all that’s been available and while there is nothing wrong with these techniques, research from psychologists such as Martin Seligman and Angela Lee Duckworth includes firm evidence that success in selling is predicted by mental toughness i.e. focus, resilience and the ability to remain motivated in the face of adversity. Without this, new techniques and skills will not be consistently applied. As G.K. Chesterton said: “It’s not that it’s been tried and found wanting; it’s that it’s been found difficult and not tried. He was referring to Christianity but he could well have had sales training in mind.
If a sales team lacks mental toughness, this does not mean that people are curled up in a foetal ball under their desks, sobbing quietly. The lack of mental toughness manifests itself more subtly. As a psychologist with four years experience of developing mental toughness in sales people, I’ve come to recognise the signs. Here they are:
One: Prospecting levels are inadequate
A healthy sales pipeline needs new opportunities to be fed into the top of the hopper. This is equally true of a senior account director with one major customer as it is of a desk sales agent making outbound telephone calls. It is the part of the sales process most associated with negativity, be it outright rejection or – worse still – simply being ignored. Where mental toughness is lacking, sales people will do too little of this, often displaying avoidant behaviour (see Two).
Two: Sales people succumb to displacement activity
This is sometimes known as “Busy Fools Syndrome”. The fact is, we’ve yet to come across a sales team that isn’t busy. The problem exists where sales people busy themselves in unproductive activity such as immersing themselves in, say, a billing dispute when someone else in the organisation is paid to resolve such issues. Displacement activity manifests itself in a number of ways including excessive desk research into customers or prospects, becoming absorbed in one’s email inbox, writing poorly qualified proposals (see Four) and – I hesitate to say it – even reading LinkedIn posts. Ultimately, this is often avoidance driven by lack of mental toughness.
Three: Sales people settle for the immediate sales opportunity without exploring the breadth of the customer’s needs
Psychologists call this the inability to delay gratification. When Walter Mischel conducted an experiment with small children in the 1970s, he offered them the choice between eating one marshmallow straight away or waiting ten minutes in order to receive a second. Only one third of children were able to delay gratification and these went on over subsequent decades to outperform their peers in a host of measures including academic performance and income. Sales people low in mental toughness will grasp at the immediate opportunity – often a simple, transactional sale – and not take a step back to question the customers about their broader needs.
Four: Sales forecasts are inflated
Even where sales people have been trained rigorously in qualification techniques, without mental toughness, they are too often unwilling to ask the direct questions about, say, budget or authority that will lead to an opportunity being forecast correctly. Similarly, the desire for instant gratification means that the offer of writing a proposal is made too readily leading to fruitless time and effort in a poorly qualified opportunity (see Two: Displacement Activity).
Five: Sales people become demotivated by operational or delivery issues
As transactional sales increasingly move online, sales people are required to stitch together complex solutions, particularly in technology businesses. This means that part of the sales process is ensuring that operational colleagues deliver the solution seamlessly to the customer. Resilient sales people accept that this complexity brings with it the occasional operational wrinkle and invest some of their time in corralling internal resources to fix the resulting issues. Those lacking mental toughness project their negativity on to service and delivery issues to the point where they almost convince themselves that it is futile to sell anything.
Where some or all of these issues exist, offering training in sales skills and techniques is a little like offering a cough sweet to someone with a lung infection. The causal problem is lack of mental toughness; sales is a tough business and even experienced sales people will, from time to time, experience a dip in their mental toughness. The good news is that, with the right development, this can be lifted.Read More
Forecasting accuracy is less, in our view, about skills and techniques and more about mental toughness. Read more on our blog piece for Sales Initiative.Read More
In our latest contribution to Sales Intitiative’s online series on motivation, we look at why hearing nothing back can be more delmoralising to sales people than an outright no. Read the piece here.Read More
Sales Initiative Magazine has published a small piece from us here as part of their weekly motivation series for sales professionals.Read More
Those that have viewed Joachim de Posada’s TedX talk in our workshops will have enjoyed his recreation of Walter Mischel’s experiment with Colombian school-children.
The ability to delay gratification is particularly important in the selling process, whether it’s resisting the temptation to offer a proposal before qualifying or agreeing to a small bit of business when the right answer is to hold out for a larger piece of work. Delaying gratification is also important in sustaining focus in the midst of information abundance. Ed Batista lays it out nicely in this HBR blog.Read More
I recently attended a sales conference during which a speaker recommended gorilla-style dominant posturing in front of the mirror before a sales meeting in order to get testosterone flowing. This reminded me of Steve Coogan’s memorable 1990s comic creation salesman Gareth Cheeseman who would shout “You’re a tiger!” at his reflection in the mirror.
While a lot of motivational speakers advocate this type of pumping up – and while it may work for some people – the science suggests that it doesn’t work, particularly for those that need it most. I recently came across a paper published in Psychological Science by Joanne Wood, Elaine Perumovic and John Lee with the pithy title: “Positive Statements. Power for Some, Peril for Others. I won’t attempt to summarise the paper but it found positive self-statements helped improve self-esteem to a limited agree for those for whom it was already high. For those with low self-esteem, positive self-statements made things worse.
Shouting at yourself in the mirror is ultimately empty positive thinking. It can indeed make things work because if what you tell yourself contradicts your beliefs, your “inner chimp” (to use Steve Peters’s language) leaps on the disconnect and starts shouting back. What’s needed instead is a science-based approach and fortunately, these are available in the form of learned optimism and Acceptance & Commitment Training or ACT.Read More
So sales people aren’t coin-operated after all. This post from last week on forbes.com speaks to the point we often make in workshops that motivating sales people is so often exclusively around payplan, bonus etc. as if they are 100% coin-operated. Dan Pink in his book Drive speaks of purpose, mastery and autonomy being the source of motivation in cognitively complex jobs but this is the first thing I’ve read specifically about selling.
Last night I finished reading Mindwise by Nicholas Epley which features this quote from Infinite Jest as a chapter heading (I read Wallace’s book last year and must have missed that one – it’s over 1,000 pages long so be warned).
When we work with both professional services people and full-time sales people, we observe an “internal” explanation for prospects ignoring voice-mails and emails. The belief that the prospect has no regard for the sales person can damage confidence with the result that we often see of reduced prospecting activity and displacement activity.
For sure, there are occasions when the prospect would rather you went away and can’t bring themselves to say so. The more likely explanation is that they are so remorselessly busy that they either forgot or failed to even notice your contact. Persist – there is a chance they will even thank you for it.Read More
Nicholas Epley on why getting inside someone else’s head is so difficult… Many sales people we meet have at some point been exposed to skills and techniques that purport to get inside the head of the customer. These include NLP and various profiling tools that claim some basis in neuroscience. The FT have recently posted a series of 2008 videos by Nicholas Epley whose new book Mindwise has just come out. The middle video is worth watching as a summary of the biases we have in seeing the world from someone else’s viewpoint. The fact is, there is no shortcut!Read More
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