You may already be thinking about the outlook for your sales this year. If you’ve been reading the paper or watching the news, one thing is for sure. This year will be at least as tight as last year, maybe tighter when it comes to your customer’s technology budgets. So, what’s your plan? What will you do differently this year to grow your business and compete more effectively for limited dollars available to purchase your products and services?
One strategy is to sell higher. Deep cuts in spending budgets may have forced more buying decisions to the executive office of your customers. But selling to senior-level executives can be intimidating to a lot of sales people. That’s why now is the ideal time to turn your attention to this two-part feature about a critical matter that is only recently being addressed– emotional barriers that slow you down and constrain your ability to take action. It’s the psychology behind catapulting your sales this year.
In this first of two special features on this fascinating topic, I’ll give you the background and paint the picture. Then in the second part of the article, you’ll discover how you can put this valuable insight to work and make this selling season the best you’ve ever had, and more importantly, put your sales career on a powerful trajectory.
Your Pipeline is Your Sales Lifeline
Your company no doubt invests in marketing programs, product development, and training your sales organization about your products and services. But, what have you done to assess and address barriers that may be limiting your sales team’s ability to initiate contact with the high-level decision-makers who increasingly sign off on deals for a wide range of technology? Maybe you don’t even know such barriers exist – but the latest research has shown that these barriers do exist and in some cases are crippling sales organizations without them recognizing the problem or understanding why… believe me when I tell you, your sales organization is not exempt!
Here’s the bottom line: prospecting is the oxygen, it’s the life of your business that feeds a steady flow of future buyers into your sales pipeline. Companies where emphasis is placed on consistent prospecting by the sales organization are growing at a faster rate than those who don’t. But most organizations simply do not have the pipeline to support the growth they expect (or could achieve) and are surprised when the numbers come up short. Simply putting an emphasis on it (a.k.a. “turning up the heat on the sales team”) is not enough, especially since the go-go days are over and there isn’t room for slack in our business practices anymore. Research on this phenomenon is now being taken seriously.
Thirty years ago two behavioral scientists, George W. Dudley and Shannon L.Goodson, set out to discover why some sales professionals excel in prospecting while others plateau. They studied the behavior of sales people in a variety of industries. They wanted to explain an observation, as scientists do, and the question was this: If after hundreds of books written, sales training courses, and gurus all espousing the “secrets of success,” then why were sales professionals still not succeeding in their chosen career? This research yielded an internationally best-selling book, “The Psychology of Sales Call Reluctance®“.
After reviewing the statistics, George and Shannon discovered the primary difference between top-performing sales professionals and those whose productivity was mediocre. What they found was not new– certainly not “rocket science”—but it was finally scientifically proven. The indisputable formula for sales success seems obvious, but elusive: the greater the number of contacts initiated with prospective buyers on a consistent basis the greater the performance. That’s it! Top-performing sales professionals have more sales because they have more decision-makers to sell to. Sounds overly simplistic, doesn’t it? But in fact, it’s not, because the human psyche gets in the way of taking action to correct something this basic and even prevents us from seeing it.
Emotional Barriers Get in the Way of Every Sales Professional
Most sales professionals know they need more prospects – people who can make buying decisions. But the research shows even good sales people don’t, won’t, or can’t prospect with the right people sufficiently to achieve top performance. Nearly all salespeople are in denial about this proven situation. But if you sell to technology buyers (or if you manage a sales team or any sales channel that is supposed to be doing this) a shortage of real prospects – the executives who make the decisions—is almost surely having a negative impact on your sales. Do you know how much or why? Probably not. Though many theories (and excuses) are often offered by sales people to justify their performance, research has revealed the truth.
When the fear of self-promotion attaches itself to people in the sales profession, it imposes an artificially low ceiling on prospecting activity and this limits the bottom line, even for sales people who think they are doing great. It goes on in the background, sometimes without us really tuning in. It’s an emotional short-circuit in an otherwise motivated and goal-directed person. Importantly, we are not just talking about the slackers. Emotional barriers are the cause of more than 80% of new sales professionals leaving the profession within their first year and 40% of tenured sales professionals to leave – even while they are achieving their sales targets. The emotional burden often becomes heavier than the financial rewards.
Being behavioral scientists, of course, the researchers dug deeper to see what caused this emotional interference in talented and knowledgeable salespeople. This involved collecting thousands of data points and conducting years of study of different people in many selling situations. The outcome? They identified and categorized twelve types of emotional barriers. Each type is characterized by human responses that limit almost every salesperson’s ability to prospect. And the good news is, after an assessment, salespeople could be made aware of their specific areas for improvement, and countermeasures applied to the non-productive behaviors. In other words, there is effective treatment to reduce emotional barriers – sales call reluctance – that keep even talented, top-performing professionals from reaching their full potential.
The Mirroring Effect
I sold software solutions for almost twenty years, and did very well by every measure in every organization I served. I was always a top performer. I even climbed to the position of VP of Sales and Marketing for the software company I worked for most recently. I took my job very seriously, and while I was considered one of the best salespeople and managers around, throughout my sales management career, I continuously looked for the newest and latest sales skills training to improve my own and my sales teams’ performance.
In the nineties, I embraced relationship and consultative sales methods that were all the rage at the time. I trained my sales reps and incorporated this selling style into the organization. Maybe you’ve taken some of these courses, too, and relationship selling is good stuff. But what I found was this. Since many of my sales staff came from former users of the software or were technical people transplanted into sales jobs, focusing on relationships was easier for them to embrace than prospecting for new opportunities. Although, the relationship method and other sales training helped my sales team, I was exposing them to my own sales call reluctance without even realizing it.
Believe it or not, some of the reluctance to make a sales call (prospecting) is a learned behavior. It’s learned from people that you are exposed to who have never fully recognized, understood, or dealt with their personal fears. Even leaders of successful organizations can instill the attitude. You may remember Ken Olsen, president of Digital Equipment Corporation. He is a brilliant engineer and his company’s mission was to lead the world in designing the fastest and most well-engineered computers. Digital Equipment’s sales people were called “sales engineers” and for many years they were salaried employees. Mr. Olsen’s leadership influenced the sales culture and because technology was a hot new market for two decades, most of the time the sales engineers were order takers not order makers. This is what I believe has been going on in the high-tech markets over the last few years. Budgets were relatively fat. Computers and technology were being installed and networks built out. But now we have a very different story and sales managers and company presidents are scratching their heads as sales are going flat, pipelines are drying up, and everyone is looking for a recharge.
Where’s the Energy in Your Sales Organization Going?
You may have a well-trained, articulate sales team or reseller channel that can demonstrate your products convincingly. You might be fortunate to have the latest sales automation system, the most efficient sales process, the most innovative products, and a brilliant marketing plan. But guess what? None of that matters when the people in your organization responsible for finding new business opportunities aren’t emotionally able to consistently engage enough potential customers. Again, you may say, “Not my sales team – they are on top of it, they are constantly prospecting, they are true sales pros.” That’s the problem. There is widespread denial. Our industry is blind to its weakness and little has been done to address and correct it.
I have been doing sales training and coaching with a number of technology organizations over the past few years. I have heard comments like:
- “I don’t prospect, it’s a waste of my time. We have telemarketers that call prospective buyers and then I only follow up with those who are qualified.”
- “I don’t want my salespeople making prospecting calls. I rather they use their time advancing and closing sales.”
- “We work hard to generate leads for our sales department. I don’t feel our sales team is following up on leads that our marketing department gives them.”
- “I don’t want my customers to think that I am trying to sell something to them. I want them to see me as a consultant helping to solve their problems.”
- “I’m really an account manager and support my clients with my technical experience and product knowledge. I don’t have to prospect.”
- “I need help with time management. I don’t have enough time to prospect.”
- “I don’t know how many contacts I make a week with prospective buyers. Besides it’s not the quantity, it’s the quality of the calls I make.”
- “I would sell more if I had more time to prospect.”
- “I would sell more if we had better marketing materials.”Do any of these comments sound familiar? There are endless excuses why sales professionals don’t prospect. Why? Because there must be enough motivational energy available to sustain prospecting activity. And when this energy is short-circuited (often unknowingly) it gets diverted to coping with prospecting, which leads to rationalization. The prospecting energy is redirected to non-productive behavior and activities.Overcoming Emotional Barriers: Don’t Miss Part Two!
So here we are. Having presented this concept to lots of sales professionals and managers, I can imagine your reaction. You may not accept the research or want to deal with the implications. Most salespeople and some managers (many of whom are ex-sales reps) are uneasy dealing with their emotions and discount the research as irrelevant to their own situation. However, I’ve found that most salespeople and sales managers who are genuinely looking to achieve the highest levels of performance are convinced when they open their minds and take an objective look at the evidence. George Dudley and Shannon Goodson continue their research into emotional aspects of selling and continue to produce scientific studies from many different industries to confirm their findings. More importantly, those sales professionals who apply their remedies will attest to the positive results.
Many sales people and managers after hearing about and looking into this research say they know someone who they believe suffers from sales-call reluctance. But rarely do they admit to these behaviors themselves, and almost all sales managers say it doesn’t affect their top performers. It’s human nature. But, what about you?
If you are willing to open your mind to the possibility that something may be holding you or your sales team back – keeping you from achieving top performance – then you will want to read the second part of this special feature in the Part Two. I’ll give you the specifics about the twelve kinds of emotional barriers proven to limit the performance of almost all sales people to some extent, and suggest how you can begin to apply this new knowledge to boost the performance of your sales organization this year.