There I stood, spandex clad and heart pounding, at the start line of a bike race. BAM! The gun went off and I was going. Call it the ultimate test, me vs. the other riders vs. the muddy trail. Despite all my preparation, I got to the start line late and had to start in the back of the pack. To make up ground, I put my head down and focused on passing other riders until I was – in the front?
That NEVER happened before! I was in CONTROL! I no longer heard the other riders, just the rush of the air through my helmet and the pounding of my pulse. That day, I finished a respectable 3rd out of 20 racers. Despite leading most of the way, victory was snatched from me at the last minute.
It didn’t matter, from there on, I was hooked! I spent 2 years training and racing to replicate that result. It never happened. Later, I learned that another big race took place that fateful day and many of the skilled riders attended it. Sadly, my ability to control a race was a mere illusion.
Psychologist Ellen Langer named this fallacy the Illusion of Control. It’s the belief that we control things in our lives that we don’t. Imagine a gambler thinking she’s “on a roll” and can’t lose or a day trader thinking he can make a stock price rise just by buying shares. It’s not hard to see their folly.
However, are we able to spot this illusion in our own jobs? Do we in sales control what our competitors do? Do we set the purchasing budgets of our customers? We know these and other factors heavily influence customer behavior but ignore them after we’ve had a good year. THAT accomplishment came from us alone! At the same time, when our numbers are sub-par, we point to a multitude of factors out of our control. And, leadership often suffers from the same bias, no one wants to tell their team a dose of luck may be essential to achievement.
Therefore, we need to acknowledge that control of anything requires time and effort – two resources we MUST use wisely. When we stop straining for things out of our reach we free ourselves to be accountable for the things we DO control – our thoughts, actions, and skills.
As I ascended to the stage for my sales award, I glanced over to my sales manager. It was hard not to crack a smile. There I was, six months at the company, with the skill to outperform people who were years my senior.
It went to my head. For the rest of that year, I didn’t hesitate to offer my opinion at sales meetings. I was all too happy to help others improve and, you know, be a bit more like me.
Little did I know, I was a text book example of someone with Illusory Superiority. Otherwise known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, it’s the tendency for unskilled people to overestimate their abilities. In the years to come, I was to learn what I mistook for skill was a merely dose of good luck and timing.
Oddly enough, this illusion of internal assessment can take place in reverse. Skilled people often underestimate their abilities compared to others. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger demonstrated both sides of the phenomenon and published it in a study. They surmised that experienced people, knowing better their own limits, often take for granted the skills they use every day, ones that others may not possess.
So, how good are you? If your answer is relation to others, it pays to reconsider. You may be exaggerating due to the Dunning Kruger effect. Instead, why not make the unbiased choice to compare yesterday’s you to today’s?
In the articles to follow, we’ll explore cognitive biases. These are the mental shortcuts we all occasionally use to make sense of the flood of information we face everyday. First up: Sample Size.
Imagine, for a moment, you are the lowest performer on a sales team. Complete fiction, I know. Now imagine that, for some reason, you enjoy wearing wearing khakis and polos to work while the rest of your team all wear suits. Is it fair to conclude that your lack of formality (and taste?) is the reason for your lower sales results?
Not so fast! Before we go explaining how formal clothing enhances credibility, there’s something more important to consider. Sample size. Exactly how many people are on your sales team?
According to Sociology expert, Daniel Kahneman, small sample sizes lend themselves to extreme results. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, he and a group of experts questioned the belief that certain small towns have high disease rates due to toxic waste.
The result? The small sample size of residents in each town made extremely high or low disease prevalence more likely. This doesn’t, of course, prove industrial pollution to be harmless. It instead invalidates the data as proof that toxic waste was the cause of disease. Perhaps, if the towns studied were larger, the researchers’ conclusion may have been different.
Therefore, we in sales should be cautious about the quick interpretations we make of both success and failure. For example, it may neither be fair or helpful to compare the results of one sales rep with several medium-sized accounts to another who manages one or two large, make or break clients.
Ultimately, if we want to make better decisions, we must gather enough information and only then draw our conclusions.
The closest thing I’ve ever felt to a knockout punch is a well-timed, customer objection. Like an unseen blow to the temple, it only takes one of them to bring a sale down. While I suspect the pain from an uppercut can linger for months or years, I know the regret from an objection can seem unforgettable. Just as the only way a boxer can truly avoid a hit is to never step in the ring, the only way a salesperson can avoid objections is to never attempt a sale.
Sure, we don’t like the discomfort and nervousness objections produce, but don’t we feel the same when we watch a scary movie or our favorite team in the playoffs? Why then do we avoid, or agonize over, the difficult situations that can make us succeed?
There has to be more to it. A boxer walks into the ring knowing she will get hit hundreds of times and probably feel serious pain. “I was surprised how much it hurt to get punched,” said no fighter ever. Obviously, they’ve made piece with the pain well in advance.
What do we really fear?
The key problem to address is not the hit or the objection itself, it’s the pain. Conquer your fear of it and the punch no longer needs to be avoided. Similarly, when we can handle or dismiss the sting of objections, we can stop dancing around them.
I suggest the reason objections can hurt so much is the meaning we give them. Consider the following thoughts:
If I can’t answer an objection I risk losing the sale.
If I lose the sale I may not make my sales goal or lose a contest.
If I don’t make my sales goal (or lose) I’m a bad employee, parent, person, etc.
Do they sound familiar? Of course, these worries may not be at the top of our mind, but peel back the layers and they’re usually there.
How can we handle the pain?
Stoic’s, like Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, believed all we control is our own choices, actions, and beliefs. Customers make buying decisions; we do not. Managers make the only official judgements of sales performance. Again, we do not. However, feeling ashamed as a result of our job performance, that’s our choice. Therein lies a true opportunity to change ourselves for the better.
How can we change? We can choose no longer to feel anger or shame over events out of our control, like the choices customers and bosses make. In 25 years of selling, I’ve been layed-off three times. None of them were pleasant. Fortunately, I’ve learned to no longer live in fear of failure. I begin every sales call knowing, despite my best efforts, the customer may choose against my product.
No, I don’t win every sale these days but I win much more now that I don’t fear losing. I can take the punches, fall down, and get back up. No one has ever died from an objection. You can be imperfect and still be unwavering or almost invincible. First, you must make peace with the pain.
Just to reiterate my previous post, no, we don’t control other’s and the decisions they make. And, that can be tough to swallow, especially when we must watch our friends, family, and customers make bad decisions. It’s at these moments when Stoic Philosophy implores us to take control, not of others, but ourselves. A primary example is job-related stress.
In Sales, a bad year or even a bad quarter can put us out of a job. Despite giving everything we have, we still lose deals, and when we do, it can hurt. Rest assured, it’s normal to feel this way at first. True Stoic Philosophy is not about eliminating our emotions, but getting them under control.
Although it’s unrealistic to never experience sadness or anxiety, some salespeople waste too much of their day anticipating and reliving their losses. Whether it’s the firing that never comes, or the sale that got away, we can trap ourselves in a cycle of reliving an event, over and over.
In this fashion, we waste valuable energy stressing over events we did not, or will never, control. Even worse, we confuse work and worry. If you believe the late Andy Grove, the one-time CEO of Intel who wrote a book entitled Only the Paranoid Survive, we all get paid to worry about the future. Perhaps paranoia is a prerequisite for top executives. For the rest of us, it’s a recipe for mediocre effort and even burnout.
Therefore, it’s essential for salespeople realize the choices they make every day. How do we want to feel, stressed or empowered? Paralyzed with fear or ready to take action? The Stoics would point out that our day-to-day mood, and the resulting choices we make, are some of the few things in life we DO control. It’s important to understand, one can choose not to feel stress and still be effective or even excel at work.
So, who would choose a career frought with stress and unhappiness? Only those who don’t realize or believe they have a choice. Ultimately, when we acknowledge that stress comes from within, we take back control and fuel ourselves to sell with more vigor and enthusiasm than stress could ever allow.
In your place onstage stands someone else shaking the hands of senior leadership claiming to be better than you. In this moment you want nothing more than for it to not be true. No, you can’t change the numbers from the past and you don’t have to fall back on excuses or bitterness. Instead the key to your come back may lie in Stoic Philosophy.
First, ask yourself, was it your name etched onto the sales trophy at the beginning of the year? Was winning this year’s sales contest a simple matter of obtaining what’s rightfully yours? Obviously not. So how then can you lose something you never owned?
Every sale requires a choice, one made only by one person, the customer. If you don’t believe me call your biggest account and ask if you can make buying decisions for them. As you can see we in sales exert influence, not control, over our customers.
A core tenant in Stoic philosophy is knowing what we do and don’t control. In the end your sales results are the output of many decisions for and against your product. How many of these choices do we control? Zero. Come to think of it, how many customer decisions did our higher-performing co-worker control this year? Zero.
Unfortunately, most of us aren’t evaluated directly on our influence, but on our sales results. One of these data points is easy to measure; the other is not. And again, if customer influence and sales results were one in the same, we’d sign the sales contracts ourselves. Is it unfair to be judged based on decisions of out our control? Maybe, but Stoicism teaches that feeling upset by this fact is also, our choice.
Therefore, instead of personal wins and losses, you now have permission to focus on customer wants and needs. After all, isn’t that what we’re here for?
When it comes to travel, it’s all about the bag you carry. Take two identical suitcases. Despite weighing the same, the one stamped to a Carribean vacation feels infinitely lighter than one ticketed to a sales meeting in Des Moines, Iowa. Traveling for fun and traveling for business can look very similar, yet feel very different. For vacations, we count down the days until we leave, for work trips, the days until our return.
Why do we hate business travel of all sorts? It’s not the work. Selling makes each day go faster. Conversely, it’s the dead time in-between the work. Whether it’s time spent driving, flying, or in hotels, it all feels useless, and for good reason. By driving 30-40k miles, I spend an estimated 50 working days a year, staring through my windshield. Other salespeople leave town for weeks at a time. Either way, it amounts to valuable time siphoned right out of our lives!
Still, we all accept sales travel as necessary, but does it have to be a necessary evil? Thanks to technology, we have more choices to pass the time than ever. Unfortunately, they’re not all created equal. Some time-killing activities make us feel and perform better, and some ultimately make life more difficult. Below is a guide to help salespeople make the most of down time. Consider avoiding the bad behaviors and replacing them with the better options provided.
Avoid: Unhealthy or Dangerous Habits
Yes, ideally, we’d all snack on quinoa and green tea all-day. Back in reality, we satisfy ourselves, on occasion, with unhealthy habits. Afternoon escapes to our favorite drive-through or retail wonderland can have harmful long term consequences. In fact, one habit is likely to feed the other (I love puns, please don’t judge!). Other habits, like texting and driving, put our lives at risk and should be eliminated. It’s helpful to remember the quicker the satisfaction arrives from a given activity, the quicker it leaves..
REPLACE WITH THIS: Learning and Creating
Consider the following temptation-inducing situations. Stuck in an airport terminal? Grab a book! It’s one of the best ways to sharpen your mind for selling. Have a long drive ahead of you? Download and listen to an audiobook! You’d be surprised how much time you can fill without extra calories or credit card bills. And what the heck do I mean by Creativity? Travel time provides the ideal environment to brainstorm! In fact, many of Meaning2work.com’s posts started as dictations to my iPhone while driving. The key, I’ve found, is to learn and write about subjects you enjoy. You’ll arrive at your destination, refreshed and fulfilled instead of haggard and annoyed.
AVOID THIS: Co-worker Gossip, Office Politics
Nobody’s perfect and we all need to let off steam, on occasion. It’s nice, at first, to know someone else shares your sorrow and frustration. As an ongoing topic of conversation, however, commiserating does little to make us feel better. We all know, that at times, life sucks. Why should we waste time bringing ourselves down? After all, bad luck has a way of interrupting us whenever it wants.
REPLACE WITH THIS: A Focus on the Future and Collaboration
Relax, no pom poms are required! Without using false positivity, we can acknowledge current problems and direct our conversation to actions. This is one of the most powerful ways we can use down time. Your mood will lift when you focus on what can be done instead of what can’t. And, talking through alternatives forces us to organize thoughts into logical form. In this way, the practice of verbally responding to a customer problem, in the safety of a coworker phone call, helps bring the solution to light. In my experience, trusted colleagues have helped to formulate my best ideas!
AVOID THIS: Negative Self-Talk
We’ve all done it. The minute we’re out of a bad sales call, we review it in our minds repeatedly, and experience the same pain, repeatedly. We know something must be our fault, so why not everything? Refer to “Your Worst Sales Manager: A Survival Guide” earlier in this blog for more on negative self-talk. Stories abound of perfectionist types, like Steve Jobs, and how much they accomplish. Does anyone ever ask them how happy they are? It’s good to be driven, as long as you also enjoy the journey itself. Sorry perfectionists, instead of making us better, self-criticism usually makes us worse.
REPLACE WITH THIS: Stoic Philosophy
Stoicism is the belief that we don’t control others, only our own choices here and now. And, not only do our choices include our actions, but also our feelings. Try listening on your podcast player to Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic.Each episode lasts less than five minutes. Neither pro or anti religeon, Stoicism is simply an empowering acknowledgement of reality. Learning it is like being handed something you’ve tried to find for years, the rules to life. The choice of what to do with the wisdom is yours.
There are many books and courses designed to help us optimize our down time. Some may be quite effective, given the time and effort. To get started, I offer a much simpler idea; use positive habits to crowd out negative ones. Think of your time like a garden. If you fill it with good things like seeds, fertilizer, and water, you can grow a bountiful crop. Otherwise, the weeds take over. Let’choose to spend our downtime wisely and cultivate the life we want!
“When you’re out in the field, make good decisions. After all, you not only represent yourself, but the entire company!”
A common sales mantra
Does any of this sound familiar?
It should. Many companies close sales meetings with this message for the same reason, it’s true. Often we act as a customer’s sole point of contact. As such, in their eyes, we ARE the company.
Hiding in plain sight, however, is a more startling truth; our companies also represent us. Our family, friends, and customers, are all aware of our choice of employer. Whether we like it or not, we’re often judged based on this choice. And, complain as we may about our company’s policies, it’s still our choice to follow them – and our customers know it.
Therefore, when our employers make serious mistakes, we, in our customer’s eyes, take on some of the blame as well. Any salesperson who’s had to deliver bad news knows this is true. Even if we voice disagreement with our employer to our customers, the reality of the situation fails to change. Thus, as sincere as it may sound, complaining directly to customers is mostly selfish. Doing so, for us, feels good and for the customer, accomplishes nothing. Even worse, when we publicly complain about our company, we invite customers to do the same.
And therein lies the problem, how can we be honest and helpful to our customers when we don’t agree with our own company’s policies? How can we sincerely represent our employers in a positive manner when they fail to do so for us in return?
To break from this blame trap, we can resolve to do two things: internally advocate for the customer and make more thoughtful career decisions. When our company fails our customer, we need to bravely advocate on behalf of both our customer and our company. This can include being transparent and offering ideas for comprise. If our ideas fall on deaf ears, we should reformulate and try again. If our requests continue to fall on deaf ears, we can then consider working for an employer that better aligns with our values.
What are your values? It’s a worthwhile question to consider. Ask yourself this, if you left the field for an extended period of time, how would your company treat your customers? If they would make efforts to mimic the service you provide, you’re in a good spot. If not, your company may not fully appreciate you or your customers.
Would you want that kind of a firm representing you?
“All the World’s a stage and the men and women are merely players.”
Are you a real salesperson? If not, could you at least act like one? For customers, we play the passionate, yet in-control, sales consultant. Over an entire 10-hour workday, we struggle to say the right things, to the right people, at the right time. If we can just get our message accross, the customers are sure to give in – or so we think. And, at day’s end, like faithful zombies, we eat, stare at the TV, and wander to bed. What if we have it all wrong? What if all our focus on pulling off the perfect, line-by-line, sales pitch is actually hurting us? Read on and decide for yourself.
Why we feel we must play a role.
As early as the 1700’s, makers of household items like soaps sent independent pitch men to roam the countryside to pray on the ignorance of farmers. At the time, an aggressive approach paid dividends. After all, the rural folk had little to no exposure to the wares of traveling salesmen and could be pressured into buying them. Therefore, as companies began to bring salespeople in-house, they encouraged (even expected) them to act like their high-pressure, high-performing predecessors . And thus, a belief in a “sales personality”came to be.
Despite modern, solution-oriented, empathic sales training, salespeople are still expected to aggressively handle objections and ask for the sale. When a customer has a concern, we have handy acronyms to feed us our next line. And if the customer accepts our semi-scripted answer, we go in for the fully-scripted close. As a result, acting is fully baked into what we do.
Here are five reasons this approach needs to change:
1. Acting prevents us from learning.
If we train like actors for long enough, we also become apt to learn like them. Even the most skilled salespeople can occasionally be seen, in sales meetings, asking other’s to repeat lines they deem effective. Sadly, when we could be armed with additional value for customers, we arrive home poised to put on a play.
2. Acting wastes time for customers and salespeople alike.
Alas, sales thespians, our lives don’t consist of repeatable scenes. When it comes to real life and what people actually say, no script exists. Therefore, even our best attempts to plan calls are doomed to partial success, at best. In reality, over specific words or phrases, we’re better served preparing for the content of a discussion. We can answer many more questions when we don’t need to memorize deliberately phrased answers.
3. When we act out a role, we miss opportunities to sell.
According to scientists, it’s impossible for the human brain to hold more than one conscious thought at a time. Therefore, when our mind is stuck on our script, it cannot take in the customer’s mood and the moment itself. The result? We miss the chance to empathize with clients and solve their problems.
4. We don’t want actors to sell to us, so why should we do it?
Would you rather work with a salesperson who hears what we say, or an actor struggling to stick to a script? The answer is simple, we need to stop acting and start selling. In doing so, we can have direct and candid conversations with our clients and be ourselves. In the place of canned closing techniques, we can ask targeted and specific questions based on what the customer tells us in real time.
5. The direct approach: why it’s hard and why it’s easy.
Shifting away from a script-based selling approach has both immediate challenges and benefits. Without the structure of memorized lines, we can firstly feel exposed, even lost. When listening intently, one cannot plan what to say next. It’s both scary and exciting. Fortunately, compared to memorized sales pitches, unscripted conversations can achieve a much greater depth . They often enable us to find the crucial pieces to closing sales such as hidden objections.
Let’s leave acting to those at the community theater. We have selling to do, and our customers are waiting!
Can you sink a put like Brooks Koepka or Tiger Woods? Why not? Many salespeople play golf multiple times a week. In some sales jobs, it’s a crucial way to connect with customers. Why then, aren’t more salespeople graduating to the PGA Tour? Surely, if time was an issue, retired people, golfing everyday, would make the Senior Circuit. Perhaps there’s something in the way pros practice that sets them apart? If so, how can we in sales benefit?
Can Salespeople Truly Practice?
Seriously, is there a driving range equivalent to what we do? Is there a place where we can work on specific parts of our approach? The best we’ve come up with is sales training, sales meetings, and actual sales calls. Given the brevity of the first two, salespeople typically have to practice in real sales calls, with real business at risk. And often, in the moment, developing a skill is the last thing on our minds; we want to make the sale.
According to Dan Coyle, author the bestselling book, The Talent Code, expert performers in a variety of fields, grow into greatness with focused-practice, not talent. Sure, we’ll likely focus on skill development at our next meeting (when our manager is looking), but not in the regular practice of our job. For the busy salesperson, the drive for results supersedes the need for growth.
For salespeople, what does growth even mean?
One might suggest the abilities to listen, speak, make decisions, and read non-verbal cues as crucial to sales. These, however, are only manifestations of our skill. If we dug deeper we’d find one skill driving all the others: the ability to think. Grow this skill, and all the others benefit.
It’s been said there are 70-90 variables one can change in a golf swing – a grip change here, a stance change there. A salesperson’s variables, (their skills), are internal. What we say or do in front of customers is a mere byproduct of the beliefs we hold and decisions we make. For people like us, thought hopefully precedes all communication.
How on Earth does one practice the mental skills needed to sell?
One important practice method is what you’re doing right now. Reading is one of the best workouts for the mind. At its base level, reading forces us to make a choice; think about the information presented or go away. The minute we focus on the words and their meaning, the workout starts. In doing so, we build the mental strength to understand, analyze, and solve our customer’s problems. And in sales, the bigger the problem we solve, the more we and our customer stand to gain!
Do hard-working salespeople have the time to read?
Absolutely not, most have administrative work and activity metrics to worry about. Sadly, our bosses may be right, we may have more free time than we realize. For example, many of us fill the gaps between sales calls with things like talk radio, social media, or idle phone chatter. Why not forego ONE conversation or radio program a day and listen to an audiobook in the car? Some of us, while stuck waiting for our next appointment or flight, can read books or articles instead of vegging on People Magazine or cable news. The time is there if we truly want it.
Good news! You’ve already started!
You’ve made it this far. Why not read another article or pick up a book on sales? Then read another. Read until you have opinions on your profession you’ve never had before. Heck, you may even find yourself inspired to write!
The real challenge of our jobs is not how much we can sell, but how much we can learn about selling with the limited time we have. Therefore, the endless loop of call after call is not enough to sharpen our skills.
Agree or disagree you’ve made the right step in reading this. Why not continuing growing your mental muscle by reading more? Who knows? Your competition may be doing that right now.