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.” 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.