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Thinking has come to sales

corporate sales team training

A recent study of 2,663 sales organisations by Think Training, Nightingale Conant and Trainique uncovered five areas, which shed light on what separates the best from the rest. Here are the top two:

  • Failing to focus on the right kinds of activity. 90% of CEO’s said their sales people focused on low payoff activities or called on the wrong people.
  • Allowing “self talk” to sabotage your efforts. 86% of CEO’s said their sales people had negative thinking or self talk that was damaging their sales efforts.

We would contend the above issues are ‘all about mindset’. Neil Rackham, the author of SPIN-Selling, made the pronouncement that, “thinking has come to sales” during a talk to the Sales Performance Association at the Chartered Institute of Marketing in 2012.

In the era of post financial crisis the once abundant source of cheap capital has dried up. This means that companies can no longer look to acquisition as a source of growth and are looking upon their sales people to deliver. Also, the competitive landscape has changed: There are more competitors than ever before, more niche players and product differentiation is fleeting at best. ‘Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door”, runs the phrase often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th century. It talks of a simpler age when basic product differentiation could be sustained over a period of time and that was all the sales person needed to communicate to the willing customer. However in the 21st century in the age of ‘the internet of things’ where information of products, services and company reputation are omnipresent, negating the ‘walking brochure’ dimension of the sales-role. Sales people are no longer selling ‘mousetraps’ – The buying process for simple transactional products has moved online and sales people are increasingly required to sell complex products, solutions and managed services.

This is the background from Rackham’s comments on thinking has come to selling. Holding down a sales role is an increasingly cognitively challenging career to be in. The two challenges highlighted at the beginning of this article are testament to this. However, traditional sales training doesn’t arm sales people with the ability to develop and enhance the mental strength increasingly needed as a prerequisite for success in the current environment. The latest contribution to sales literature, The Challenger Sale, is based upon in-depth research into the customer’s experience of the most successful sales people: They take control of the sale, “challenge” the customer and deliver business insights. This approach to sales works, but is dependent upon a high level of confidence and business acumen in the sales person. Rackham, an advocate of the challenger sale concepts, challenges sales people to reflect whether the individual they had just had the meeting with would be prepared to pay a consulting fee for the insight that was delivered during the meeting – a none trivial point. Suzanne Fogel and her co-authors of De Paul University summarised the trend neatly in their Havard Business Review article in which they point out that: “Critical thinking, analytical skills and the ability to negotiate have become more important than extroversion or an outgoing personality”.

So, confidence, critical thinking, business acumen and the delivery of insights to customers are all attributes of the successful sales person in the 21st century. Thinking has indeed come to sales, so much so that we would contend that attributes of enhanced mental strength have become the single most important source of competitive advantage in a sales team. To express this in the language of psychology, selling has become a cognitively complex job. And yet how much do organisations recognise this and invest in helping sales teams develop and sustain mental strength and cognitive performance? It is our view from working with sales teams for over 3 decades that albeit unwittingly organisational culture crowds out the mental capacity needed to be successful by the demands of reporting and forecasting required to report upwards on their pipeline. In extremes, we have witnessed daily reporting all to reassure managerial anxiety. While managerial tools such as CRM play an important role in the sales process, they can also be used as a means of sales force surveillance, requiring sales people to enter data that may have more to do with reducing management anxiety than advancing the sale. The resulting environment for the sales person is often an unrelenting 24/7 hamster-wheel of frenetic, commitment calls, reporting the same information to different functions, Webex and conference calls, one that is hardly supportive of a high level of cognitive performance.

So, how can the sales person be helped with their performance in the demanding environment in which they find themselves? Our experience is that companies approach the issue of sales effectiveness almost exclusively through training in functional skills, process and methodology. But what about personal development in enhancing mental strength and cognitive performance? We call this the selling mindset.

The sales-mind sales training programme has been designed to focus on developing and enhancing the mental strength of sales people, building competitive advantage. The content is drawn from thought leadership in evidence-based psychologies, behavioural economics and neuroscience. The sales-mind content offers tools, techniques and mental constructs comprising of five dimensions: focus, resilience, motivation, self-confidence and empathy. Our experience of working with sales teams is that these qualities are often pre-existing to a level in high performing individuals. But to those who believe that great sales people are born not made we would point to case studies that show how lifting performance across these dimensions, (whatever your start point), leads to significant improvement in sales outcomes.

We are not suggesting that training in sales skills, process and methodology is not important, but that it should be additive to development in the selling mind-set. To us, the selling mindset is a foundation upon which to build functional capabilities but without it traditional sales training all too often has little impact, with, as research by Huthwiate International suggests, as much as 87% of it being forgotten within three months.

The sales-mind approach begins with focus. Focusing on the key activities that make sales success a natural output from the work put in. In his book, The Activity Illusion, Ian Price explains that we often equate activity with effectiveness but the relationship is more likely to be a negative one. The de facto way of working today is to exist in a multitasking welter of distractions, e mails, social media alerts, instant messages – squeezed in around meetings, conference calls and phone calls. The latest research in neuroscience suggests that this way of working crowds out cognitive performance. Maximising mental energy requires the ability to identify and focus on the small number of important tasks that will drive success and which need to be performed with the maximum mental acuity.

The second dimension of the selling mindset is resilience, the ability to bounce back from adversity, which in sales roles takes the form of rejection from prospects and often just silence. Increasingly, our biggest competitor is no decision rather than a competitive loss. Given the complexity of business to business decision making, our customers all too readily take the path of least resistance and do nothing, which means that phone calls and e-mails go unreturned. It takes persistence, grit and an optimistic worldview to sustain high levels of performance in this environment. Some go through life naturally with the ability to shrug off and depersonalise rejection for most it is a learned behaviour, but the good news is that it can indeed be learned.

The third element is motivation and we challenge the conceived wisdom that sales people are ‘coin operated’ and motivated exclusively by money. We look at why the carrot of mouthwatering bonuses does not necessarily combine with the stick of performance management in order to drive sales people to ever greater success. The study of the psychology of motivation by social scientist Beth Rogers, Dan Ariley and social commentator Dan Pink, have challenged conventional views highlighting aspects such as Purpose, Autonomy, Mastery, Team and Personal value sets. These provide some surprising answers, which have caused us to advise our clients to use non-monetary sources of motivation to great effect.

Self-confidence is the fourth element and by this we mean competency based self-confidence not delusional! Whatever one’s start point, self -confidence can be enhanced in the areas where there is a desire to do so. Having faith in a best practice process, deliberative practice on skills and knowledge-needed to execute the process, grit and determination, a growth mindset and learned optimism are all aspects that form part of the sales-mind curriculum offering a different perspective on intrinsic motivation.

Empathy, the filth element of the selling mindset is another virtue of the sales role often crowded out by work. Empathy is vital for active listening. Rackham analysed thousands of sales calls and concluded that the best sales people spend more time listening than talking. Our observations in sales visits we have attended is that, under pressure, sales people tend not only to push their own products hard-regardless of any undiscovered need that the prospect may have, but, when they do ask questions, often talk over the prospect when he or she is trying to offer an answer. Empathy is the key dimension of mindset that supports active listening. It is the ability to ‘walk in another mans shoe’s’, suspending judgement, prejudice and agreement but rather to understand their world view. As Stephen Covey says, ‘seek first to understand before being understood’. This is important for relationships across the board, not just with customers but also with teammates, suppliers, colleagues, bosses and subordinates.

The result? The sales-mind programme has helped sales leaders across various sectors leaving a legacy of self determination and sustainable mental strength in their teams increasing individual performance, pipeline growth, solution sales, staff retention and collaborative sales team working.

A quote from a VP of a global software house:

“They work in a tough environment, this is a tough company, they do a tough job and I am tough on them, with this, (sales-mind programme), I feel I have invested in them as whole individuals and given them the ability to cope so much better.”

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