"Well, This Is Awkward" Understanding Sales Discomforts
Fortune favors the bold.
THE BIG IDEA
Boldness begins with discomfort.
I am a sales theorist, a student of the sales process. I hope you can willingly and boldly make the same claim. If this is our chosen profession, should we not seek to study diligently in "sales laboratories"? Of course we should!
I am not like most men I know. I actually love going to the mall. It's true, and I'll say it loud and proud: I love the mall! Why? Because I see it as a sales clinic, a shiny laboratory with constant tests, trials, experiments, and case studies, with the bonus of a hot dog on a stick included. There are lessons galore to be found in this big, air-conditioned, tasty lab, my friends—you just need to know where to look.
A TALE OF TWO KIOSKS
Recently, I was on a business trip in Southern California and I visited the Ontario Mills Mall, not because I needed anything or because I was dying to eat in a food court, but because I wanted to study energy patterns. I highly recommend this activity. Here's how it works: go to the mall with the intention of studying the personal energy of the salespeople you see. All you have to do is choose an inconspicuous place to stand, then simply observe the various sales professionals who are working independently but near one another in this "lab." Watch them closely and track patterns in their energy levels. Notice the intensity of their engagement. Are they really into their customers? Note their energy level when there are no customers around; is their presentation an act, or are they maintaining positivity all the time? Watch for what I call "facial posture," that lift of the face when someone has strong emotional energy. You can observe all these things without even having a conversation. You'll also find that when you identify a really positive salesperson, you'll just want to talk with her.
On this particular trip, I was studying a man who was working from a kiosk in the center of the mall, one of those sales islands amidst the steady stream of mall shoppers. His product was a therapeutic neck pillow. The idea is that you heat the pillow in the microwave, then place it around your neck, and by doing so, you receive some sort of healing power. (All right, true confession time: raise your hand if you own one. You know who you are!)
If you own one of these magic pillows, I can all but assure you that you did not purchase it from this particular individual. Here is what I observed: our would-be hero standing near his kiosk, product in hand, watching people stream by. Occasionally his body language would indicate that he was about to actually talk to someone, but at the last minute he would bail out. A couple of times you could see him forming words as a prospect approached, only to shrink back at the last second.
I watched this guy for five solid minutes, and he never actually talked to anyone. Why? What was his hang-up? Why couldn't he pull that conversational trigger? His job was straightforward: to talk to people about his product. But when the moment came, he just couldn't do it. Why?
Tell you what, let's get back to that guy in a minute.
I remember a trip to my local mall, the Roseville Galleria near Sacramento, California, several Christmases ago. My wife was busy shopping, but I was simply standing near the entrance to a department store, watching the polar opposite of our neck pillow sales guy. The man I was observing was selling nail- and skincare products made with ingredients from the Dead Sea. Now, I know you know this kiosk, right? Malls across the country have enacted so-called leash laws that prevent these particular salespeople from moving more than five feet away from their booths. It appears that one too many shoppers has complained about the salespeople from these kiosks literally blocking their path in order to start a conversation.
So I was watching this salesman talk to one person after another, practically begging each of them to stop for a demonstration. In five minutes' time, I must have seen 25 people say no and walk on by. I also saw him successfully stop a young man in his early twenties who was sporting a tank top, a sideways baseball cap, and much-exposed boxers, as the crotch of his pants was down around his knees. Clearly, this guy was not the obvious target demographic for specialized hair- and skin-care products. But sure enough, saggy-pants dude walked away having purchased a full bag of nail-care products as a gift for his mother. Mall lab lesson observed: appearances did not dissuade our nail-care kiosk sales professional.
At this point, I approached my new hero and said, "I've been watching you for the last five minutes, and one person after another has said no and walked away. How many times do you hear 'no' in the course of a day?"
He responded in a thick accent, "Let thmee tell you. More zan one sousand times a day people say nuh to me. Chreestmastime: vedy busy. I count: a sousand times!"
I asked him, "How do you do it? How do you stay so upbeat and energetic when people say no that often?"
He paused for a moment, but then he really lit up. "Let thmee tell you. My prohduct ... ees so goood! I feel thees. I feel eet in my heart; I feel eet in my seat!"
Now, I don't know exactly what that means, but it sounds really convincing! I mean, I feel stuff in my heart all the time, but I admit, I've never felt something so strongly as to feel it in my seat. The point is that his passion carried him through a whole lot of rejection.
I am insanely curious as to what separates these two salespeople. Are you?
There is a significant difference between the two salespeople I just described, and that difference provides dramatic evidence of perhaps the most important success characteristic imaginable.
We'll start with neck pillow guy. He represents a piece of all of us—maybe not all the time, but often enough. Neck pillow guy is a comfort junkie. He loves his security, and being outside his comfort zone scares the life out of him.
Nail-care dude also faces discomfort—at least, I would assume he does. The difference is in how he responds to that feeling. His resolve is what overpowers his feelings, taking him to entirely new levels of success, levels that neck pillow guy can only dream about.
Discomfort is as normal as the sunrise. Discomfort is going to happen in life, and even more so in the life of a sales professional. How we respond is what makes the difference. The fact is that the sales process can be seen as a series of uncomfortable moments:
The customer who won't engage during a sales presentation
The prospect who won't answer the phone when you call repeatedly
The prospect who is cold and seems bothered by your presentation
The prospect who offers only vague answers to your questions
The customer who leads off with a price/terms attack
The customer who starts by addressing a quality concern, just to hammer your price
The prospect who raises a tough product objection right out of the gate
The point when you know that you need to ask a customer to buy, but it just doesn't "feel right"
Every single salesperson will face these moments as a routine part of her job. They are inevitable. Top performers find success not because they don't feel discomfort, but because they plan for it and are equipped to beat it.
THE TENDENCY TO "GIVE IN"
Neck pillow salesman has a problem, and it is a problem that we all face on some level. It is the common act of succumbing to our desire for comfort. It comes when we face an anxiety in our sales path (or in our job in general, or in our parenting, our exercise routine, or just about anything else), and it manifests itself in our response.
Researchers at the Behavioral Sciences Research Press in Dallas, Texas, study sales professionals from different industries around the globe and administer an assessment (called the SPQ*GOLD®) to measure various forms of Sales Call Reluctance. One such category of reluctance is called Yielder, and it measures the tendency to avoid the discomfort of bringing displeasure to others. For example, if a voice in my head is telling me that it's time to ask for the sale, but a countering voice warns against offending the prospect, the Yielder in me will back down and find a more comfortable path: "Here's my card; call me if you have any questions."
(If you have, at this point, become keenly aware of your own addiction to comfort, I don't want you thinking that I have cast you as a loser who ought to find another line of work. There is a relatively simple physiological foundation for this discussion, and we are simply clarifying the plan before we begin the attack on the comfort monster.)
Being faced with discomfort sets off a primitive mechanism in your brain that demands a response (it's a response of your choosing, but we'll get to that later on). To understand this process, simply go back to Psych 101 and recall the number one purpose of our brains. Do you remember what that is? Fundamentally, our brains exist to keep us alive. The brain works as a protective mechanism, constantly sensing threats and directing evasive action.
Consider the observation of John J. Ratey, MD, in his book A User's Guide to the Brain: "The physical and mental responses to fear were so important to the survival of primitive man that they remain very powerful and long-lasting. Unfortunately, this adaptive response is not always appropriate in today's world. Our civilization has evolved away from the need to overrespond, but we still do."
Discomforts, even sales discomforts, fall into this "response to fear" category. Our brains are wired to understand fear as a threat and act accordingly, with little effort on our part. While our higher reasoning skills allow us to discern the difference between the threat of a saber-toothed tiger attacking us and the comparatively mild discomfort of dealing with a nonresponsive customer, the primitive part of our brain registers both situations as threats, thus triggering what psychologists call the "flight instinct." This instinct is one of the voices that compel us to flee from a threat ... any threat! No wonder the Dallas researchers came up with "Yielder."
ARE YOU AFFLICTED WITH THE COMFORT DISEASE? (UH ... PROBABLY YEAH)
Giving in to our discomfort is a very common malady because discomfort is a reality that we all live with on a day-to-day basis. The question here is not whether we will face uncomfortable situations, but how we will respond in these situations.
This phenomenon affects all of us in different ways and to different degrees, and we all have different responses, but there is no one who is fully immune to it. If you want to assess your own sales anxiety issues, you can do so by mentally placing yourself in uncomfortable situations and considering your actions more than your attitude.
Imagine yourself in these scenarios:
My customers won't engage in a meaningful dialogue, so I stop trying to bring them along relationally and hit them with a bunch of features instead. It's easier that way.
A customer starts attacking my price. I take a combative stance in order to win. It's easier than trying to see his perspective. Or, I don't want to be the enemy, so I just nod my head and take it, because that might be easier still.
A customer won't answer any questions, so I just keep quiet and let her shop in silence. It's easier that way.
It's time to ask for the sale, but it doesn't feel right. I'll wait for the customer to ask me. It's easier that way.
I need to make a prospecting call to drum up some new business. I think I'll update my Facebook page instead. It's easier that way.
Of course, we never actually get to the part that says, "It's easier that way"; that sentence remains unspoken. But the deep paradigm of yielding to discomfort cannot be denied; the paradigm says, "I prefer to do things the easiest way possible."
THE LAW OF LEAST EFFORT
This tendency toward cognitive ease is expressed by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman as the "law of least effort" in his book Thinking: Fast and Slow. "The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action."
The implication is not laziness, but rather self-preservation. Finding ourselves unsure of the depth of a given threat, we revert to the instinct of energy preservation. This subconscious tendency actually helps us to feel better about ourselves when we yield to discomfort. There is a built-in justification for doing so.
Of course, the penalty for taking the path of least resistance can be severe, coming in the form of limited potential and confining self-beliefs. Every time we give in to discomfort, we cement ourselves more fully into the familiar yet confining world of mediocrity. Just ask those around you who have taken bold but uncomfortable steps in their own lives. They will tell you that the so-called law of least effort is a sham, and that the richest treasures are not to be found on our existing mental maps.
If discomfort is a variable that is experienced differently by each individual, then it would be in our best interest to take an inventory of potentially uncomfortable sales situations. I will ask you to take a couple of moments now to think through the following list of sales discomforts and rate yourself (honestly!) in each category. As you do so, be aware of an interesting psychological peculiarity called the superiority bias (sometimes called illusory superiority). You need to understand that we have a very natural tendency to rate ourselves more highly than we ought to in any number of areas: cognitive reasoning, personality skills, talents and abilities, problem solving, even driving skills. This superiority bias suggests that we are not the best judges of ourselves. Therefore, it might be in your best interest to simply assume that you have a superiority bias and dial down your ratings a notch. (If you find yourself thinking that you are not self-biased ... uh, case in point.)
Here are some common sales discomfort categories for you to consider:
Dealing with people from other cultures
Dealing with mean or rude people
Dealing with people from varying socioeconomic backgrounds
Dealing with objections
Asking probing questions
We will address these categories in greater detail later in the book, when we lay out action plans. For now, you can use this assessment for motivation and perspective, understanding that to the extent to which you remain unaware of your yielding tendencies, you can be certain to plateau at your current level of performance. Greatness will be beyond your grasp.
The good news is that the uncomfortable situations you face are identical to those that top performers face every day. Everyone has the same sales challenges, and everyone faces the same issues and discomforts. So, get it out of your head that top performers are never uncomfortable. That's ridiculous. It's just that top performers deal with their discomforts differently. Our natural reaction is to follow the more primitive directive from our brains, which is often simply, run away! Top performers have trained themselves to think from a higher brain center, a mental place that encourages them to embrace these discomforts as motivation. The concept is both powerful and liberating. Eventually, the activity that once created a disabling discomfort is performed without a second thought.
Where do you fit in this picture? Where do you sense that a sales discomfort grips you the most? For me, it was the phone call, especially the call to a lukewarm prospect. I have long-held telephobia issues (as clearly revealed in my SPQ*Gold® scores). I didn't like making calls, so I found every excuse I could not to make them. I told myself that I was doing the customer a favor by not disturbing him. I came up with other activities that would let me stay busy and put off calls a little longer.
What about you? Be honest. What sales fears do you most need to confront?
THE STARTING POINT: MAKING A DECISION TO TACKLE THE TOUGH STUFF
Thus far, I've approached this topic from a negative perspective, trying to get you to honestly assess your own comfort-chasing tendencies. By now you might be thinking, "Great ... so I'm totally addicted to comfort and pretty lame about my desire to yield. Thanks for pointing that out, Jeff!"