“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” - Winston Churchill
There’s a simple, irrefutable truth in sales: At some point, we all fail.
But what makes failure especially hard to deal with for a sales pro?
It’s the fact that often your failure is beyond your control.
You’re left feeling helpless. No matter how much effort you invest, how well you know your customer or how polished your performance - you might still miss out on commissions because of something you just can’t change.
Most other jobs have a direct correlation between effort and results.
How many times have you heard an athlete, a coach, a parent, a teacher or even a friend use the hard-work-gets-results cliche in the last month?
Watch any post-game soccer conference and you’ll find a variation from the winners. Does that mean the losers didn’t work hard enough?
“You have to fight to reach your dream. You have to sacrifice and work hard for it.”
This quote is from the best in the world, Lionel Messi. If you asked him to give career advice to a salesperson - he would probably reply with something like this.
Sometimes hard work is not even close to enough.
Sales is different.
In sales you may be doing everything completely right and find that you still can’t close the deal due to forces beyond your control.
But the pressure to hit targets is so immense, and salespeople are supposed to be fearless to overcome this pressure - so we never talk about failure.
Talking about failure to hit objectives is a taboo in sales.
The emotional and psychological effects of failure on sales team members are often ignored.
Everyone just focuses on wins. If you don’t hit targets - just make sure you hit ‘em next month, right? Some sales managers would just send you a Messi-esque quote about knuckling down and working hard - and the salesperson is left to deal with the mounting pressure as the ax feels like it’s hovering dangerously overhead.
This would be fine if failure was a rare occurrence, but unfortunately it is not.
The Bridge Group, a sales strategy firm based in Hudson, Massachusetts releases an annual report that makes for some fascinating reading. The report is based on info supplied by 266 B2B companies, mostly in the United States. The 2017 report’s results mirror almost all previous years in one important aspect:
Only 67% of salespeople manage to meet their regular sales quota.
So you can bank on roughly a third of your team failing to meet their targets.
So we need to talk about this failure stuff more! If you can help your team members bounce back harder and faster, you can have a direct positive effect on your bottom line.
A good sales manager will learn how to spot failure early, manage it proactively and provide the support, motivation and structure to help their team member get back on track. Let’s explore the taboo of managing failure and give you some practical advice to help you steer your team members through the psychological issues to minimize failure, but also to plan for it so you can focus on bouncing back quickly.
A bad run of sales can hit almost anyone, and it’s invariably the most successful salespeople who take failure the hardest.
As a Sales Manager - you need to look beyond the financial toll this takes on your business. Sales is commission based. Your team’s livelihood is directly affected by poor performance. There’s a genuine emotional toll that comes from a bad run of missing targets.
Studies consistently show that people who have been successful before experiencing a period of failure will start to doubt their own abilities. This leads to feelings of helplessness and an inability to take decisions. Prolonged failure may even lead to self-sabotage, where failure becomes so ingrained and expected that people subconsciously engineer it themselves.
Managing failure is one of the toughest challenges any sales manager will face.
Often, the reflex reaction is to blame, isolate and eventually fire the failing team member.
This does absolutely nothing to help you reach your targets in the short term, as you have one less team member closing deals while you engineer their exit, and will almost certainly serve to demoralize the rest of your team.
The feeling that failure to meet targets will be met with immediate punishment does not engender loyalty or trust. Support, help, and a clear recovery plan will.
Fear may be a great motivational tool in the short term, but it almost always backfires in the long run.
Almost invariably, the first person to spot looming disaster is the one who is doing the failing.
Many salespeople will do their utmost to hide the fact they are struggling in fear of losing their jobs. They will keep telling themselves that things can still be turned around, even if things get past the point of no return.
If you’ve ever been in this situation you know the anxiety involved, as well as the downward spiral failure can generate.
“If your team knows they are able to alert you when things start going wrong without fear of losing their jobs or being taken to task, they will often act as their own early warning systems. Make sure that they know they can come to you for help rather than punishment.”
This needs to carry over into your team culture.
Sales offices can be highly competitive environments. If the entire team know a member is struggling, they are often avoided or ignored rather than actively supported. This compounds the negativity they already carry and adds to the pressure.
Training and clear process are hugely important.
What are the warning signs in your sales cycle?
What defines a healthy sales pipeline in your company.
Can you develop triggers within your CRM to flag the potential for missed targets before the failure?
Make sure these things are clear in the minds of your sales team. Teach them how to see the trouble before it becomes irreparable.
Before you even speak to the struggling salesperson, look at the environment you’ve created for your team.
Is the expected sales process clear?
Has he or she received enough training?
If the problems aren’t isolated - dive into their sales pipeline and search for where the breakdown is happening so you can pinpoint the problem.
This is where a visual CRM pipeline is so valuable. You may spot a pattern that is easily corrected. Maybe they are not so good on the phone or their presentation skills could use some work. Only once you’ve clearly defined a problem, you can lower the anxiety level by allowing them to focus on improving a specific area of their performance. You can find real, practical solutions instead of leaving your team member with the generic and confusing ‘try harder next time’.
“The Bridge Group report shows new salespeople take on average 4.5 months to get fully up to speed, so training existing staff and improving their skills in specific areas is almost always quicker and more cost effective than firing and rehiring.”
Helping someone with specific skills will motivate them by communicating that you’re also invested in their personal success, not just your own KPIs and the company’s bottom line.
Here’s a few other specific options you can consider to help a struggling team member:
Once the deals start drying up, the expectation of failure can become an unhealthy obsession that looms over everything your salesperson does.
Help your struggling rep by focusing on an activity based sales strategy.
Shift their focus to successfully completing the component tasks of your sales process.
You’ll can give them back a sense of accomplishment. This has been proven to be an effective way of overcoming the pressure of closing of deals and getting back to successful sales.
The strongest negative emotion triggered by failure is the feeling of a loss of control. Activity based selling is designed to give back that sense of control and prevent people from obsessing about the outcome of the deal. Because in sales the only thing you can control are your actions!
Help them understand what elements of the deal are actually under their control and that, by doing these as well as possible, they stand a much better chance of improving their results.
A sales pipeline heavy on late-stage deals and light on new prospects is a recipe for a dangerous future.
If you find a salesperson is generally spending more time on deals that are lost rather than on deals that are won, you need to reverse this trend fast.
What can you do in this situation?
Make sure your forecasting is both accurate and actionable by avoiding these 5 common sales forecasting mistakes.
Is your forecasting stringent and thorough enough? A monthly report and pipeline analysis is fine for someone who is closing like crazy, but if someone is struggling you should increase the frequency of your check-ins.
Use your forecasts to take preventative action.
A sales manager wears many hats. You’re part boss, mentor, motivator, disciplinarian, and therapist, all rolled into one.
When a staff member is struggling it is often the last item on this list that is most important.
Take the time to really listen to your employee and look beyond the office.
It may just be that the reason behind their recent performance is related to issues outside the workplace. While you may not be able to solve these issues, simply showing compassion and lending a sympathetic ear may go a long way to helping them.
Overall, it pays to show some patience. Good salespeople don’t become bad ones overnight.
Maybe the ‘hard work gets results isn’t the sports cliche we should be pinning up in the office. Instead, take some inspiration from another old sporting trope to lift the spirits of a struggling salesperson:
‘Form is temporary, class is permanent.’
If you show loyalty and support in helping a team member out of their slump, you’ll usually be rewarded with a more motivated and dedicated employee determined to #BeUnstoppable!
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