This article was published in The Harvard Business Review, written by Scott Edinger
It’s widely accepted that if you are in sales, you will have a quota. Achieve your quota, good job. Miss your quota, bad job. Miss your quota by a lot or miss it multiple times: no job. This creates stress for individual sellers and the sales organization as a whole.
Plenty of jobs are stressful and have objective measures of achievement. But there is a special kind of stress reserved for the sales function. When the numbers are down, the reaction from management is to turn up the heat on the sales organization. At a global technology conference last year, I asked an audience of CEOs what they do when they are behind on their numbers. “We beat on the sales team to bring in more,” one CEO immediately said. Everyone laughed. The follow-up comments and questions revealed that this approach was common across the group of 70 CEOs.
While it is the sales team’s job to bring in business, simply cranking up the heat to get the numbers you want can produce an environment where stress backfires. Too much stress in any professional situation will mask talent and lead to poor decision-making. Our ability to focus, solve problems, and accurately remember details declines dramatically in the face of excess stress. We’ve all seen it happen when someone “chokes” under pressure.
When sellers are under inordinately high pressure to close deals, they may become overly aggressive and damage (or end) promising sales cycles. Pushiness and other desperate behaviors reduce sales effectiveness and cause margins to shrink. If your team is selling any kind of complex solution, most customers will become non-responsive when pressured.
Stress can cause entire sales teams to behave as if any business is good business. Need a discount to make the deal easier? Sure! Wrong kind of prospect or problematic deal? Who cares, we have a number to make this month. The attitude is “any revenue, at any cost.” Sellers become myopically short-term focused, just as they’ve been directed. This approach has long-term consequences for the business: mounting losses and failure to create a compelling sales experience.
In an effort to produce maximum effort and create urgency in a sales organization, leadership will apply mounting pressure, drilling down on the importance of making the monthly or quarterly number. In most cases, leaders believe they are pushing hard in the spirit of driving for results. While it’s important to a point, leaders risk pushing to a point of diminishing returns.
You can clearly see how stress affects performance in the below graph, originally created by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson. Their research illuminates how performance on tasks improves with increased physiological or mental arousal. Stress does help us get the job done — but only to a point. Too little stress, and you’re in the weak performance zone; too much anxiety, and performance is impaired. In the middle, an optimal level of stress produces what we’d call peak performance. The technical term for that zone is eustress, which is exactly where leaders should set the pressure to create optimal results.
Instead of just dialing up the pressure on sales to hit the numbers, leaders can maximize performance by engaging with sellers in these three areas:
- Focus on creating an exceptional sales experience. The sales experience is a vital differentiator when customers evaluate their options. Research indicates that the sales experience influences approximately 25% of the decision criteria in B2B selling. The sales experience includes creating value for customers by helping them to see issues or problems they hadn’t considered, opportunities they weren’t aware of, and solutions they haven’t anticipated. This requires sales professionals to apply research, strategic thinking, and acumen to the customer’s circumstances so they can create value in the experience, beyond the product or service they are selling. These nuanced elements of the sales cycle suffer when the focus is on closing a deal within a specified period of time (month, quarter, or year-end).
- Focus on the sales process (not the outcome). The sales process is a road map to creating the kind of sales experience that customers value and that differentiates you from the competition. If you want to create a process that will help your sellers sell, match it to how buyers buy. In each phase of the sales process, there are a few key actions that influence whether or not an opportunity will progress to the next stage. Work with the sales team to understand where they need leadership help. This may include discussing creative approaches to gain access to key decision-makers, planning sales call strategies around critical issues and investing in SMEs to support the sales process and demonstrate capabilities.
- Focus on coaching to improve performance. Consultative selling of sophisticated solutions requires expertise that is never fully developed in training programs. It requires skill development from practice in real situations, which comes from coaching. When leaders focus on building sales talent, they are investing in a competitive advantage for the business. Leaders can provide good models of what to do, followed by practice, clear feedback on specific skill improvements, and follow-up to incorporate feedback into performance —not just once, but over and over again as a skill set is honed to proficiency and then mastered.
As a leader, you have the greatest influence on the stress levels of your team. Pressure may create diamonds out of coal, but you are working with people. Getting results is the primary objective, but incessantly pushing for sales to hit a number can have diminishing returns. The downstream effects may also be hazardous to the overall health of your business. Focus your efforts on actually making people better at their jobs, building capability for improved performance, and the numbers will follow.
Scott Edinger is the founder of Edinger Consulting Group. He is a coauthor of the HBR article Making Yourself Indispensable. His latest book is The Hidden Leader: Discover and Develop Greatness Within Your Company. Connect with Scott at Twitter.com/ScottKEdinger.