In a 2006 Harvard Business Review
article about the psychology of salespeople, the author compared the mind of the sales professional to that of the professional gambler. There are some key similarities between the two. Both operate in a binary environment of winning (closing the sale/winning the jackpot) and losing (customer rejection/financial losses). But, the gambler's environment is rooted in a series of random events. By contrast, the sales professional's environment can be measured, predicted, and - most importantly - improved.
In sales, an 80% rejection rate is normal; 60% is exceptional. Because of this high rate of rejection, sales professionals rely on a coping mechanism similar to their chance-addicted counterparts: External Attribution
. Sales professionals and gamblers alike protect their psychies by attributing their loss/rejection to outside forces. Gamblers can attribute their losses to externals like incompetent jockeys and poor free-throw shooting. Sales professionals can likewise blame a customer's poor decision making, bad timing, or any number of uncontrollable factors.
The instinct to shield one's self from rejection and loss, while natural, can become problematic. Unlike the gambler, sales professionals
have peers and managers to help them improve. Moreover, sales professionals must improve in order to keep their jobs
. Astute sales leaders will recognize this externalization and train their sales staff to make more productive internalized responses.
External attribution prevents the sales professional from asking the key question: "What could I have done differently?"
Asking this key question forces the sales person to look beyond the uncontrollable variables that come with the job. It prods sales professionals to view their actions within the framework of a given sales process and examine the uncomfortable tactical decisions designed to advance the sale.
A troublesome question many sales leaders ask is "What did you do wrong?" Unfortunately, it's usually asked after the sale is lost and the salesperson is emotionally and financially vulnerable. This accusatory question leads salespeople to shift the blame and give their leaders thoughtless, superficial answers. This is the seed of missed growth opportunities and ingrained bad sales practices.
Asking, "What could I have done differently?"
forces the each salesperson to evaluate each step of the sales process
and decide if the actions and decisions were best suited for a particular client and/or situation. If so, how should those actions be replicated for other clients and situations? If not, how can these actions or decisions be improved or eliminated in the future?
During regularly scheduled follow-up evaluations, sales leaders should ask the sales professional to rank his comfort with the various sales phases. Starting with the salesperson's least comfortable phase of a sample sales, the leader should have the salesperson
give a recap and his impressions of the situation and then ask the all-important question, "What could you
have done differently?"
This key question gets beyond "I couldn't close the sale" and creates actionable steps to get sales reps working at their best in every sales interaction. The manager helps sales professionals compare their performance to an ideal customer interaction. This lifts the performance to meet and exceed those ideas each and every sale.
The gambler can recognize the opportunity to win huge jackpots during the college basketball tournament, but after his bracket is completed his fate is out of his control. Each game is full of random ups and downs, an infinite number of chance happenings leading to wins and losses. The sales professional, on the other hand, when armed with lessons learned from previous wins and losses, can refine and control her responses in order to groom the outcome of future sales.