There are few careers that offer more considerable financial rewards than sales. Most people know this, and many have tried to make it in sales only to find out that it was not a good career path for them. The reason is that while the rewards are very high, so is the pressure and stress; the stress comes from bosses and customers certainly, but mostly from within the sales professional. This is especially true if you are in a sales position that is 100% commission based. The pressure is the same as other sales positions, but when your entire paycheck and livelihood depends on seasonal or economically dependent products, it is often feast or famine; you either can’t sell a thing, or you’re selling so much you are turning some people away.
It is on these types of high pressure sales jobs that I would like to focus.
There are many reasons that these positions are so stressful, and why it takes a very special personality to be successful. I know, from personal experience, that not just anyone can walk into a sales position and do well. However, while there isn’t just one personality type that fits well as a salesman, there are two traits successful sales professionals have:
- A great attitude
- High performance under pressure
These two characteristics are key to maintaining high morale in such high-stakes sales positions.
If there is one overriding factor essential to success in sales, it is definitely attitude. Sales can be very rewarding, but ask any sales professional how they feel during a “dry spell,” when the sales are few and far between, and they’ll tell you it is like taking an emotional beating. It is easy to want to give up, complain, and focus on how difficult things are in the moment. When you are in sales it is never a question of if those days will come, but when and how often.
Any sales professional worth their salt will tell you that they have had those kind of days, and that they have a plan for dealing with them. You have to have the right attitude, which is a glass-is-half-full, success-could-be-just-around-the-next-corner perspective. Sometimes you have to fake the attitude, but the best sales professionals are those endlessly optimistic types; they are so positive that sometimes their friends worry that they are delusional. Tweet This
An excellent example of the right attitude was shared with me by a former coworker. She had worked in a timeshare call center that was very high pressure; you could not end a call until you had gotten at least 6-7 “No’s” out of a customer. That means 6-7 offers, and the same number of negative responses. To put that in perspective, most “average” sales professionals give up after 1-2 negative responses. The center’s closing rate was about 1 sale per 10 calls, which can be pretty discouraging after hearing 6-7 “No, thanks” on 8-9 calls; you had to have the right attitude to keep going.
There was a woman in this particular call center who had an odd habit that demonstrated her great attitude. She knew that her average sales commission was $1,000, and that the average closing rate was 1 in 10 calls. Every time she ended a call without a sale she would stand up and do a little victory dance and say loudly “That’s another $100 bucks for me!” She knew that she had to go through the 9 bad calls to get to that one good call that would earn her a $1,000 commission. Rather than dreading the calls where all she heard was “No,” she looked forward to them because each one of those calls got her one step closer to a sale; each call without a sale was still worth $100 to her.
For me that kind of attitude is best described by Rocky Balboa when he is talking to his son in the most recent Rocky movie. Rocky says, “…but it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward.” Tweet This When you are in sales, you have to have that “keep moving forward” attitude to get past the disappointments because your next big sale could be just around the next corner.
In an article from the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers observed “Pressure raises self-consciousness and anxiety about performing correctly, which increases the attention paid to skill processes and their step-by-step control. Attention to execution at this step-by-step level is thought to disrupt well-learned or proceduralized performances.” In other words, the problem with pressure is that it typically makes us perform at a lower level. The more we focus on the individual aspects of what we are doing, the less likely we are to see the big picture and perform at a high level. Humans tend to be hard on themselves, often without any external input; when you take that natural tendency and add a high pressure situation to the mix, you have a potential “bomb” waiting to go off.
The easiest way to describe this is to look at a sporting example. World class athletes know that practice is essential to peak performance. They practice during the week because they want to have those automatic and effortless reactions in the game on the weekend. It’s called muscle memory, and it is developed in practice by repeating the same action over and over again. Then, during the game, when the pressure is on, they don’t need to waste precious seconds deciding on how to react–their body goes into autopilot and the training takes over.
Another group of researchers conducted an experiment to study the effects of pressure. Daniel Gucciardi and James Dimmock, psychologists at the University of Western Australia, performed a study of 20 experienced golfers with handicaps ranging from zero to 12. They had three control groups and each group was asked to play a round of golf under certain conditions. The first group was to focus on the “mechanics” of a great golfer–straight wrists, back swing, hip alignment, etc. The second group was told to focus on irrelevant words like “blue” or “white.” And in the third group, the golfers were asked to focus on general aspects of their movement, and to attach those movements to “holistic cue words.” For example, instead of focusing on the exact position and rotation of their wrists, they were asked to contemplate descriptive adjectives, such as “smooth” or “balanced.”
The results were interesting, and gave the researchers some important insights into how we perform under pressure. The golfers who focused on the details of their swing hit consistently worse shots. When the golfers repeated their “holistic cue word,” their performance was no longer affected by anxiety. By repeating the cue word, the golfers distracted themselves and allowed their brains and muscle memory to take over; relying on their training and practice, and avoiding stress helped them perform consistently better.
When we put ourselves into a high pressure situation, focusing too much on the minutia of our actions can cause us to perform poorly. Successful golfers and sales professionals alike know that they cannot force specific results. They approach each situation with their end goal in mind, but try not to get in their own way by allowing pressure to cause them to choke.
Since we already tend to place pressure on ourselves, it is easy to see how the added stress to make a sale can compound to paralyzing effect. When it has been a while since your last sale, that stress can influence your pitch to potential customers. People can tell a lot just from your tone of voice or the way you word things. If you’re feeling pressured, your pitch could be interpreted by the customer as overly pushy, desperate, or self-serving.
Sales is supposed to be about helping people solve a problem or fulfill a “want” in a way that they could not find anywhere else. In order for this to work, the sales pitch has to be all about the customer, and doing what is best for them. When a sales person is under pressure, and does not have a plan for dealing with it, then that stress will translate to the customer. Most people do not respond well to pressure, so if they feel pressured during a sale, their instinct will be to get out of that situation and away from that sales person, as quickly as possible. And no sale means that the sales professional is feeling more pressure, and is less happy–perpetuating the vicious cycle.
To avoid this, there are several ways to help deal with stress in a positive way. Having a mantra that you repeat to yourself is often helpful; Kansas City Royals 3rd baseman George Brett would tell himself to “Try easier” to calm himself in high-pressure situations. Another tactic is to have something you can do when you feel stress, like get up and take a walk, listen to a song or watch a funny video. I keep a bottle of lavender essential oil at my desk, and if I am feeling stressed, I will just breathe in the lavender to calm myself. No matter what the tactic is, the point is to have a plan for what helps you de-stress when you start feeling the pressure. Tweet This
While these two traits are merely the tip of the iceberg for keeping morale high on sales teams, they are arguably the most important points. Most of the other things that help contribute to morale are tied directly to having the right attitude, and being able to perform well under pressure. Ups and downs in sales are an integral part of the job. The very best sales professionals perform well even when the economy is down, their favorite sports team is losing, or the weather is bad. Doing well in sales is almost entirely unconnected to external factors and 100% dependent upon internal motivators–attitude and drive of the sales professional.