Sales is not a profession for the weak of heart. From the first cold call, to the last presentation and request for closing, every step of the sales process is fraught with potential peril.
While some salespeople seem to be essentially fearless, never hesitating a moment to do exactly what they need to do, some salespeople’s fears show up frequently as procrastination, refusal to comply with certain aspects of the sales process, and the inability to have tough conversations with prospects and customers.
Most salespeople fall somewhere in the middle.
Dave Kurlan’s organization, OMG, has analyzed over two million salespeople and discovered that even the most fearless salespeople have fears that get in the way of performance. After my call on fear with Lee Gerdes, I caught up with Kurlan to ask him about how fear impacts sales in particular, and what to do about it.
Here’s what he shared about how to overcome fear in sales.
Underlying most, if not all, sales-related fears are self-limiting beliefs that we learn from our parents, society, and/or personal experiences. These self-limiting beliefs become voices in our heads, telling us that if we act in a certain way, bad things will happen.
For instance, according to OMG research, approximately 59% of salespeople have a fear of not being liked. This fear is driven by the self-limiting belief that they need to be liked in order to be okay.
During the sales process, this self-limiting belief activates fear, accompanied by a voice in the head saying things like:
“If I ask this probing question, they’ll be offended (and I need them to like me),” “If I point out this problem, they’ll be angry (and I need them to like me),” or “If I talk about money, they’ll be annoyed (and I need them to like me).”
A salesperson limited by their need to be liked can learn to desire to be respected instead.
When this voice gets talking, it activates fear pathways in the brain. We learned from Gerdes last time that these pathways can activate an imbalance in the right or left side of the brain that leads to a “fight or flight” response. In sales, this turns into reactions like avoiding the necessary questions, or saying things like:
“Don’t worry! I can give you a discount!”
If the “fight” pathway is activated, the salesperson may become combative with the customer or the sales manager and “fight” the necessity of doing what they need to do, or alienate the customer for not “cooperating” with the process.
When the customer does in fact become annoyed or frustrated, the salesperson interprets that as confirmation that their fear was justified, intensifying the fear for the next time, and reinforcing the wrong behaviors.
OMG has identified at least 55 possible limiting beliefs that drive salesperson behaviors. Each limiting belief drives fears that drive negative behaviors that lead to suboptimal performance.
Kurlan says that these beliefs and fears can crop up anywhere in the sales cycle. From prospecting, to nurturing, to qualifying, to closing, salespeople can exhibit fear-based behavior anywhere, anytime.
Common beliefs include “We don’t talk about money, because it’s not polite,” “I’m not qualified to speak with people higher up the chain,” and “I need to be perfect.”
“I need to be perfect” can prevent people meeting their activity numbers in prospecting, because they’re afraid to make imperfect calls. Money fears lead to reluctance to ask probing budget questions for qualifying purposes. And fear of not being qualified can prevent a salesperson from reaching the right decision makers to bring the sales along and/or achieve a close.
Self-limiting beliefs and their accompanying fears are not limited to salespeople. Managers carry all the same beliefs, but they have different impacts.
For instance, the fear of not being liked can prevent managers from holding salespeople accountable. The need to be perfect can prevent them from offering advice and coaching. And fears of being unqualified can prevent them from coaching salespeople in how to effectively reach decision makers.
The good news is that addressing self-limiting beliefs can help salespeople and their managers have a more balanced response to challenging situations, and improve performance.
The first thing to do is to understand the desired outcome. When fear crops up, instead of a fight or flight response, we want salespeople to have a measured response, where the fear isn’t the only voice in the head.
Perfection prevents people from prospecting, because they’re afraid to make imperfect calls.
This leads to different outcomes. For instance, when a customer resents a probing question, the salesperson, instead of backpedaling or becoming belligerent, can say, “It looks like I’ve upset you. Can you tell me more about that?”
The second thing sales leaders need to do is help salespeople identify the self-limiting beliefs that are driving the fears. OMG provides an assessment that makes it easy for sales teams to pinpoint the exact limiting beliefs that are limiting performance. On average, says Kurlan, most salespeople have about 10-12 self-limiting beliefs in operation. A salesperson with more than that is probably really struggling. And a salesperson with half a dozen or fewer is probably doing amazingly well.
In many cases, it’s possible to self-identify beliefs. For instance, people who need to be liked usually already know this. So if you’re a leader and you see one of your people struggling to ask probing questions, you can simply say, “I’ll bet that’s happening because you have a need to be liked.” In many cases, they’ll confirm and you’ll know you’ve identified the belief.
Once you know what beliefs are in operation, you can reframe them. For instance, for a salesperson who is limited by their need to be liked, they can learn to desire to be respected instead. Respect is not gained by being soft and backpedaling. It’s gained by asking hard questions and following up respectfully but firmly.
For a salesperson struggling with a need to be perfect, the reframing may take the form of giving them permission to screw up. Or you might teach them that perfection is not about HOW they make the call but simply THAT they make a certain number of calls. When they’ve gotten consistent about making 100 “bad” calls a week, then you can start working on technique.
Fears and limiting beliefs are a very personal thing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t apply their lessons across the organization.
Kurlan points out that Membrain provides excellent tools for addressing self-limiting beliefs in a structured manner that improves performance across the organization. Using the tool, his team helps managers identify where fear-based roadblocks are occurring within the sales process for each salesperson.
Then they develop content, tips, and coaching and embed it into the process at each point. This way, salespeople see the tips and reminders right when their fear reaction is kicking in. They can use it to bring themselves back to a balanced state of mind, so they can respond effectively.
It’s not likely, or even desirable, that we can ever eliminate fear from our lives. But learning to work with instead of against fear is a valuable pursuit. I appreciated hearing these insights from Kurlan and also from Gerdes and plan to continue to apply them in my organization and practice.
Where is fear operating in your organization or in your life? Can any of these insights help you? I’d love to hear about it.
Dave Kurlan is a top-rated speaker, best-selling author, successful entrepreneur, and sales development industry pioneer. The founder and CEO of the Objective Management Group, the leading developer of sales assessment tools, headquartered in Westboro, Massachusetts. He is also the CEO of Kurlan & Associates, a leading salesforce development firm. He has 3 decades of experience in all facets of sales development, including consulting, training, coaching, selection, strategy, systems, processes, and metrics.
Dave is also the creator of the Membrain Baseline Selling Edition, a pre-configured Membrain with Baseline Selling built-in, including Dave's sales enablement content. This Edition will help your salespeople to make your way of selling into a competitive advantage.
Find out more about Dave Kurlan on LinkedIn