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The stealth cause of lackluster sales

Dave Kahle

By Dave Kahle

Here's an issue sales managers confront all too frequently. You just introduced a new product. At the sales meeting, the sales people seemed excited. Yet, it is three months later, and nothing's been sold. What's up?

Or, you work with a sales person in the field, and identify some skill that seems poorly developed, such as "asking better questions" for example. You point it out to the sales person, provide some examples and ask him to work on it. The next time you work with him, there is no improvement. Why's that?

Here's one more example of this phenomena: Your company has just invested in a major upgrade to your CRM system. The sales people must use the system to record every sales call. Yet, four months into the system, some are not yet complying. What's going on?

In each of these examples, the company's leadership wants some change in the behavior of a sales person, and some, or most, of the sales people aren't changing. Clearly, if they would just do some things differently, both they and the company would be better off. Why don't they?

In this economy, where things are radically different from just a couple of years ago, the ability to change in positive ways in response to the rapidly changing economic environment is the fundamental success skill for individuals and organizations.

Yet, over and over again, we – sales people, sales managers and sales leaders – all struggle with making the changes that we know we should make. Why is that?

The answer is what I call the gap between idea and action. We often have the right idea, but it doesn't get translated into action as effectively as anyone would like. In my work as a sales consultant and sales educator, I have discovered that this is the ultimate challenge, the biggest obstacle to overcome – the stealth reason for mediocre results.

It's not the only reason most sales people aren't as effective as they could be. Probably the widest spread, most common reason, is ignorance. In other words, they just don't know how to do their jobs better. In every industry, the vast majority of sales people have never been exposed to the best practices of their profession. They just don't know what it means to be an effective professional sales person. Since they have no standards by which to compare their efforts, they default to relying on being "nice guys," developing relationships and hoping that those relationships cover over their lack of sales skills.

With the majority of sales people, the first step to better performance is to educate them on the best practices of their professions, so that they know what it means to be an effective sales person.

For a handful of sales people, somewhere between five percent and 20 percent of the sales force, that is sufficient. They will take the good ideas – the best practices – that they have discovered, and apply them to their routines, improving their competence and confidence and creating significantly better results.

But what about the rest? What about the 80 to 95 percent for whom exposure to good ideas is not sufficient? For the vast majority of sales people, why is there a gap between idea and action?

That brings us to the dirty little secret of self-improvement – the principle that I don't think I have ever seen exposed by the purveyors of sales training and self improvement programs. It is this: There is a price you must pay to change your behavior and become more successful. And the reason there is a gap between idea and action is that most people are not willing to pay the price.

The price is time, energy and, much more importantly, the emotional cost of stressing yourself out of your comfort zones.

Let me illustrate with an example. I recently accompanied a sales person on a sales call in which he had planned to present a major new program. The sales person talked for over an hour, and managed in that time to mention two minor features in the 10-item program. The sales call was a total waste of all our time – the sales person's time, the customer's time and my time.

What happened? The sales person was perfectly capable of presenting the program. But he didn't. Why not?

Here's my interpretation. The sales person had an image of himself as the "knowledgeable guy." Therefore, he found every stray bit of conversation as an invitation to expound on something else. He spent the hour talking because it made him feel good to live up to his image of himself. He never presented the program, because to do so would be to impinge on his self-image. He could no longer be the expert if he was talking about something that was new to him. To do something different would be uncomfortable.

The cost, in terms of his view of himself, was too great. No matter what changes the company wants, his image of himself – the image that he is comfortable with – is going to be in play.

This particular sales person was not alone in this situation. He merely exhibited an example of a phenomenon for which we are all culpable. This conflict between what we know to do and what we actually do cuts a wide swath among the human race.

We rarely make these decisions consciously. It is not an act of will. Rather, it is an emotional pull on our need to remain within our comfort zones. The key phrase in the example above is "made him feel good."

We all develop comfort zones – habits, routines, and practices for which we have developed some comfort. It makes us feel good.

When we are called upon to change our behavior to something which is clearly a more effective and more desirable practice, the cost of confronting the "feel good" comfort zones is too often too much.

In perhaps every company with whom I have worked over 20-plus years of sales consulting and sales training, the stealth cause of sales problems was, in one way or another, the emotional pull of comfort zones.

So, what to do? Resign yourself to sliding down the hillside of slowly diminishing sales results, and hope you hold out long enough to retire? Or, do you decide to tackle the issue head on, driven by a commitment to make the most of your position or your organization?

If you decide to take the next step in personal or organizational development, to ferret out the stealth cause of a lack of sales growth, then I have some ideas for you.

The core strategy is to change the equation. Right now, you, or your sales people, "feel good" when they are in their comfort zones. To make a change in what they do causes them discomfort. The equation looks like this:

Current behavior = comfortable feeling

New behavior = uncomfortable feeling

Change it so that it looks like this:

Current behavior = uncomfortable feeling

New behavior = likelihood of more comfortable feeling

In other words, the pain of not changing has to be greater than the cost of changing. I am 100 percent, absolutely, unequivocally convinced that most people don't change until they become discontent with their current state of affairs. In other words, if you are going to change your behavior, you must develop and deepen some discontent. If you are going to facilitate the change in your sales people (or anyone else, for that matter) you must develop and deepen discontent.

Thomas Edison, said "Restlessness and discontent are the necessities of progress."

Hawthorn said "The world owes all its onward impulses to men ill at ease. The happy man inevitably confines himself within ancient limits."

If you are an individual concerned about stimulating yourself to greater levels of personal performance, then start this process by setting some specific measurable goals that require you to become someone better than you are. Share them with the people around you, so that they can hold you accountable. Specifically detail, in words and pictures, what you'll gain by achieving the goals, and what will happen if you don't. (See my article Creating Long-Term Goals for a more detailed description of this process. Or, see lesson two in my Kahle Way B2B Selling System.)

If you are a leader of sales people, you have more tools at your disposal. Start by creating powerful goals for sales behavior and creating and communicating specific performance expectations (See Kahle Way Sales Management System.)

On a regular basis, recognize and reward those sales people who most effectively make the changes. Have frank and uncomfortable discussions with those that don't.

Consider revising the compensation plan to directly reward the more effective sales behaviors. And, of course, those employees who most stubbornly resist your efforts to move them to more effective sales practices should be helped to find a more suitable position.

Whether you are an individual sales person, or a leader of sales people, you will never achieve your potential for increasing sales, and growing market share until you successfully confront and regularly defeat the stealth cause of lackluster sales.


Dave Kahle has invested a career in changing how people think of themselves and their jobs, and communicating a compelling vision of what it means to be a professional distributor salesperson. For information on the "I Can" Selling seminars and other resources, visit www.davekahle.com, or call 800-331-1287.

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