Failure is common in sales. In many circles, people like to reframe failure as “learning” and, in many cases, that’s true. From an early age, we learn how to do things by making mistakes. When we start to walk, we fall — a lot. When we learn to ride a bike, we experience missteps and crashes (depending on how hands-on your helper chose to be).
The idea of learning through failure is a principle that has inspired many people to persevere when the going gets tough. Inspirational sales gurus are famous for quoting the failure statistics of great achievers like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, and Colonel Sanders. These innovators became successful because they learned from their mistakes — and that inspires us.
But what if failure isn’t addressed correctly? What if failure just leads to more failure and locks a person into behaviors that facilitate poor performance? That might sound extreme, but research provides insight into how missing sales goals may be preventing a salesperson from finding success.
When Failure Leads to More Failure
Dr. Michael Ahearne, a colleague at the Stephen Stagner Sales Excellence Institute at the University of Houston, published an article in the Journal of Marketing, titled, “Learned Helplessness Among Newly Hired Salespeople and the Influence of Leadership.”
Dr. Ahearne and his team examined salesperson behavior, sales leader influence, and addressing missed goals. They found salespeople often repeat the very mistake that created the missed opportunity in the first place.
This can be a devastating scenario for a new salesperson without a strong manager. It also helps to explain why turnover rates are often high for new salespeople. If someone is constantly missing their goals, why in the world would they stay in an organization?
The research Dr. Ahearne and his team conducted examined a large group of salespeople over a period of six months to determine their level of success (or lack of) as well as specific sales behavior intentions.
The research team also captured data on the role the manager played in helping to correct the missteps. During the study, one of the key findings was that salespeople who began to experience poor results (i.e., missing their personal goals) rapidly shifted their approach with customers.
The more failure they experienced, the more they shifted from customer-oriented behaviors to sales-oriented behaviors. In other words, they started selling and stopped trying to understand a customer’s unique situation in order to craft a personalized solution. They went from the “diagnosing professional” to the “pushy closer” and results got worse.
Sales-Oriented Behaviors vs. Customer-Oriented Behaviors
As a former regional vice president of sales in a retail organization, I’ve seen sales-oriented behaviors firsthand. In some cases, they showed themselves when a newer salesperson had worked the good part of a day in the store without seeing many customers. Near closing time, a couple would finally enter the store and it was game on.
The salesperson, desperate to make at least one sale before closing time, would move quickly from basic qualifying questions to closing. They missed digging deep enough into the customer’s situation and the pressure would mount. Finally, the customer would thank the salesperson, ask for a business card, and quickly leave the store.
In other situations, the salesperson might take one or two points of information from a customer and move quickly into presenting what they believe are the best options.
Unfortunately, more often than not, the recommendations are based on the salespersons previous experiences and not the prospect’s real needs. I remember hearing a prospect say to an overzealous, sales-oriented associate, “Do you really think you know what’s best for me after two minutes of conversation?” Needless to say, that sales interaction did not end well.
If you are a salesperson stuck in a “rut” you may be experiencing this exact phenomenon. Sales-oriented behaviors undermine customer trust, and without trust, it’s hard to find success. In order to shift back to customer-oriented selling, there are three questions to ask yourself after every sale:
1. What was my customer’s unique need?
When a salesperson can articulate what was unique about their customer versus other customers, it demonstrates a personalized approach. The answer to this question reveals the depth of exploration that occurred as the salesperson was helping the customer. The more a salesperson can identify their customer’s uniqueness, the more likely they’re focused on the right things.
2. How can I/we solve my customer’s unique problem?
At the heart of customer-oriented selling is crafting a tailored solution to meet unique needs. When a salesperson can articulate how the organization’s products or services can be combined for a personal solution, they’re focused on the uniqueness of the customer. Demonstrating a clear solution through your product or service offering is a proven path to sales success.
3. Why didn’t they decide to buy?
The post-mortem in selling is not always an exact science, but it goes a long way in helping the learning process. Salespeople who can identify the reasons why a customer may not have purchased will develop their ability to be empathetic.
This is a step that is best completed with another set of eyes or ears. Looping in a colleague or your manager can help make this discussion productive by sharing the experience and checking to see what you may be missing. The examination itself quickly shifts the salesperson’s mindset to their customer and creates a valuable learning opportunity for future interactions.
Each of the questions above will help to place a salesperson in the “shoes” of their customer and the more they focus on the customer, the better the chances of staying in the customer-oriented behavior space. When that occurs, salespeople are likely to find success.
The Impact of Missed Goals
For sales managers, understanding the impact of missed goals is critical for developing your approach with your team. As a sales manager, your goal is to help everyone on your team succeed.
More often than not, when someone begins to struggle, a sales manager starts coaching and performance management work. Unfortunately, if this is not done correctly, you run the risk of encouraging more of the wrong selling approach.
Early in my retail selling career, I worked with an experienced manager as part of the training for my new position. This manager was one of the top salespeople in the area, and she was known for closing a higher percentage of customers than most.
At the beginning of the day, we discussed the plan for our time together and she made it clear that before any customer walked out of the store without making a purchase, they should speak with her.
She was nice about it, but very direct. It wasn’t long before I walked my first customer through finding a good solution for them. The interaction went well but when it came to decision time, they wanted to shop around a bit more.
Before I could think through what to do next, the manager walked over and stepped into the conversation. She quickly transitioned the customer away from me and into another part of the store where she continued the selling process.
Ultimately, they decided to make a purchase and the sale was won. Unfortunately, I had no idea what went wrong. More importantly, I had no idea what to do if I ever encountered a situation like that again, so I continued to struggle through my early days as a salesperson.
The Importance of Coaching Through Failure
One of the findings of the research on sales behavior revealed that typical sales manager coaching and performance management are less effective when instances of missing sales goals accumulate.
In fact, salespeople who do not receive proper coaching and an opportunity to talk through what they learned are 25% more likely to increase sales-oriented behaviors. If the issue is not addressed quickly, the road back to achieving goals is more challenging. However, there are specific steps a sales manager can take to help a struggling salesperson get back to productivity:
1. Set and adjust goals
Wins are important for salespeople who are missing goals. When a manager works directly with their salespeople on establishing goals beyond the standard budget objective, the stage is set for achievement.
Behavioral targets such as number of contacts with new customers, post-sale follow up calls, or quality of initial sales presentations provide alternative metrics that create the possibility for early wins. The key for new people is that managers are willing to adjust the goals based on actual performance. Providing achievable objectives that escalate over time as goals are accomplished help to keep a salesperson focused on the customer versus the sales target.
2. Teach and model customer-oriented behavior
When discussing or participating in sales calls, emphasize the most important customer-oriented behaviors. These behaviors include thoughtful questions to understand the situation, use of trial closes to gauge progress, persistence in follow up and follow through, and the creation of customized solutions for each customer.
When the manager models these behaviors then the salesperson learns through the experience.
3. Encourage mistakes
This step will be a challenge for most managers. Before I explain it, I want to be clear that encouraging mistakes is more than just observing a mistake about to happen and stepping in to save the situation. That type of approach teaches salespeople to rely on their manager to fix their problems.
Encouraging mistakes helps to reduce the shock associated with falling short on goals. Providing a sales team the safety they need to apply customer-oriented behaviors will lead to better results. Deemphasizing short term results will prompt salespeople to take more risks and that is how learning happens.
The important step here is for the sales manager to coach the behaviors and not the results. Take the time to ask questions so salespeople can identify what they learned.
Challenge teams to answer how they would adjust the next time they’re in a similar situation. Properly coaching and providing opportunities for salespeople to learn will keep them on the path of customer-oriented behaviors.
If you’re missing your sales goals and your approach is to “push” harder — watch out. You and your team might be sealing your own fate. The research tells us missing goals often leads to more of what you don’t want to be doing.
You have an opportunity to reset the direction of your team and your organization by pursuing an intense focus on the customer and taking the time to learn from mistakes. In today’s world of customization and personalization, those who focus on customer-oriented behaviors will be the ones who find success.