I am one of those people who believe sales and selling is a noble profession. We are the bridge that connect problems with solutions, and create memorable, lasting relationships in the process. All the salespeople I know love to sell. Ask them why, and they would reply (in no particular order)

  1. Love to make money as a means to an end [FUN]
  2. Enjoy the thrill of selling [FEAR]
  3. Make a difference to the buyer [FOCUS]

Read my previous article, Why it is time to rethink individual performance management?, to understand the science behind Fun, Fear, and Focus.

Knowing what you love to do is half the battle, the other half is getting good at it. So why is it that so many salespeople who know what they want to do, struggle with performance at work. The neuroscience of performance has an answer, and it lies in human behaviour.

Neuroscience tells us that human behaviour is a function of,

1.Cognition, a combination of skills and knowledge

2.Emotion, a feeling resulting neither from reasoning or knowledge

3.Action, what we can observe and/or measure

Chronic poor performance in companies is usually a result of cognition and emotion factors in salespeople. Action is rarely the problem. I have yet to find a salesperson who isn’t selling all the time.

In the pursuit of improving performance, companies spend enormous amount of money on sales training, close to US$70 billion a year according to CB Insights. Majority of the sales training is directed towards improving ‘action’ of sales people. They include courses on managing sales pipeline, closing deals, presenting to executive buyers, new services, products, technologies, and a host of other ‘action’ focused courses. Interestingly, the same report calls out the fact that over 80% of the sales people forget what they learned within 7 days. Yet, we continue to spend more on training every year, without commensurate improvement in performance.

Cognition:

Skills and knowledge, the key components of cognition, are available in plenty in the market. What sets the high performers apart is experience. We gain experience of two ways, (1) by doing the work repeatedly and learning along the way (which is time consuming and painful), (2) bringing organisational and individual experience through personalised coaching as the sales person does the job. Most poor performing companies score poorly on both these aspects, neither do they have a consistent way to build and groom expertise, nor do they offer personalised coaching. The source of experience should be managers, but they are usually too busy with tactical tasks, short term thinking, and importantly not trained to act as coaches. When this is coupled with transient and volatile organisational memory, distributed and global teams, changing nature of customer preferences, market dynamics, and cost pressures, we have pretty much ensured that your poor performers have no chance to succeed. A potential solution is to start thinking about delivering coaching at scale, and bringing experience to complement the individual’s skills and knowledge.

Emotion:

Neuroscience tells us that imagining an outcome triggers brain activity in the same areas as the actual event. In other words, if a salesperson imagines they won’t hit their targets, they’d feel exactly the same way they would if at the end of the year they did not meet their targets. The motivating effects of achieving a sales quota reduce, and a salesperson will ’emotionally’ give up if there is no hope of meeting the quota. A potential solution might be to have more frequent quota cycles (as opposed to yearly or monthly) as a way to reset the scorecard frequently, and improving overall performance of your low performing sales people.

In summary, if you are CEO or a sales leader grappling with chronic poor performance think about how you can deliver coaching at scale to bring experience to the skills and knowledge mix, and have a different quota management process for your poor performers to keep them positively [emotionally] motivated.

I look forward to your comments.

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