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Why Salespeople Fail

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Since 1990 I have focused on the three primary barriers which affect the performance of salespeople:-

1. Low confidence and self image

2. A low sense of personal responsibility for their performance, and

3. A low acceptance level of the need to practise selling skills

In all top performers, and in sales team this might represent only between 15-20% of the population, these barriers have been overcome, or at the very least compensated for.

Where many people make the mistake is in assuming that they can solve their overall sales force performance needs by employing people with the opposite of these characteristics.

These people only represent some 15-20% of the population anyway and the stark fact is that merely because people are successful elsewhere, this does not guarantee that they will be successful with you. The reason for this is that your management style may not be conducive to a) creating and b) retaining high performers.

80-85% of salespeople appear unable to overcome these barriers, but simply identifying what those barriers are is only part of the solution. In addition, if you do manage to employ the other 15-20%, without addressing the main influencing factors on performance you can also adversely affect top performers.

Most salespeople, whilst enjoying the perceived freedom and benefits of selling exhibit internal conflicts which can dramatically affect their self image, thus reducing their confidence. This in turn is transmitted to customers, bringing about a self-fulfilling prophecy of low performance. The beliefs which produce this are:-

a) no-one chooses selling as a first career choice. Most people drift into sales either because they can't think of anything else to do or due to low educational achievement, circumstances or lack of opportunity, and thus other career choices become unobtainable. In professions such as sports, music, dancing, and acting, the great mass of people in them make early conscious decisions about wanting to be in that profession. They understand what they must do in order to stand any chance of becoming successful.

b) This apparent lack of understanding of the mechanics of professionalism leads people to focus on such professions as law, medicine, and finance as desirable yet unattainable professional status. The fallback position for all salespeople is that becoming a sales manager does not require any high academic achievement, and promotion to management is almost always based on sales achievement. In this way many salespeople are able to produce short-term performance levels in order to retire into management. The goal is to become a manager, which is seen to be a professional position. For many salespeople promotion is a reward and most fail in their first management role.

c) Salespeople and customers have the same feelings about selling, in that the process is focussed on benefits to the person selling, not the person being sold to, and that part of sales technique is to persuade people to buy something they really do not need. Although many sales training theorists talk about creating an environment in which customers are encouraged to buy rather than having to be sold to, the way in which salespeople are trained and managed rarely allows this to happen. Once again, the top 15-20% do create this environment, mostly unconsciously, but instead of focusing on how they do this, too many organisations simply believe that finding and employing these top performers will solve all of their problems. We can all too easily recount stories of instances where service provided by an organisation falls far sort of the customer mission statements contained in their advertising.

True professionalism comes from a process of accepting the rules within which the professional can perform.

In order to release talent and ability that people have to be able to learn and perform the basics, mostly through repetition and skill drilling. There's a saying that amateurs practise until they get it right, however professionals practise until they never get it wrong.

Most professionals have tools that they use and they also understand that the way in which those tools are used requires compliance to basic rules. For example, a javelin thrower knows that they cannot cross the line when running up to throw the javelin. They know that the javelin has to be thrown point first. An actor knows that they have to use a stage prop in a certain way at a certain time, and they know that they have to stick to the script. A dancer uses a certain type of footwear specific to a particular dance style. They accept that they have to perform a number of steps in a certain sequence. A guitarist knows that they have to strike the strings of a guitar in a particular fashion and hold the strings on the fret board in a certain way in order to comply with the music ? which they follow.

These rules, which ensure consistency, and through consistency professionalism, are understood and accepted by professionals. They are neither understood nor accepted by salespeople or sales managers primarily because consistency brings with the responsibility of inflexibility.

You might have heard McEnroe complain about the ball being in or out, but not of the necessity to serve over the net. Nigel Kennedy may have complained about always playing 'dead guys stuff' but he doesn't change the music or miss pieces out. When Michael Flatley disagreed with the rigid nature of Riverdance he had to set up his own company. There may be modern versions of Shakespeare productions, but they keep the original words.

In following the rules, and adhering to the way basic training has moved them to competence, and the coach towards excellence, professionals have no issue with compliance, repetition, and constant practice of the same skills. They understand that it is through this process that they can release their talent and personality.

Too many salespeople, and many sales managers believe that selling is about personality and therefore seek to employ or become the perfect salesperson without understanding how talent and personality is released.

Once performers have experienced the benefits of practice and structure and of eventually the release of talent and personality it becomes a natural follow on to reach for constant improvement. Were it that easy. There is a missing element.

The way in which the salesperson feels about the job they do has a major impact on their effectiveness, but that's not the whole story. Whenever I ask senior managers what the reason is for one team performing well and one not so well, the answer is inevitably the difference is the manager. My own experience, and research over the last ten years bears this out.

All sales managers are drawn from the population of salespeople and therefore bring with them the same baggage they acquired in their sales role. Although many want to treat their old peer group in a different way few have been shown any other example other than the status quo of ? 'there are those that lead and those that follow'. Indeed most sales managers take up their new positions without any instruction, formal or informal. They then adopt the behaviours their past managers have taught them, perpetuating the status quo. There's an analogy with parenthood. Where did we all learn to be parents? From our own parents. There is no other profession where you are allowed to practice on a live audience other than as a salesperson or a sales manager. Although the title manager provides some internal satisfaction regarding professionalism, the practise of sales management is rarely professional.

Insofar as personal responsibility is concerned all sales managers believe that they are responsible for the success of their teams. Whilst they are certainly accountable no-one can be responsible for the performance of another person. It's a difficult and complicated lesson to learn but it represents the foundation stone of professional performance coaching.The major influence on sales success is provided by the behaviour of sales managers, not salespeople. In common with other professional groups, changing the manager changes group performance for better or worse. Yet in most cases of poor sales performance the first casualty is usually the salesperson.

Messages about self-worth, preferred career paths, and the nature of authority start early. We quickly learn that we generally have to do as we are told, that people in authority have the upper hand, and that the term professional is applied to white collar work excluding sales. In addition, the lessons about being personally responsible for decisions and success begin too late to have any effect.

By the time most people begin their first job the way in which they relate to authority has become embedded. Unlearning these patterns of behaviour requires a significant effort both on the part of the employee and especially the manager. Remember managers have themselves been subject to the same history. By the time they arrive in a management role they have convinced themselves that their position of authority now bestows upon them the responsibility to change others. Whereas as Arguris rightly said in 1962 - ?"No-one can develop anyone apart from himself. The door to development is unlocked from the inside."

Yet even understanding the sales process will not result in sales success. The key to unlocking potential is the coach.

Professionals understand and welcome the involvement of the coach because they recognise that they will not achieve their potential within the intervention of a coach.

Whenever top performers are asked to comment on their success inevitably they refer to the coach.

The answer to sales success and the releasing of potential of both salespeople and sales managers does not lie in easy solutions. Other professionals know that the answer lies within, and in hard work. Most top salespeople will always cite 'hard work' as one of the primary reasons for their success. Hard work is however interpreted by sales managers as 'see more people', and 'selling is a numbers game'. It's not. Most top salespeople actually see less customers and spend less time at work that their unsuccessful and average performing colleagues. If 'seeing more people' was the answer then how is that the problem of low performance amongst the majority of salespeople has yet to be solved?

Having worked with a number of professionals in other disciplines it has become clear that the solution to performance improvement lies within a professional approach to skills improvement through the intervention of a professional coach.

The difference between a successful salesperson and an unsuccessful salesperson lies in the way in which the salesperson communicates with and behaves towards the customer. The difference between a successful sales manager and an unsuccessful sales manager lies in the way in which the manager communicates with and behaves towards the salesperson.

The focus and foundation stone of sales improvement is the establishment, understanding, and implementation of personal responsibilities.

The simplicity of this philosophy belies the hard work required by everyone involved to implement it, and the potential of all those involved in sales to improve themselves.

It begins with setting the agenda and reviewing the journey towards excellence thus far.

The key is goal-setting. Are the aims and objectives of the performer in line with those of the coach and the organisation?

The third stage is about understanding whose actions have brought about the current results ? this is where the focus moves strongly into personal responsibility. The fourth stage is about taking that responsibility for making things happen, for making improvements, and for contracting with the coach to work on an improvement plan.

The final stage is about analysing the results and making new plans for the next stage of improvement.

It is a process that works in the fields of sports, music, acting, and dance. It works in sales. Selling is not an academic process, it is a physical skill, and as such we can learn from these other professions about professionalism, personal responsibility and achievement.

Frank Salisbury is a highly experience motivational speaker, and inspiring business coach, particularly to the sales profession. Frank is recognised as a leading authority in the field of sales - including sales process design, sales performance, and sales coaching.

He strongly believes that whether we work in the public or private sector; whether our organisation is commercial or non-commercial; that we are all in sales. His favourite quote, which has become his maxim, is from Robert Louis Stevenson ? 'Everything in live is selling'. He has spoken at numerous conferences and seminars where his style has received popular acclaim for a speaker with a passion for life, and achievement.

He can be contacted at and at; telephone: 0044(0)1295 250247

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