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Inner Game of Prospecting

This article has appeared in Thriving Business Strategies Magazine. Connie was also featured as one of the “Business Superstars.”

Salespeople and entrepreneurs under perform because they don’t sell enough. They don’t sell enough because they don’t have enough prospective buyers to sell to. And they don’t have enough prospective buyers because they don’t initiate contact with new prospects in sufficient numbers. For many low producing salespeople, initiating first contact is emotionally uncomfortable, so they avoid it, put it off or contort it into alternative and sometimes barely recognizable contact strategies such as colorful mailouts, deflected identities (“I’m here to advise you, not to sell you anything”) or calling only on limited, emotionally “safe” segments of the market. This coping style is called compensatory prospecting. It is practiced by many salespeople and some entire sales organizations and businesses.

Regardless of how manicured a salesperson’s presentation technique is, nothing gets sold unless and until contact is initiated with prospective buyers. Ultra-slick presentation skills, dazzling rapport-building techniques, detailed product knowledge, clever closes and expensive sales training all are potentially valuable. But they cannot and will not return a penny of profit if salespeople don’t have prospects to sell to. First things first.

Prospecting is the one defining core competency that is absolutely essential for success in sales. Prospecting by itself does not confer success. But not prospecting guarantees failure.

George W. Dudley and Shannon L. Goodson, behavioral scientists, began formal studies of potentially high-producing salespeople who were under performing because of emotional discomfort with prospecting back in 1970. They have been specializing in this area ever since. What they eventually uncovered is a discrete pattern of escape and avoidance associated with establishing first contact. The hesitation to make the initial contact is an emotional twitch that impairs the ability of otherwise talented, capable people to establish first contact with other people. It can surface in any social contact situation – from requesting a raise to networking events to asking for dates.

When the hesitation is found in salespeople, it exacts a spirit-crushing toll on prospecting behavior, placing an artificially low emotional limit on the number of calls one can comfortably make. When this happens, a salesperson or entrepreneur experiences what we call sales call reluctance.

Unlike popular designations like “fear of rejection” which is broad, sales call reluctance is highly specific. Some call reluctant salespeople have trouble using the telephone as a prospecting tool. Others have trouble initiating contact with prospective buyers face-to-face. Still others can call on people with lower socioeconomic standing, but not higher. They “target avoid” rather than “target market.” Some have trouble making first contact with any prospective buyer. All of them already know how to prospect. The question is whether they will emotionally allow themselves to prospect.

Call reluctance can be present at the onset of a sales career, or it can strike suddenly, without warning, in highly productive sales veterans. Its origins are multiple and complex. There is no single source, no single germ-like “timidity” to destroy. But, call reluctance can be traced to three basic sources: personality predispositions, hereditary influences and environmental influences. Of these, environment is by far the worst culprit.

Some forms of sales call reluctance can be traced to a single, traumatic early selling experience. Sometimes the cause is over-tightened performance pressures or burdensome administrative procedures. In a surprising number of cases, highly contagious forms of sales call reluctance are inadvertently carried and spread by the sales training process itself.

Type is Important

Sales call reluctance is not another buzzword. It has objective reality, which means that it exists whether you think it does nor not. And, using properly designed and calibrated assessment instruments, it can be objectively measured.

To complicate matters somewhat, sales call reluctance is a moving target with a multiple personality. It can assume twelve distinct prospecting-avoidant identities. That’s one reason sales trainers, managers and psychologists have had such a difficult time dealing with it over the years. They presumed it was one thing and tried to correct it accordingly.

Knowing which of the 12 types holds you or your salespeople hostage is important.

Doomsayer: Worries, will not take social risks (loses three new accounts per month).

Over-Preparer Over-analyzes, underacts (sells at 43% of quota)

Hyper-Pro: Obsessed with the image and looking good (but is rated only average in presentation skills.) Confuses packages with prospecting.

Stage Fright: Fear group presentations (loses $10,800 in annual gross sales).

Role Rejection Secretly ashamed of sales careers; deflects identity (loses four accounts per month).

Yielder: Fears intruding on others (impedes success of TQM programs).

Socially Self-Conscious: Intimated by up-market clients (sells 33% under quota).

Separationist: Won’t mix business and friends (loses three accounts per month).

Emotionally Unemancipated: Won’t mix business and family (sells 15% under quota).

Referral Aversion: Fears distributing existing business or client relationships (sells 19% under quota).

Telephobia: Fears using the telephone for prospecting (loses $10,000 in commissions annually).

Oppositional Reflex: Argues, blames, rebuffs attempts at coaching (loses nine new accounts per year.)

Call reluctance carries with it heavy emotional and financial costs. Think about how they may apply to you or someone you know.

Most cases of sales call reluctance are acquired. The good news is that, since these behaviors are learned, they can be unlearned with proper training and modern psychological countermeasures. But not all behaviors respond best to the same treatment. That’s why proper diagnosis of type is essential.

Portions of this article adapted with permission from The Psychology of Sales Call Reluctance® by George W. Dudley and Shannon L. Goodson, © 1999, Behavioral Sciences Research Press, Dallas, Texas.