Thursday, August 22, 2013

Understanding Your Top Sellers: Observation One...They fear failure


Are you trying to hire top sellers? Do you understand what makes them tick?

An interesting challenge in any industry: how do you identify who would be a top seller?

Test manufacturers would have you believe that you can “profile” top sellers as a guide to hiring practices. They take the top producers, give them a test, and then use the combined averages as a guide to whom you should select and whom you should ignore.  

Unfortunately, such a practice does not work. It only sells tests.

It does not work, because no test can sample how a seller thinks. It is the thinking process that differentiates top sellers from the rest of the pack.

Try this: Take your top sales producers and put them in a room. Do they look alike? Do they dress in a similar way? Do they sound alike? Do they have similar interests? Are they all extroverts? Are they all verbal?

Probably not!

Any group of top sellers is more likely to include more individual differences then similarities on the surface. It is only beneath the surface that you can begin to understand and see that a top seller thinks in a unique way when compared with an average producer. 

In my 35 years of interviewing and watching the development of sales professionals, I have identified what really differentiates the elite sales force. I hope my observations are helpful.

OBSERVATION ONE:  Top sellers are driven by fear and anxiety

When working with Dean Witter many years ago, I was once told the story of a senior manager who took his top two producers to breakfast one day. He said, “You both make well over a million dollars a year. Yet you are both the first ones in each morning and the last to leave at night. Why? I want you to write as simple an answer as you can on the back of this piece of paper.” He gave them a moment and then took the papers from them. Both had written the same word: FEAR

Top sellers act confident. They can even appear arrogant and superior at times. But beneath the surface, their driving force is fear. They are anxious that their string of successes will run out. As a result, they must work harder each day to prevent such failure.

The top seller from the food distributor John Sexton & Co. had come within $50 of breaking the all-time record sales for a fiscal year.  I stopped by his desk to congratulate him. I mentioned how close he had come to breaking the record. He just laughed and opened his bottom desk drawer. In the drawer, he had thrown a stack of papers. I indicated that I did not understand. He said, “Those are orders I did not turn in this month.  I was afraid I was just getting a lot of end-of-year orders, and I would have no sales at all in January. So I tossed the orders in here until after January 1.” In his drawer were at least $500 worth of sales orders.

Most top sellers will not admit to fear. But listen to their words. They often talk about being “lucky.” When asked to explain what they do that is different from others, they will grasp at concepts that only sound good but reflect little of what they do. “Lucky” means they believe it could all end tomorrow. They rarely can tell you why they are successful.

“Lucky” also means “I’m not sure I can do it again.” As a result, it is often the top sellers who yell loudest about having their quotas increased. A larger target for the next year, based on their performance for this year, only increases their fear. They typically sandbag their forecasts, not just to ensure that they will get their bonuses, but as a way of dealing with their fear about their future.

I once heard a sales manager complaining about the lack of urgency in a seller. She had been a top seller before being promoted. Her complaint: “This may be the only time we have such a window of opportunity with this customer.” Logically, this is not likely to be true. However, she is a top seller by nature, and her fear is that such an opportunity could disappear.  It is not “We have an opportunity and let’s move on it.” Instead, it is “We have an opportunity and may lose it.”

Top sellers could be classified in psychological terms as “Away-from” personalities rather than “Toward.” They want to prevent or avoid failure. That is why, as Daniel Pink has observed in a recent book, incentives do not really work with top performers. Top sellers are motivated to prevent failure, and a quota with bonus is nice but not a driver. Their drive is internal and comes from their need to avoid that which they fear the most—failure. If they do not get their bonus, they are disappointed and even angry, but the real reason is that missing their target suggests that failure may be lurking ahead. If they achieve their bonus, it is enjoyed, but it does not motivate them to do anything different the next year.  It is also why some top sellers, when they get in a slump, have more difficulty than most crawling out of it. A slump may be seen as temporary by average sellers. Top sellers assume it is their worst nightmare coming true.

The fear I see in top sellers is what I call a “healthy neurosis.” It is the reason they answer the phone quickly, yell about orders being slow to get through the office, or complain that customer service is not being responsive to a customer need. When a neurosis becomes so bad that a person is afraid to act, then it is no longer a motivator but a liability. But a healthy neurosis is seen as an excellent source of motivation. It drives the top seller to work hard the next day rather than relax after a big sale. After all, today may have been the result of luck, and tomorrow may begin a long drought of no-sales. Therefore, they get up early and tackle the job that needs to be done.

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