Unbound Growth Blog

The Science of Sales Development- Part 2

Posted by Carole Mahoney

 3/24/17, 12:24 PM

Who on your team can and will improve their sales performance?

If you are a sales leader, you have probably asked yourself and maybe even others; “How long should I hold on to a sales team member who is not achieving even 50% of his/her quota? And in conjunction with the previous question..How do I know when they have coached enough to give up?”

This was a few of the questions that a VP of Sales at a tech company asked us recently. Not easy questions to answer, but we have been hearing them a lot lately. Who wants to give up right before you are about to see results? Or perhaps you feel the weight of the investment and don’t want to admit the loss? So much time, money and energy has already been put into this person and the cost of a failed hire is high (yes, even if they are commission only). That cost is especially high for small businesses bootstrapping growth.

And if you aren’t at that point of trying to decide whether or not to give up on certain members of your team, you may be asking yourself;

  • Who should be trained and coached?
  • What should we be training and coaching on?
  • How do we know if they will improve?

What I suggested this VP do as an exercise is to list their team members in an excel spreadsheet. Which ones display the traits mentioned in this article? Mark it in a column. Then I suggested they share the article with each of the sales team and ask them their reaction to each of the reasons and record it in the column next to their own observations.

After the VP sent us the spreadsheet with their observations and their team’s responses, I asked what surprised them the most. “I was surprised at how much they didn’t tell me the whole truth.” Here is why that happens.

When developing a sales development program, many will do a “needs and gap analysis” by identifying what top producers are doing.  It may involve surveys (either simple or multi-layered, statistically data-crunched), focus groups, interviews, and field observation. But there are a few problems with this approach according to science, and as this VP of Sales discovered.

First, people tend to overrate their abilities and downplay their inabilities. According to Cornell University social psychologist David Dunning, PhD, "People overestimate themselves. But more than that, they really seem to believe it." So maybe asking salespeople where they need help or are struggling isn’t the best way to help them? It’s not that they are lying (for most) but that they actually can’t see where they need help.

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is”. Salespeople just aren’t able to recognize their ineptitude and evaluate their competence accurately.

Second, if you have high performers that have been put into a management role, they may “underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.”

When I shared that with this VP of Sales, they admitted, “It’s sometimes a struggle to understand why my team isn’t asking buyers enough questions, or good questions, when the obvious opportunity arises.”

So if you can't rely on salespeople to assess themselves accurately and you can't rely on your top performers turned sales managers to do so, or even your own or outside observations, how can you truly know where to invest in training and coaching and on what topics and skills?

Finally, how much time does an extensive gap analysis that you or a consultant does actually take? Weeks? Months? Then once you have it, how long to get buy in for change and implementation? Can results wait that long?

How do you solve this problem of cognitive bias and buy in? I explained it to the VP of Sales this way, you may have an idea of how smart you are, and others may have an idea of how smart you are. But an IQ test bridges the gap between what you think, what others think, and what is real.   

We are more likely to accept the findings of a third party, impartial diagnostic evaluation based on a scientific process that we are involved in. By creating what science calls a cognitive dissonance with the sales person, a gap between where they think they are and where they actually are, those with a goal will make greater efforts to bridge the gap. Psychologists call this ‘cognitive dissonance reduction’ and has been used widely in educational programs.

How to create the right kind of cognitive dissonance in sales people.

One of the questions that this VP of Sales asked was; “Can I just order a sales assessment test, like an IQ test, so that both my team and I know for certain what is happening and why?” We advised against it. It would be like going to the doctor, telling them your symptoms, they order tests, and give you the results to interpret.

In relation to sales, the reason that is a dangerous idea is that in the absence of a personally meaningful goal, this kind of objective information may cause a salesperson to retreat further into the belief they have of themselves (as being better than they actually are). The mental stress will lead them to avoid situations and information that makes them more uncomfortable and they will make excuses, not follow through, and avoid responsibility for their outcomes.

But when a person has a written and shared goal that is tied to an intrisic motivation, the science of cognitive dissonance tells us that they will voluntarily engage in “(ethical) unpleasant activities in effort to achieve a desired goal.” One note, the researchers concluded that those “who can attribute their work to an external reward stop working in the absence of that reward, but those who are forced to attribute their work to intrinsic motivation came to find the task genuinely enjoyable." This is why the continued practice of goal setting is crucial to sales development and improvement. And it has to get more personal than a quota. (This is why goal setting must be first and foremost for sales development and improvement.)

In fact, when researchers used fMRI technology they discovered that when instances of cognitive dissonance occurred, it was associated with left frontal activity in the cortex, which has been associated with anger. Turns out the move “Network” had it right all along, sometimes to make change happen you have to get “Mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!”

Curious how much cognitive bias is at work in your organization and how that is impacting sales development and results? Do the same exercise as this VP did. Send us your findings (in confidence) and see what options you have to develop a sales development program that results in more sales, faster, and helps you to retain top performers longer.

Topics: sales assessments, sales assessment test, sales science

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This blog is a home for the business growth lessons that we and our associates and clients have learned from the front lines.

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