Ever wonder why newly hired salespeople fall into the rut of making boilerplate pitches to customers? New research of mine published in the Journal of Marketing suggests that missed sales goals are a significant contributor.
We followed 221 new hires selling high-ticket retail items during their first six months on the job. On a biweekly basis, we tracked the rookies’ sales goals, performance against those goals, and intentions to engage with customers in maladaptive ways.
Jeff Boichuk, a doctoral candidate and lead author of the research, summarized the effect by saying that newly hired salespeople “act more and more like stereotypical used-car salesmen with every sales goal they miss. The process can be likened to learned helplessness, where new hires who experience early failure give up trying to uncover and adapt to customers’ needs because they begin to think selling’s too difficult.”
How can managers help? In an effort to find an answer, we also tracked the degree to which the store managers in our study facilitated a guided learning environment by providing new hires direction, a model of desired behavior, and support from more experienced co-workers.
This style of leadership, however, proved to be fleeting. These transformational leadership behaviors, as they’re referred to in academic literature, lose their credibility when missed sales goals accumulate. You can inspire, show reps how it’s done, and tell them their teams will be there for them all you want; nevertheless, if you operate in a failure-prone environment and they miss their targets, you might as well throw everything out the window.
A more effective approach, we found, is to think long term, promote exploration, and most importantly, frame errors positively.
This leadership style, coined “error management,” lessens the shock of missed sales goals by giving rookies the comfort of knowing that their jobs are not on the line as they become socialized in the organization.
Here are the key findings from the paper:
“Newly hired salespeople need to know that they are likely to make errors as they actively try to uncover customers’ needs. For developmental purposes, managers should encourage newly hired salespeople to make errors, even if it means asking the wrong questions or revealing themselves as novices because they do not have all the answers. Furthermore, managers should downplay the stigma of missing sales goals during the sales force socialization process in favor of promoting these developmental benefits.”
These are profound recommendations given the short-term, results-focused culture in many sales forces today. Further, they add an important caveat to the saying “The road to success is paved with failure.” Evidently, failure is a slippery slope. Managers need to embrace and encourage failure in order to help salespeople succeed.
I hope managers heed this advice. As consumers, we stand to benefit if they do.