Q: Do you have any suggestions that will help our local sales reps provide increased value across all markets? Stretch out of their market comfort zones?
A: Ah, comfort zones and salespeople. They are the bane of the B2B salesperson. I believe that the loss of productivity and sales effectiveness caused by the limitations of comfort zones is so widespread that it could be the number one problem for salespeople.
What’s a comfort zone? Since we are talking about salespeople here, it’s some aspect of the sales person’s job with which he/she is more comfortable than others. So, it could be that, as in this question, the salesperson is only comfortable with some market segments, and is uncomfortable with others. For example, you may be comfortable calling on schools, but uncomfortable calling on businesses.
Salespeople create comfort zones composed of customers, or types of customers, as well. For example, you may be comfortable calling on production managers, and very uncomfortable calling on CFOs.
And then there are products and services which inhabit their own comfort zones. Salespeople may be comfortable with one product or product line to the point where they ignore opportunities for others.
And, finally, salespeople form comfort zones associated with the processes and tools they use. For example, you may be very comfortable using a paper calendar, and not at all comfortable using a laptop and the company’s new CRM system.
There is nothing wrong with comfort zones, per se. They are just the job-related expression of human nature. Naturally, we tend to be more comfortable with certain people, places, and things than others. That comfort comes from a combination of our unique skills intertwined with our experiences. The combination of those two things leads us to a position: This person, or market, or product, or process feels more comfortable to us than another one.
The problem is the converse of comfort zones – ‘uncomfort’ zones. The problem isn’t that you are comfortable with some element of your job; it is that you are uncomfortable with others. There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable calling on schools, for example. The problem comes when you are uncomfortable calling on businesses. There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable calling on production managers. The problem comes when you are uncomfortable calling on CFOs.
And, it’s not so much the lack of comfort that is the problem. It is the fact that the uncomfortable feeling leads to a conscious avoidance of the uncomfortable and that, then, leads to a lack of action. And the lack of action is the problem.
So, what to do? It has been my experience that comfort is built on the basis of confidence. And confidence comes from only two sources:
Experience and Practice
So, ultimately, you must – in order to overcome the discomfort, practice/gain experience in the uncomfortable thing or situation.
Let’s go back to the reader’s question now and answer it. Here is a set of specific actions you can take to help your sales reps overcome their lack of comfort with certain markets.
1. Create Experience
Give a specific direction. Some salespeople will respond positively to a direction from you that says something like this: “I want you to call on 10 new businesses over the next two weeks. I don’t care if you sell anything. I just want you to learn. Fill out a little call report that indicates what you did, and more importantly what you learned about that market and yourself as a result of each call. I’ll talk with you about them after you’ve completed them.”
In this case, you are forcing the salesperson into the uncomfortable area and stimulating thoughtful learning. I can guarantee you that he/she will be more comfortable and confident with the new market after those 10 calls than before.
2. Help Them Tiptoe Into the Experience
Some salespeople just won’t be ready to jump right into the water. You may have to lead them a bit. In that case, you can either have them come with you as you make calls into the new market or, assign them to ride with someone who is comfortable in that market and watch as he/she makes calls. Again, after each call, I’d ask for a call report detailing the two items listed above. After a few calls, you can then implement strategy number one, above.
Both of these two strategies attempt to build confidence by creating the experience. But what if you don’t see yourself pulling that off? Then, fall back on practice. Remember, your solution must either create the experience or initiate practice.
3. Bring them into the office for a training session on the product, market, customer, or process that is the source of discomfort.
Help them learn about it by educating them in the details of that subject. For example, if the problem is discomfort with a market, help them learn as much as possible about that market: How big, how many people, who makes the decisions, what their problems are, what their objectives typically are, what they are likely to say, etc.
Build their knowledge, understanding that lack of knowledge contributes to lack of confidence.
But don’t stop there. Help them practice by role-playing various scenarios. Comment on the role-plays and help them learn from them.
If you do this effectively, at some point, they will begin to gain confidence in their ability to handle that market, or person, or product, etc. When they have some confidence, that confidence will spill over into action. And that action will lead to them developing comfort in what was previously a place of the opposite.
Thanks for asking.