Are lone sellers costing you customers?

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Sales have always had moments of loneliness. However, when the pandemic sent sellers home on Zoom, the loneliness became palpable. It becomes a costly problem.

Many of the changes to the Vendor profession are no longer temporary. Our customers report that a portion of buyers are permanently working from home. Sales organizations are hiring more remote employees and video calling is the expected norm.

In an agenda-driven video sales call, the social elements (handshakes, shared coffee, etc.) that once humanized the sales interaction have been removed. Without these emotionally engaging elements and without a bullpen of colleagues to boost morale, sales jobs increasingly become transactional and solitary roles.

As one salesperson said, “I used to be busy all the time, and part of it was fun. Now I’m on Zoom just trying to stay awake. I realize I need more social interactions, but in the end, I’m too exhausted to put in the effort.

Left unaddressed, salesperson loneliness can become a costly problem. Recent to research conducted by one of us (Dr. Good) reveals that loneliness is more than just a blow to morale – it has begun to impact salespeople’s behavior with customers, leading to erosion revenue, margin and market reputation. Dr. Good’s data was gathered from two studies that surveyed more than 250 B2B and B2C sellers from various industries, as well as qualitative follow-up interviews, performance data and observations from more than a dozen of sales teams. The results revealed that salesperson loneliness is at the root of three problematic behaviors that ultimately create a cycle of poor performance:

1. Social Awkwardness

When social skills aren’t practiced regularly, they break down like any other muscle. Salespeople in studies were frequently observed misinterpreting social cues and misjudging the importance of key details in interactions with customers. While it should come as no surprise – we’re all a little clumsy these days – sellers pay a particularly high price for missing social signals. Buyers are less likely to engage, and the trust needed to build relationships doesn’t happen.

This problem is further compounded by the fact that sellers can enter a sales interaction moments after being rejected by a previous customer. Without the buffer of nearby peers to help them reset, this could increase the potential for a trust deficit, contributing to even more initial awkwardness on the next call. An awkward start has a chilling effect on customer engagement and can derail or, at the very least, stall what could have been a successful sales process.

2. Loss of focus on customer needs

Salespeople who are too eager for social connection don’t listen carefully during the needs assessment phase of the sales process. Data revealed that these lone salespeople were more likely to forget critical customer information.

In a virtual environment, the visual cues that make each customer distinctive and memorable are often missing. When every customer is just another little box on your same computer, in the same room, talking about the same things, they bleed together. This lack of distinction makes what happened (and what the client said) harder to remember. As one salesperson told us, “I work with 20 customers a day, and every call is the same.”

We’ve also seen evidence that because they don’t have enough meaningful social connections outside of their jobs, salespeople may end up treating the customer like a confidant, someone they share with, rather than someone they share with. ‘one whose needs should be the organizing element of the conversation.

Without a clear understanding of specific customer needs and goals, salespeople are unable to create a compelling or differentiated story about their solution. This altered memory at the start of the process ends up hampering them when they try to close.

3. Overspending Obvious to Customers

Nowhere was the direct cost of sellers’ loneliness more evident than their expense account. Dr. Good’s studies have shown that salesperson loneliness is directly linked to increased customer spending. It’s not hard to see why someone feeling lonely would want to buy gifts and meals for their customers, or why they might want to lower the price to maintain a friendship with their customers. These actions usually generate a warm response from customers, and what single person doesn’t want to generate a more positive emotional response from the people they spend time with?

As warm as it may seem at the time, this “lover” did not improve salesperson performance in either of Dr. Good’s two studies. While buyers may have been grateful and sellers may have gotten the dopamine high from positive social interaction, this obvious overspending hasn’t created additional revenue. It was a cost with no return on investment.

In today’s social environment, many sellers are over-indexing the old adage that “people buy from people they love.” In an effort to endear themselves, salespeople have forgotten the true purpose of sales: to improve the lives of customers.

How managers can help lone sellers

As humans, we are wired to seek meaningful connection. The challenge for salespeople (and their managers) is two-fold: the shift to virtual has created a huge interpersonal void for salespeople whose time was previously filled with human interactions. Second, when salespeople try to alleviate their loneliness, their coping behaviors trickle down to customers, directly impacting the organization’s financial health and reputation.

The above three behaviors create a dangerous cycle that erodes competitive differentiation, eats away at margin, and leads to costly turnover in the sales role. With the virtual world of sales unlikely to return fully, it’s crucial that leaders proactively mitigate this issue. Here are eight strategies to break this cycle:

Create situations that encourage non-competition.

When every sales meeting feels like Shark Tank, with co-workers pitted against each other, it reinforces the loneliness. Go beyond the usual sales reporting meetings and offer your reps regular opportunities to meet without agendas or competitions. Something as simple as a weekly 15-minute “Share your favorite TV binge” huddle gives salespeople a way to connect with colleagues rather than imposing their loneliness on unsuspecting customers.

Activate a sense of shared purpose.

Sales loneliness amplifies when salespeople feel they are nothing more than a lone wolf quota-filler. You can help counter this feeling by regularly reinforcing a sense of higher purpose. Make a habit of discussing how your organization’s solutions make a difference to customers and how each team member contributes. It reminds salespeople that their work has meaning and that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

Design a peer support structure.

Hold regular peer-to-peer meetings where salespeople brainstorm together to improve each other’s skills. For example, you can ask people their favorite questions to ask when discovering or how to open new conversations without embarrassment. Putting sellers in a position where they share best practices creates a support structure they can lean on during times of challenge and change.

Do some brain training.

Listening skills were the most obvious (and potentially detrimental) thing to decline for reps suffering from loneliness. Reverse this trend by hosting a quick training exercise for your sales team where they practice listening to and responding to each other while describing personal things like weekend plans or how they have set up their workspace . Improving their listening skills in low-stakes social settings, where there is no risky transaction, will help them do the same in front of customers.

Make sure your sales team is crystal clear on your value proposition.

When a representative is confident in the value proposition they offer customers, they are less likely to give discounts or “like themselves.” Without this solid foundation, a rep is more likely to feel like they’re risking the personal connection by offering a price that may be perceived as too high or too expensive for the customer to mitigate negative feelings.

Establish spending guidelines and model appropriate gifts.

When spending guidelines are vague, it distracts from the real purpose of selling, which is to improve the lives of customers. Show your sellers exactly what proper and effective spending looks like. Maybe it’s giving clients a helpful book about an issue they’re facing or providing them with a coffee gift card to use at your meeting. Demonstrate to your team that your solution combined with their own expertise is enough; you don’t need elaborate giveaways to make connections.

Encourage your salespeople to schedule short breaks between customer calls.

Tell your salespeople, “Give yourself five minutes between calls to review the notes, have a glass of water, and remember how we’re making life better for these customers.” This will increase their confidence in their offer and give them a chance to get rid of what could have been a failed call. Anchoring in the value of their offer helps them start more strategically and curbs the impulse to overshare.

Encourage friendships outside of work.

Your customers don’t need another friend, but your salespeople probably do. But to have friends, you have to be a friend. Truly caring leaders would be wise to encourage salespeople to seek out opportunities to make friends outside of work. While friendship may seem like a touchy subject inappropriate for leadership feedback, research tells us that a salesperson’s lack of friends can be quite costly. Given the high stakes, this is an issue worth addressing.

Salespeople are no different from the rest of us. When they are alone, they become more clumsy, they tend to overshare and they try to connect using any means at their disposal. The strategies above can help alleviate salesperson loneliness and ensure your team approaches customers with calm confidence.

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