Sales Survival (Issue 450)

In which we learn how survival instincts affect our selling practices. Why do so many sales representatives “pounce” on the first opportunity they see in a sales process, leaving potentially larger business opportunities untouched? Why are account penetration and cross sell ratios so low, almost universally?

When I pulled the book, Deep Survival, from a shelf in the Concord Bookshop last Saturday, I was not thinking about these questions. Enjoying the seventh day of a week off, I had finally relaxed enough to read a book. So, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why caught my attention.

Author Laurence Gonzales explores the reasons that accidents happen and common characteristics of survivors – plane crashes, wilderness accidents, boating accidents, mountaineering accidents. Long story short, the explanation for both the accidents and successful surviving is based in human physiology – reactions to stress:

“…hormones released under stress interfere with the working of the prefrontal cortex… where perceptions are processed and decisions are made. You see less, hear less, miss more cues from the environment, and make mistakes… Stress causes most people to focus narrowly on the thing they consider most important, and it may be the wrong thing.”

In other words, in our intense efforts to survive, we narrow our focus and miss important cues. For example:

“ [A fighter pilot on final approach to land on an aircraft carrier] focuses too much on the thing he feels is the most important at that moment: The deck. Home. It’s called ‘spotting the deck,’ because it breaks up the natural flow of his scan which ought to include his meatball, line up, air speed, altimeter, and angle of attack. Once he fixes on his landing area, he’s done for.… The rest of the input [the fact that he is flying too low and too slow to land safely, the exhortations from his deck landing officer] becomes irrelevant noise, efficiently screened out by the brain. So he hits the boat [and dies].”

While very few people actually “hit the boat” due to mistakes they make in selling, selling can be highly stressful. It’s a survival game. You don’t sell, you don’t eat. You don’t sell, you lose status. You don’t sell, you feel embarrassed or diminished. When the heat is on, our intense efforts to survive as sales people lead us to narrow our focus, miss important cues, and suffer loss. For example:

An experienced, skilled business to business sales representative leads a conversation with a prospect. The sales rep is under tremendous pressure to meet a monthly goal. [STRESS!] The prospect shares information that points to a clear (although relatively small) need. The sales rep focuses on it, impresses the prospect, makes the sale and reaches his monthly goal … only to find out that one of his competitors identified and landed an ENORMOUS deal with the same prospect, a deal he never heard about or discussed with the prospect.

How could that happen? We could say, “he didn’t ask enough questions.” That would be true. But why not? Gonzales’ book suggests, because the hormones in his brain, triggered by stress and desire for survival, prompted him to narrow his focus on the thing that would help him be safe – making the immediate sale. Psychologists have labeled this phenomenon “inattentional blindness.” The sales rep did not notice the changing nature of his prospect’s circumstances. He had a “closed vision” of the world – make this sale, be safe and survive.

Gonzales goes on to say that the most successful survivors of shipwrecks, plane crashes, natural disasters, and prison camps have an open vision of the world and the changing nature of their environments. They are curious to know what’s up; they are somehow able to maintain their awareness and curiosity.

So, to our mutual succession in 2010: We can train ourselves and other sales reps in product knowledge, questioning, and selling technique until we are extraordinarily skillful. However, if we don’t train ourselves to adapt our survival and stress reactions, we will miss opportunities and fall short of our potential.

Survival School, anyone?

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, Laurence Gonzales, W.W. Norton & Co., 2003.

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