Business developers know about scarcity: paltry lead flow, tight marketing budgets, and not enough time. I could go on.
Thankfully, we’re optimistic people. Optimistic about closing deals, optimistic that customer decisions will go our way, and optimistic that we will prevail in achieving our goals.
In fact, we’re optimistic to a fault. “Salespeople are overly-optimistic,” one buzzkill expert opines. He’s not alone. Never mind that Uber’s executives projected in 2014 that the company would have 75,000 autonomous vehicles on the road by this year, and Elon Musk crowed about delivering a mass-market driverless Tesla by 2019, as well. We all know how those predictions turned out. Yet, it’s salespeople, not CXO’s and investment analysts, who get slapped with the stereotype.
Not just slapped, but spanked. Because the derision doesn’t stop there: “These are the salespeople who claim that all customers love them. They’re always that much closer to making that all-important monster sale. Sure, they make a couple of sales, but never anywhere near the volume they boast about. Eventually the honeymoon ends, just in time for the company to go out and make the same hiring mistake again. So, why does this happen? More importantly, what are the consequences and signs that a salesperson is overly optimistic?”
The writer’s tone makes optimism seem like leprosy. Odd, because optimism got these too-jolly-for-their-own-good souls their job in the first place. Circumspect biz-dev job candidates don’t typically progress past the screening interview. Would the author of that quote favor an interviewee who told him that he sometimes doesn’t have good rapport with new sales prospects, or when asked about achieving stretch goals, hedged his answer by saying “it depends . . .”?
Realists become accountants and engineers. Optimists self-select into business development. When it comes to persuading others that you’re the right candidate to hire, can-do optimism wins hearts and minds. Slather it on – the more, the better. So managers shouldn’t feign surprise or whine when there’s a canyon between revenue predictions and results. They searched for positivity on the resume, listened for it during the job interview, and felt it when they shook hands after extending the candidate an offer.
The daily activities of a revenue producer are chock full of failed outcomes. Reps who endure these vicissitudes have figured out how to shake off setbacks and tackle the future with ardor. So, yeah, hang out during happy hour with a group of B2B sales pros, and you’ll hear most of them describe their half-full beer glass as half-full. The rest? They’ve already moved on. “I used to be a salesman. It’s a tough racket!”
Sales management makes optimistic “happy ears” even happier by injecting their own serum. Reps who candidly forecast sub-quota revenue get upbraided. Or they get chastised for insufficient commitment and effort. “. . . If you tried harder, you’d close more revenue.” Some get surreptitiously labeled Not a Team Player. Given these all-too-common outcomes, which message will a rep convey next time – assuming, of course, that she doesn’t move on to a better gig? Answer: “No prob! My quarterly quota is in the bag!”
No wonder that the concepts of optimism and hope are integral to selling. They’re invoked as routinely in account reviews as future revenue and pending decisions. These concepts are distinctly positive, while crucially, they suggest omnipresent uncertainty.
That doesn’t always sit well with managers. I recently watched a skills video where the presenter’s anti-hope message mutated into invective. He liberally peppered his mercifully short diatribe with profanity. His point was that a salesperson’s hope to achieve a result is mealy – an emblem of weakness. The takeaway: hope is for sissies. The presenter felt demonstrative resolve makes the difference between winners and losers. The remedy? Substitute will for hope, and you’ve got the right stuff. “This will close before the end of the quarter . . . .” Rock solid. Now you’re on the right track!
I understand his frustration, but forbidding hope – or at least expressions of it – can be stultifying in a sales operation – or anywhere, for that matter. Sure, sales professionals invest a lot of time in factual discovery. They want hard, cold information. They want it in black and white, not in shades of gray. But hope about customer decisions and related outcomes are tightly woven into selling. Extinguishing hope from sales conversations makes as much sense as eliminating pathology and treatment from healthcare vocabulary.
Hope suppression in the sales department also discourages candor, which increases revenue risk. The cost to organizations is incalculably high. When reps are browbeaten into avoiding words that convey uncertainty, management loses vital information and squanders opportunities to take corrective action. Before a customer has awarded a contract, which statement imparts greater situational awareness?
1. “I hope to close Megacorp by the end of the month.”
2. “I will close Megacorp by the end of the month.”
As as a manager, hands down, Statement #2 is the one I want to hear. But unless the rep is 100% certain of the outcome, Statement #1 is what I need to hear. Why? Because as an advisor to my rep, I cannot respond to risks I’m not looking for, not aware of, or unwilling to learn about. Just as important, I cannot help my reps become more adept at identifying and mitigating their risks.
Don’t discourage hope and similar expressions of uncertainty. In account reviews and coaching sessions, hearing these words offers managers key opportunities for additional discovery. Allowing them to blow by can be catastrophic.
Questions to answer:
1. Is there support for the rep’s hope or optimism? Start by asking your rep to elaborate on which artifacts underpins his or her optimism.
2. Is it substantive? An opened email or downloaded white paper by a prospect might be considered a signal of interest in some situations, but not in others.
3. Is it sincere? A prospect who says, “Yes – please call me back on the 15th to discuss your proposal” has offered a substantive message. But it’s not meaningful unless it’s sincere.
4. What don’t you know that you need to know? This question exposes the uncertainty inherent in hope component-by-component – an important step for risk mitigation.
Stop disparaging reps for being “overly optimistic.” Instead, give them better guidance. Listen for issues, even if they’re not explicitly stated. Take hopeful expressions as opportunities to clarify uncertainty so your reps aren’t blindsided by risks they – and you – should have known were coming.