Friday, July 15, 2011

Pushing Sales Reps Away From Their Comfort Zones

Question: My salespeople are content to stay within their comfort zones – the same customers, the same products, etc.  How do I get them to push out into new areas?  

Dave Kahle:
Ah, comfort zones; the bane of the jan-san sales person.  I believe that the loss of productivity and effectiveness caused by the limitations of comfort zones is so widespread that it could be the number one problem for salespeople. It certainly is the biggest obstacle I come up against in my work.  Let’s dig into it a bit to understand the issue better, and then address the question head on.

What’s a comfort zone?

It’s some aspect of the salesperson’s job with which he/she is more comfortable than others.  It could be on the market side of things, where the salesperson is only comfortable with some market segments and uncomfortable with others.  For example, one salesperson may be comfortable calling on schools, but uncomfortable calling on manufacturers.

Salespeople create comfort zones composed of types of individual customers as well.  For example, one salesperson may be comfortable calling on production managers, but very uncomfortable calling on CFOs.  Another may be adepts at visiting with maintenance supervisors, but unwilling to stretch out to call on purchasing agents.

The same thing is true with the products and services on which salespeople choose to spend their time.  They may be comfortable with one product or product line in particular, and thus choose to focus most of their energies on it.

Finally, salespeople form comfort zones associated with the processes and tools they use.  For example, one may be very comfortable using a paper calendar, and not at all comfortable using a laptop or the company’s new CRM system.

Now, just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with comfort zones.  They are the product of human nature.  We all tend to be more comfortable with certain people, places and things than others.   The real problem lies in the white spaces around the issue.  It isn’t comfort zones that are the problem, it is the “uncomfort zones” that surround them. In other words, the issue isn’t that a salesperson is comfortable with some element of the job; it’s that they are uncomfortable with others.  There’s nothing wrong with preferring to call on schools, for example.  The problem comes when the salesperson has trouble dealing with manufacturers.

Even more precisely, the real issue is not the comfort zones themselves, but the inaction derived from uncomfort zones. The problem is behavioral – the salespeople don’t do what you want them to.
Now let’s get back to answering the original question…

How can you push you sales reps into new areas?

The answer is to identify the missing actions driven by these uncomfort zones and use them to develop additional comfort zones. Understand that comfort comes from confidence, and confidence comes from experience and practice. At some point, every current comfort zone was an uncomfort zone. And the salesperson, through practice and/or experience, was able to build some confidence and eventually become more comfortable.

There is a specific action you can take to help your sales reps overcome their lack of comfort with certain markets: create experience.  Try giving them a specific direction, something like this:
“I want you to call on 10 (fill in the uncomfort type of business or level of customer) 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 the calls.”

Notice how you are forcing the salesperson into the uncomfortable area and stimulating thoughtful learning by giving a specific, measurable direction.   You are holding them accountable via the written call report and conversation with you that follows.  We all know that the salesperson will be more comfortable and confident with the new market after those 10 calls, so by doing this you create confidence through experience.
But what if you don’t see yourself pulling this off?  In that case, fall back on practice.  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 by educating them on the details of the subject.  For example, if the problem is discomfort with a particular market segment, help them learn as much as possible about that market.  How big is it?

How many people are there? Who makes the decisions? What are their problems? What are their objectives and objections?

But don’t stop there.  Many jan-san CSO’s (Chief Sales Officers) make the mistake of thinking that new knowledge automatically leads to new behavior. It rarely does.  So take things one step further by focusing on the action that needs to happen.  Help your reps practice by role playing various scenarios, then comment on the role plays and help them learn.

If you do this effectively, your reps will begin to gain confidence in their ability to handle the market, person, or product they were uncomfortable with.  Once they develop some confidence, that confidence will spill over into action.  And that action will lead them to developing comfort in an area that was previously the opposite.
Ultimately, you solve the problem of comfort zones by creating more of them.