A salesman walks into your office for his regular performance appraisal. He’s confident, charming, snappily dressed and could convince his grandmother to buy a jet ski.

There is a myth that salespeople are fearless warriors

You’ve seen him in action: he knows the product inside out, he has great presentation skills and is a shark for closing deals. And yet… He’s underperforming and you know he can do better. There’s something amiss and you just can’t put your finger on it.

The missing ingredient may be simple yet profound: he does not have enough prospects to sell to. The reason? On some level or other, he’s afraid, or at least reluctant, to make that initial contact, so he is not making enough contacts to make sales to in the first place.

That, basically, is the conclusion reached about a large percentage of salespeople by research coming out of the US. So obvious is it, that it’s overlooked by numerous companies.

The phenomenon has been dubbed “sales call reluctance” by Behavioral Sciences Research Press, a company based in Dallas which has been studying the psychology of sales for more than 30 years. The term refers broadly to the hesitance to make that first contact with a potential client.

“Even though people in sales know intellectually that the more contacts they make the more opportunity they will have to promote their products and services, there is still a gap between what they know and what they actually do,” says Trelitha Bryant, executive vice-president and a senior research associate at BSRP.

“That gap is in the emotional realm: it’s the interference or hesitation to prospect on a consistent basis, to contact potential clients to generate new sales,” she explains before heading back into a workshop on the subject with a group of Maltese executives and salespeople.

“It just tends to be an overlooked dimension. Somehow we believe that if we give people enough selling skills and product knowledge they are going to use it. But what we find is that people still have an emotional discomfort in stepping out and promoting their product in a consistent manner.”

Surely this does not apply to experienced salesmen and women, who have been in the field a long time? Surely they would have overcome it by now.

“There is a myth that salespeople are fearless warriors, super competent – people armed with product knowledge and communcation skills which they automatically use. It is not true. Most salespeople are actually struggling with a fear of initiating sales contact. Even if you are good, you struggle with something.”

Just what hang-ups, then, do they struggle with? BSRP research has classified them into 12 types but one of the most common is the fear of being considered pushy or intrusive by prospective buyers, often finding the excuse of “it’s not the right time”.

Another frequent block is social self-consciousness one might feel in contacting someone up-market, leading to the avoidance of people such as the wealthy, powerful or well-educated. Telephobia – anxiety over using the phone – is the particular difficulty that Christer Jansson sometimes struggles with. He is a Swede who has set up a company in Malta – Confident Approach – to promote workshops all over Europe on overcoming sales call reluctance, which he says accounts for 80 per cent of underperformance in salespeople.

“A prospect could be anywhere,” he says. “Every time I fly I talk to people in aeroplanes. I have sold over €30,000 by doing that. Most people don’t. They think it is too intrusive.”

He says he has seen companies dramatically improve sales through the techniques offered in the workshops: “In 10 weeks, DHL’s 40 sales people went from 80 new customers per week to 250.”

Pamela Allmark, a coach and trainer at Belbin Malta Ltd, agents for BSRP, calls it “sales therapy”. She puts it simply: “We lower the fear so they can approach more customers, so they have a better chance of closing deals and making more money.”

Who would have thought? In customers, emotion helps generate sales; in salespeople it can stand in the way of even trying to.


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