During lockdown I’ve spoken to many sales leaders across the UK about the challenges they’re facing. One of the critical issues is managing energy: both their own and that of their team. While the current crisis may have exacerbated this problem, it’s something sales leaders have grappled with for decades – in the relentless pressure of the sales environment, how do you maintain energy and avoid burnout?
Since the start of my career, I’ve been fascinated by energy. If a salesperson has a high energy level they can often overcome other deficiencies, but even the most talented salesperson will struggle without it.
In sales teams, there is often a toxic mentality of hustling and late nights that leads to burnout. Many sales leaders believe that grinding sales teams incredibly hard is the only way to get results but while hard work and tenacity are essential, providing the right support for people is equally important.
There are many ways to create an excellent environment for salespeople. In this article, I’m going to discuss some of my tactics and the latest research on how sales teams can keep energy high.
How You Think About Stress Is Important
I’ve completed hundreds of personal performance reviews with salespeople, and when you include informal chats on improving performance it must be into the thousands. I’ve noticed that how a salesperson responds to problems is fundamental to overcoming them. If they come to a meeting struggling but with a sense of purpose and excitement to overcome the challenge, they will usually succeed.
The situation energises these salespeople; they see stress as a sign they’re doing something challenging and as an opportunity to improve. Salespeople who are overcome by stress, focus on trying to eliminate it – they see stress as something to avoid.
There is a growing body of research on how the perception of stress is critical in maximising performance. It suggests that by thinking about the stress response as a tool (‘I’m stressed – this is positive’) versus a problem (‘I’m stressed – this is terrible’) you improve both response and outcome.
Reframing the Situation
The idea of reframing your approach is discussed by Swedish golf coaches Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson. They’ve written multiple books on how to play better golf and they coach some of the world’s best players (including nine major winners).
They focus heavily on the mental side of the game and reframing situations in the golfer's mind – for example, eliminating negative self-talk when hitting bad shots. They noticed that players who shrug off bad shots as an anomaly and remain positive perform much better. These players can take a stressful situation and move past it quickly: an essential skill in sales.
I firmly believe that maintaining high energy can be achieved and I’m going to look at a few of the approaches that have helped me over the years. I hope you will find them useful for yourself or your team.
1. Renewal Activities
Periodically stepping away from work to do something different every day is proven to counteract stress – I know it works for me. My ‘renewal’ is exercise – ideally, I’ll get it done in the morning so I can concentrate at work without distractions. In sales a lot of our work is reactive and I don’t want to miss valuable intelligence while I’m on the treadmill.
In a study by the Harvard Business Review, 79% of executives recognised the importance of some form of renewal but only 35% have meaningful programmes of renewal for employees. The study suggests executives may often be unwilling to discuss renewal for fear of looking weak.
For me, it has always been a priority to help employees engage in renewal activities; I’m even okay with them doing these activities during the day. I’d rather they reschedule a call once in a while and stay mentally sharp.
2. Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time
In 2007 Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy published a phenomenal article that changed how many professionals managed their workload. It describes the vicious (but typical) cycle of higher workload, longer hours and greater stress, and I suggest you give it a read.
The article describes different facets of stress and how to manage them. Broadly, these are:
1. The Body: Physical Energy
2. The Emotions: Quality of Energy
3. The Mind: Focus of Energy
4. The Human Spirit: Energy of Meaning and Purpose
There is a ton of great advice in the article and if I’m feeling low on energy, I find it helpful to revisit the core principles. The fourth principle on meaning and purpose is important but often ignored – I’ve always found that salespeople with a clear purpose perform better.
The section on meaning and purpose discusses three elements: 1) engaging in work that matches your skills, 2) consciously prioritising what is important to you, and 3) practising your core values. I believe if anyone compromises one of these three points, their energy will ultimately take a hit.
The first point is critical in sales: if a salesperson doesn’t enjoy the process or lacks the right skills, they will likely lose energy and motivation. Many salespeople are extroverts and enjoy going to meetings and talking to prospects – they relish the human element of the sales cycle. However, they often struggle with the more introverted aspects of the job like reporting, researching or updating the CRM. I always try to make sure people are working in areas where they are strong and then fill in the gaps later.
Secondly, I never expect that someone’s job is their whole life. I’ve seen many sales reps get consumed by their jobs, obsessing over sales figures at the expense of all else. I used to think that was a positive trait and that hustling hard was not only an excellent way to get results, but also the right way to live.
While it can work in spells, it inevitably causes burnout over time. Everyone needs to have other priorities in their life, whether it’s family, sport or stamp collecting. Aside from family, rugby is incredibly important to me and I prioritise training, matches and social events. I have to be strict with myself – it can be easy to miss a training session when work gets busy – but I’m disciplined about it. Rugby is a priority, and I have to treat it like one.
Finally, the article talks about core principles. This area is challenging: most people haven’t spent much time considering their core principles, and these will just be a vague notion in the back of their mind. But it’s powerful to consciously think about your beliefs and what behaviours are important to you. The article suggests that instead of thinking about what your core values are, think about what traits you dislike in people – it’s likely your core principles will be the opposite of these.
3. Provide Space to Learn
Contrary to what the media perpetuate, sales is a sophisticated process requiring the salesperson to make many difficult and time-pressured judgements every day – often with thousands or millions of pounds at stake. The best salespeople can read prospects, position their sales pitch, and know when to push and when to listen. This skill is refined over time; it can’t be taught on a three-day training course.
The best salespeople are always absorbing new experiences and refining their approach. As a leader, if you dictate too much there is a danger the salesperson will use this support as a crutch; they won’t be forced into the trial and error that is critical for learning.
Of course, I’m not suggesting we leave salespeople entirely to their own devices, but we have to balance support with allowing them to learn. My approach is to err on the side of less support but make it clear they can come to me when they need help.
This autonomy will help ambitious and talented salespeople thrive. The right people will get energy from the freedom and support of this approach.
4. Emotional Labour
Susan David writes about emotional labour, a term used by psychologists that means the difference between your feelings and your actions; think about a waiter apologising to an unreasonable customer or a salesperson laughing at a prospect’s inappropriate joke.
The bigger the disconnect between how a person feels and how they act, the more significant the emotional labour. Some emotional labour is necessary – we can’t all go around acting exactly how we feel – but prolonged periods of hiding authentic feelings is well recognised as a cause of anxiety, depression and poor job performance.
With my team, I always try to create a sense of authenticity and honesty; primarily by being straightforward with people and giving them the room to be honest with me. If people make mistakes, are tired or are feeling negative, I want to know so I can help. Salespeople are out there meeting clients and putting a game face on, so when they come back to the office it should be an environment where they can be themselves.
When meeting clients, although there has to be some element of having a professional game face I encourage my team to be as authentic as possible. That means trying to understand the client, being straightforward about how the solution can help and trying to be themselves as much as possible.
In these challenging times, accept that you may have low energy but recognise that there are well-researched ways to improve how you feel.
Richard West is the chief revenue officer at Red Flag Alert, a business intelligence technology solution based in Manchester. To discuss any of the topics in this article reach out to him on firstname.lastname@example.org