The Top 5 Reasons New Sales Reps Fail

If selling was easy, we’d be paying high school students minimum wage to do it instead of investing millions in hiring, training, methodology development, and incentivizing reps with highly lucrative compensation plans. Selling, particularly in today’s information-rich, buyer-centric environment, is hard for even the most seasoned sales reps. For sales professionals new to the industry or their organization, the bar can seem high and the landscape constantly changing.

I’ve been grateful to both hire and promote hundreds of amazing sales reps across different geographies and industries. And the number one question they asked was, ”What can I do to ensure I’m successful?” Here are the five main reasons I’ve seen new sales rep performance fall flat early on.

1. They lack conviction.

I once coached a new sales rep who was struggling to build pipeline. The challenge wasn’t effort or hustle; he was definitely making lots of calls. Nor was it at-bats; he had plenty of leads. As he searched deep down trying to understand what the blocker was, his synthesis of the situation was most insightful. “I kind of feel like I’m bothering people when I call them,” he said. Indeed, it was that internal conflict, that sense of treating people in a manner inconsistent with how he would want to be treated, that emotionally compromised his ability to generate the interest he needed. Most outbound sales organizations still rely on their reps’ ability to disrupt a prospect’s inertia with a value proposition delivered with enthusiasm and conviction. However, without a high level of conviction, our reps won’t be able to deliver the results we expect. This is especially true for younger or less experienced reps calling on more senior-level decision-makers (a concept I call “Experience Asymmetry“).

If you’re looking for a simple way to muster the conviction you’re after, try this simple experiment. Imagine you were calling someone to tell them they won $10 million in the lottery. Think about how your tone, expression, and confidence would manifest themselves in that conversation. Would you be inhibited because you’d feel you were bothering the other person? No! You’d be excited because you know they should want to talk to you. Turning your attention back to your solution, think about the value it could provide to your customer in the same terms. What value proposition would you have to channel to generate the same level of enthusiasm and conviction in your customer? Then practice that value proposition over and over until your pitch radiates the conviction you need.


2. They focus on products, not problems.

A huge reason why new sales reps fail to connect with buyers: they don’t understand the PAIN their customers experience every day. Instead, they feel they need to master and lead with their product in order to be valuable. This makes you a solution without a problem! Without knowing and leading your pitch with those problems, it’s very difficult to prove why your company is uniquely suited to solve them. The problem is what your customer spends time thinking about so mastering that narrative first and foremost is critical.

In fact, recently one of my clients told me they recently set a goal to make it through at least 75% of their first-call customer conversations *without* talking about their solution. Instead, they focused on the customer’s problems, the changes occurring within the customer’s industry, and the challenges experienced by the buyer themselves. The results were night-and-day transformative! Customers were 10X more engaged and open to sharing deeper insights about their operation and needs. The take-home message: keep your product behind your back! Resist the temptation to prematurely discuss or demo it until the customer sees you as someone who understands their problems.


3. They overuse phone and email (and don’t “see” their customers in person).

Back at Salesforce, I took on a leadership role for 70 bright, enthusiastic sales reps. As I began my integration into the team I decided to meet with all reps individually to get to know them better and uncover some of their key insights about the region. For the sake of consistency and triangulating feedback, I had a handful of simple questions I asked each rep. One of those questions was, “If you could go back in time and give your day-one self one piece of advice, what would it be?” Hands down the most common answer was:

“I wish I had gone into my territory to meet my customers in person sooner!”

Regardless of how charismatic your phone personality is, something magical happens when we see people in person. But if customer travel isn’t feasible due to your role, business model, or pandemic restrictions, meeting customers over video can be just as effective in many instances. Video conferencing tools are accessible and affordable these days and, like live visits, can help significantly increase the level of intimacy between buyer and seller.  With the virtual layer of abstraction and distance removed, your customers cease to be fields in your CRM and become individuals you can more deeply understand and build relationships with. After you meet them in person customers are more likely to do things like share insights about their personal motivation to buy our solutions and the inner workings of their organization, not to mention return our calls. 

Adam Grant, a management professor at the Wharton School of Business, conducted an experiment to highlight the power of getting closer to your audience by removing abstraction. When he had students who received scholarships funded by donations share first-hand, life-changing stories with the fundraising reps, they saw a 400% increase in average weekly donation revenue.

Don’t have time or means to actually get onsite? Don’t worry! Here’s a quick video tip for getting most of the way there without being there.

4. They don’t know what “good” looks like.

When it comes to sales performance, the metric many organizations use to measure their reps is revenue generation. If reps aren’t hitting their revenue quota, they’re not meeting expectations. The problem is that revenue is a lagging indicator — the end result of a cumulative execution effort involving several key ingredients. If we want to set our new reps on the road to predictable success we need to be prescriptive about the quantitative and qualitative expectations for those leading indicators. For example, how many calls or emails does a new rep need to make each week in order to generate enough pipeline to make quota? What principles should they use to generate the most accurate sales forecasts? Or what does the best, high-impact sales pitch sound like?

In many cases, leadership assumes that sales reps (both new and experienced) can just “figure out” these best practices quickly. Unfortunately, even for organizations with robust onboarding practices, much of the guidance critical for sales success lies in nuance, which often falls through the cracks. In today’s modern sales environment of frequent product pivots and changing customer expectations, I’ve seen even the best reps struggle with subtle changes to product positioning or pricing methodologies. Help keep reps on the fairway by showing them what good looks like.

5. They don’t get coaching.

Coaching is the number one thing leaders can do to improve the performance of their teams, especially when it comes to new team members. In fact, a study from the Sales Executive Council found that great coaching can increase a sales rep’s performance by up to 19%. Another study found that having a dynamic coaching process resulted in win rates 32% higher than discretionary (or random) coaching. But despite the huge impact of this behavior, few organizations hold their leaders accountable for doing it. Coaching should be about helping your people experience personal and professional progress at work. The problem is that there’s a disconnect. Most managers believe that in the 1:1 meetings they have with their reps, coaching is happening, but their reps don’t feel the same.  

For new sales reps, the best coaching should involve listening and driving accountability through data-driven conversations. While being prescriptive when it comes to showing them what good looks like is key, managers should be careful not to overdo it. A study by Zenger and Folkman showed that first-line managers, to a greater extent than their executive counterparts, feel that it’s their responsibility to give orders. Instead of bombarding reps with directives, maximize the impact of your coaching sessions by coming prepared with a good list of questions to help drive the conversation. Write down critical insights and takeaways to ensure alignment and consistent follow-up.

While selling is never easy, especially for new reps, there are definitely steps you can take to ensure your new recruits are set up for success. The key is providing them with the tactical, operational, and emotional support they need to get up to speed quickly. Harmonize these critical ingredients and they’ll be crushing quotas in no time.

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