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To a disconcerting degree, soft-selling is rooted in negative attitudes about buyers, sellers, and selling. Thus it is no surprise …

To a disconcerting degree, soft-selling is rooted in negative attitudes about buyers, sellers, and selling. Thus it is no surprise that the rise of soft-selling is intimately liked to increasing levels of conflict and discomfort salespeople (of all persuasions) associate with prospecting for new business. In 1979 research scientists Dudley and Goodson introduced an entirely new catalog of offending thoughts, feelings and behaviors salespeople use to cope with the pressures of new business generation. The psychological construct they originated is technically called Inhibited Social Contact Initiation Syndrome (ISCIS). On the street it’s called the “fear of self-promotion.”  Within the sales profession it’s “sales call reluctance®.” 

Sales call reluctance artificially limits the career prospects of otherwise motivated, goal-directed salespeople by choking off new business development. Studies have repeatedly shown that it is more responsible for underperformance in sales than any other factor. 

Sales call reluctance is not a selling style. It’s an avoidance style. Thirty years of ongoing research into this career-killer have convinced us of one fundamental rule of selling: If you can’t, don’t, or won’t prospect for new business, your personality, aptitude, interests, education, experience, training and good intentions are immaterial. So is your selling style. There are plenty of client-centered non-producers and there are plenty of product-advocating non-producers. Style can influence sales success, but it is not a determinant. Studies show that most salespeople struggle with one or more forms of sales call reluctance and that on average it costs sales organizations 15.3 new sales per month of tenure, per call reluctant salesperson. Where do these lost sales go? Probably to less hesitant competitors. Without an adequate number of people to sell to, your leading-edge sales pitch may as well be in some long dead ancient language, for all the good it will do you. 

Many forward-thinking companies around the world have now recognized the costly consequences of sales call reluctance. They have implemented programs designed to immunize their sales forces against its effects, and have adopted diagnostic procedures to identify at risk neophytes and established salespeople before they experience a production shutdown. 

But, soft-sellers collectively betray a rather startling naivet�© when it comes to sales call reluctance. “We were astonished to learn that all but one of the people we interviewed had feelings of anxiety in sales calls”, admits one textbook – despite the well documented fact that due to prospecting discomfort, 80 percent of all new salespeople fail to complete their first year in the profession. True to form, those gurus who are aware of sales call reluctance nimbly blame it on the inherent seediness (as they see it) of traditional selling. Unrestrained by a complete absence of objective evidence, one soft-sell guru sees a casual relationship between the two. “Call reluctance rises,” he says, “as salespeople view the sales process as manipulative”. That’s news. Hundreds of interviews with salespeople in many nations and tens of thousands of psychological assessments and a large body of scientific research have conclusively shown that sales call reluctance is not some moralistic protest against the nature of the sales process. It’s the result of fear: physical, personal, career-paralyzing fear. Some of it comes from personality and temperament. Some comes from physical and biochemical influences. Some seems to run in families. Most is learned. None is traceable to any particular moral perspective. 

Unlike other mortals, salespeople are expected to be perpetually upbeat and positive (although who decided that and why is another story). To exorcise bouts of doubt, conflict or apprehension, they are subjected to one pop-psych quick fix after another. When sales call reluctance strikes potential top producers, they take refuge in coping behaviors which they hope will sufficiently minimize their discomfort to allow them to deny, disguise, or deflect the real problem. Some hope to morph into trainers or consultants. 

Many of the defense mechanisms they employ – from costly, inefficient, “alternative” forms of prospecting to shrill emotion-laden defenses of selling – dovetail neatly with the off-the-shelf soft-sell techniques packaged for consumers. No wonder the gurus tend to turn a blind eye to call reluctance. 

It’s imperative that you not mindlessly follow their example, but try to maintain a respectful yet cautious psychological distance from their indoctrinations. We can’t stress this enough. That’s because “many forms of sales call reluctance are highly [toxic and extremely] contagious”. Negative feelings about clientele-building can be acquired from popular stereotypes, corporate policies, upsetting past experiences, even passing comments by family members or friends. Some sales training programs, especially those of the soft-sell sort, can be a particularly potent source of contagion. 

One ongoing longitudinal research project indicates an alarming statistical correspondence between the rise of soft-selling and increases in three major forms of sales call reluctance: Yielder, Hyper-Professionalism, and Role Rejection. Left untreated, each can have a devastating effect on production. Each can be easily acquired by uncritical acceptance of soft-sell attitudes. 

Deflected Identities           

Take a look at one of your business cards. Does it unashamedly say “salesperson” anywhere on it? Or, does it use a euphemism for the sales function such as “advisor” or “new business facilitator” or “product consultant”? All too often, sales-ambivalent organizations are eager to disguise what they consider the unpalatable mission of their sales force: to sell products and services. Once under the influence of soft-selling, they don’t even allow their salespeople to be salespeople. Instead, to appear more “congruent,” they pass off their sales force as an army of cosmic advisors. 

Scientific studies show that in the corporate environment, soft-sell attitudes and training programs find their most passionate adherents in sales managers, trainers, consultants and even senior executives who are themselves contaminated with conflicted attitudes about the legitimacy of the sales process. In company after company they listen to Zen like mini-lectures promoting the new selling and then hastily implement soft-selling programs in a nervous attempt to mask their own unresolved emotional discomfort with the whole selling process – especially prospecting for new business – passing on their infected attitudes to their salespeople. 

Ironically, the sales executives who perpetrate these client-centered approaches and soft-sell attitudes on their salespeople still hold them primarily responsible for increased sales, even though they are no longer allowed to embrace the clear product-advocating elements of their jobs. The result in many of these companies has been predictable: flat sales, stagnant growth, downward-spiraling retention rates and confused salespeople.  Are they supposed to advise or sell? Is their mission to acquire new friends or new clients? 

What can you do to immunize yourself against toxic attitudes embedded in soft-selling as well as other kinds of training programs? How can you tell whether your own attitudes and feelings about sales are healthy? Take a tip from Ben Franklin: an investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.




George Dudley is author of The Hard Truth About Soft-Selling. He is board chairman of Behavioral Sciences Research Press in Dallas. www.Bsrpinc.com

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