No Bullsh*t: Fear, Failure & Missing Sales Target

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There is a lot of bullsh*t and hustle porn around “perfection” in sales that creates a perception that salespeople can never fail. That they can never be weak and can never miss target. 

It’s time to put an end to it.

Missing target is defined as failing to achieve your sales goal during a set period of time (month, quarter and/or year).

When it occurs, missing target can be extremely stressful. In our previous survey, 41% of salespeople listed missing target as being one of the most impactful triggers on their mental health.

Breaking it Down

Missing target is stressful for most salespeople, because it has two parts that hurt. The first is the shame, embarrassment  and guilt that a salesperson feels when they fail to meet their goal. Second are the very real consequences that follow.

These consequences look like losing their upcoming promotion, performance improvement programs (PIP), a difficult conversation with their boss, smaller commission cheques and even job security are all very real things that can happen. 

During their career, every salesperson will have witnessed any of the situations above happening around them. Happening either to a peer or experiencing them first hand themselves. Social proof and evidence the mind draws on to guide responses when they miss target.

It is both parts – missing target and the aftermath, that brings increased stress, anxiety, depression and declining mental health into the workplace. Unfortunately these emotions also follow salespeople home and into their personal life too. 

The next month, quarter or year is normally only a few days away. This leaves limited time for salespeople to recover, before their next target is set.

Without proper resilience training, mindsets, habits and motivation it can be hard to bounce back. Ready to start from “zero” once again. This makes it  easy for sales reps to fall behind pacing early. Then the looming fear of future threatening consequences starts all over again.

Vicious Cycle

Declining mental health and the weakened ability to perform at a high-level  is ignored. Fear becomes the driving force; motivating salespeople to work longer hours, make more calls and push themselves to avoid failure. 

A cycle that overtime can lead to breakdown and burnout. 

The purpose of this post is to share how salespeople break this cycle. To discuss a difficult topic for sales teams – failure. The discussion is meant to teach and empower salespeople to fail the right way, and how to bounce back with less emotional repercussions. 

Fail in a way that boosts their resilience and increases their performance, rather than hinder it.

Targets Setup to Fail

Let’s set the record straight. Despite what sales guru’s and sales leaders preach – missing target is going to happen. This is a fact. 

According to a 2018 report by Salesforce, 57% of sales reps were expected to miss their quotas last year.

The Sales Health Alliance conducted its own survey of over 100 salespeople. The results showed 86% of salespeople responded saying they miss their sales target. The frequency of missing target is as follows: Sometimes (76%), Never (15%), Often (9%) and Always (1%).

Though these numbers may surprise some salespeople, they make sense. Targets and quota are expected to be challenging and stretch performance. If everyone on a sales team is hitting their target –  the targets are being set wrong.

A review of several studies evaluating the effects of goal setting on performance showed that in 90% of studies, specific and challenging goals led to higher performance compared to easy ones.

Creating challenging goals and targets is an effective and proven way to drive higher performance.

That being said – occasionally missing sales target is 100% normal.

Why failing Hurts So much

If missing target is normal, then why does it hurt so much? Why can it be so hard to bounce back?

One study showed that the amount of effort individuals put into completing a task/problem seemed to modulate the intensity of their responses.

In other words – the harder a salesperson works for their target, the greater their response will be to Hitting & Missing. This explains the complete euphoria salespeople feel when they hit a challenging sales target and the soul crushing failure when they come up short.

Hitting target is also rewarded with recognition, bonus cheques and feelings of happiness that are comparable to a drug. Making targets challenging is a key part of fueling that passion to be in sales. It keeps sales reps hungry for more.

On the other hand, those who miss target hide, become quiet and try to avoid pending negative consequences. Dopamine fuels motivation in sales. It plays a key part in the body’s response to failure, because there is often no reward for those who miss target.

At rest, the dopamine system fires 3 to 5 times per second in the brain. When it’s excited, like right before closing a deal (reward), this number can increase to 20-30 times a second. When an expected reward like hitting target fails to materialize, because a deal fell through last minute, the dopamine rate drops to below zero.

Avoiding and Escaping

This drop in dopamine feels horrible, leaving salespeople resentful and stripped of all their effort that had been invested.

If hitting target feels like a drug, missing target can feel like someone in rehab.

Avoiding and escaping these feelings through activities like a night out partying, drugs or sexual conquests can be normal responses. Activities that increase dopamine levels to temporarily fill the void and offer relief from negative emotions.

Permanent relief is found by going through failure and confronting the emotions head on. In order to do this, failure in sales must be normalized and rewarded.

Normalizing failure

Changing the perception of failure is a crucial part of building individual resilience and drive future success in sales.

There are endless examples of icons, business moguls and entrepreneurs failing hundreds of times before achieving success.

Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first television job as an anchor. Thomas Edison was told by teachers “he was too stupid to learn anything.” The author of Dr.Seuss had his first book rejected by 27 different publishers. 

The list goes on and most people can probably think of at least one struggling peer from high-school or university that was labeled a failure, who is now wildly successful. Just think, the sales rep that’s struggling today, could be the next Elon Musk tomorrow.

Salespeople and organizations fear failure, however when approached the right way – it’s critical to building persistence, resilience and long-term success.

Software development teams embrace this notion, however it is rarely shared by sales departments.

The MVP Model

Failure can breed confidence, but only when perception of failure morphs into a learning experience that provides feedback. Software developers embrace failure every time they’re building a new technology.

The MVP model uses failure as feedback to get stronger. Dropping features that customers don’t like and improving the features that do. Each mistake is learned from and over time, these micro-learnings lead to successful product market fit.

Whether its a successful icon or a tech team, they both view failure as an opportunity to learn. Then they keep moving. They don’t stop trying and over time they keep getting better.

Developing into a rockstar salesperson is no different. It requires consistent effort to learn from bad calls, deals, months and quarters. What worked and what did not? Iterate, fail and improve.

The quicker this process is embraced and learned from – the faster sales performance will become consistent.

Continuing to perpetuate that failure in sales is a bad thing or something to be feared, is a guaranteed way to stump learning. If salespeople can’t be allowed to fail and learn, they lose confidence and makes their Mental Health vulnerable to decline.

Combating this requires, adopting the right mindset that helps encourage the right type of motivation.

Approach VS Avoidance Motivation

Most salespeople attempt to cope with feelings of anxiety by letting unpleasant feelings motivate them to to avoid negative situations or objects. Triggers that the brain remembers and tries to avoid. 

They avoid the phone, avoid challenging customers and avoid the feelings they experience when they miss target.

These are often subconscious responses. Humans naturally avoid situations they perceive as fearful to protect themselves. Often however, perceiving these situations in a sales environment as threatening is misguided and incorrect.

Avoiding fearful objects, situations and resulting emotions prevents the nervous system of sales reps from habituating these experiences. As a result, avoidance guarantees that the feared situation of missing target remains feared – thus provoking anxiety and shutting down learning.

Instead, salespeople need to approach these situations frequently to start building resilience.

The science behind approach versus avoidance motivation is fascinating. Countless studies have shown that approaching fearful situations, more frequently and increasing your exposure to them promotes growth.

Carol Dweck’s research on developing a growth mindset also supports the benefit of approach motivation. The more people believe that intelligence and skill sets can be learned, the more likely they are to embrace challenging goals and persevere.

For salespeople this means believing  that sales is a skill and a craft that can be mastered through practice. Not something that comes naturally or something you have or don’t have.

But what about Mental Health – how does using approach motivation versus avoidance motivation affect mental health?

Mental Health Impact

Salespeople are motivated to hit their target in one of two ways: approach or avoidance motivation.

Salespeople using approach motivation are focused on achieving positive outcomes and rewards. These can be outcomes like receiving bonus, getting promoted and being able to afford a vacation.

Alternatively, salespeople using avoidance motivation, are focused on avoiding negative outcomes or consequences. These are situations that are commonly feared like their manager placing them on a PIP program, losing the respect of their peers, job loss or missing a critical commission check to support their family.

The motivation method being used by the salesperson will impact their overall mental health. Research has shown that avoidance motivation tends to create anxiety from fear of negative outcomes and therefore reduces performance.

In our own survey around missing target in sales, the research above on mental responses was supported.

Among salespeople who approached their target for positive outcomes, 71% of them described their mental health as “Healthy.” 

This is 35% higher than salespeople who focused on avoiding negative outcomes, in which only 36% of people described their mental health as “Healthy” in the last year.

However the benefits of approach motivation did not stop there. 

Those who approached their target for positive outcomes were also 29% more likely to feel financially stable. And, when they missed target, they were 18% more likely to feel supported by their manager.

This would make sense, because a salesperson who approaches their target believes they have more agency in sales. Therefore more control over their finances and workplace relationships making them less likely to choke under pressure.

If approach motivation is so powerful, how does a salesperson and team adopt it?

Protecting Mental Health

Approach motivation drives better mental health and better mental health drives the use of approach motivation.

In the same survey, salespeople were asked to respond to the following statement: 

To what extent do you agree with the following statement: I would describe my Mental Health in the last year as “Healthy.”

Salespeople who agreed with the statement used approach motivation 85% of the time. This usage rate is 29% higher usage than those who disagreed with the statement.

Those who agreed with the statement were also 26% more likely to feel financially stable. They were also 17% more likely to feel supported by their sales leader when they missed target.

With approach motivation and mental health feeding each other, the key to making them work together is mindset. Maintaining a mindset that keeps sales reps focused on achieving positive outcomes allows them to persevere through sales challenges.

Easier said than done, because the sales environment is full of challenges that makes creating a healthy mindset extremely difficult.

Staying Grounded

At any given moment the sales environment can rock the identity of a salesperson and how they perceive themselves.

A buyer can reject them. Revenue from a client they need to hit target can churn. Or a salesperson can be calling and emailing all day and only get voicemails and no responses.

This opens the door to self doubt: What am I doing wrong? I’m not good at sales. I’m going to miss target.

With deals often days or months (enterprise sales) away there is a lot of time for the environment to throw rocks at a salesperson’s confidence. Self-doubt leads to anxiety, which can quickly erode mental resilience and determination to hit target.

Rewards and social proof of progress can be few and far between. Salespeople need to bring their attention to micro-goals and things they can control. Mini achievements that happen daily, but are often overshadowed by the negatives in a sales environment. Daily learnings that provide feedback to a salesperson that they are in fact getting better. Activities and habits that are in their control and when practiced will lead to growth.

These micro-goals are easier for salespeople to approach on a daily basis, compared to daunting targets that are weeks or months away. This approach to achieving micro-goals also increases their motivation as their brains accelerate when they perceive consistent success. The phenomena is described in one study as the “Goals looms larger” effect.

Overtime these mini achievements, learnings and habits cast votes towards becoming a successful salesperson. They provide immediate positive feedback on growth. Relying only on closing deals and achieving target to determine progress puts the salesperson at risk.

Attention on micro-wins and things salespeople can control  is taking a Stoic approach to sales.

Stoicism in Sales

Stoics endure life’s pain and hardship by developing their self-control and fortitude to maintain perspective under stress. This helps them overcome destructive emotions.

People who have adopted a Stoic approach have seen benefits across many areas of their life. Research shows that participants in a study reported a 14% improvement in life satisfaction, a 9% increase in positive emotions and an 11% decrease in negative emotions. Individual optimism overall increased by 18%

When a Stoic mindset is combined with approach motivation, they create a resilient barrier. A barrier to the sales environment that can protect mental health.

Fostering Stoicism and Building Resilience

The key to fostering stoicism that builds resilience, is developing a process that brings attention to the micro achievements, learnings and activities. Items that get overshadowed by the daily chaos in sales.

Several studies have shown the benefits of practicing gratitude daily and this same approach can be adjusted for salespeople and their work.

At the end of each day, spend 5-10 minutes reflecting. Answering the following questions can help retrain the brain to highlight the micro-achievements and learnings of the day.

  1. What deals did I advance today? (these can be micro advances of effort by the buyer that moved them closer to closing – check out the Perfect Close by James Muir)
  2. What did I do to advance them?
  3. How strong was my work ethic in executing my daily activities?
  4. What challenges did I face today and what did I learn from them?
  5. I’m trying to improve ________ in my sales abilities by doing _______
  6. What am I looking forward to in the workday tomorrow?
  7. What can I do tomorrow morning to set myself up for success?
  8. Three colleagues I’m grateful for?
  9. Who and how did I help someone today?
  10. The best part of my day was _______

Building habits can be hard. If answering 10 questions is too challenging, start with answering one each day. Then add an extra one each week.

Overtime the brain will learn to focus more attention on micro-achievements and learning that a salesperson has control over. And less on the turbulent uncontrollable events that occur in the sales environment.

When worst case happens

Even with the right mindset, good mental health and approach motivation – a salesperson can still miss target. As it has already been established – this is normal, but it can still be stressful.

Studies have shown that even acute stress can boost cortisol levels, which decreases performance and increases errors. The time between targets is usually only a day or two away, before the salesperson starts again at zero.

Salespeople need to be able to recover and bounce back from missing target fast.

A counter intuitive way to do this is for salespeople to approach their painful emotions by writing. Writing about what setbacks led to the target being missed.

A recent study showed that writing critically about past setbacks leads to lower stress responses, better choices and better performance on a new stressful task. Aka – the next target. 

You can read more about the full study and cortisol response to stressful situations here.

Key Takeaways

The sales environment can be harsh. It challenges the resilience of salespeople on a daily basis – one of the worst events being missing target. To combat the obstacles that salespeople and sales teams face they can do the following things to build resilience:

  1. Reduce the stigma around missing target and failure. Normalize and accept that it is going to happen from time to time.
  2. Change perspective and embrace failure as a learning experience that provides feedback on progress and development. Then keep moving. Keep working to improve.
  3. Use approach motivation to remain focused on the positive outcomes of achieving your target versus working to avoid negative outcomes.
  4. Adopt a growth mindset that sales can be learned with practice. This helps normalize situations (previously feared) as learning experiences and habituate the mind’s response to them.
  5. Develop a supportive mental health culture to encourage the use of approach motivation.
  6. Bring attention to the micro-achievements, learnings and work ethic that occur daily. These often get overshadowed by negative situations that arise.
  7. Use a sales gratitude journal to help salespeople stay grounded. This combats past or present worries and focuses attention on positive learning and micro-goals that build momentum.
  8. When a salesperson misses target, have them think and write critically about why they missed and the setbacks they faced.

Perspective is everything. Ensuring salespeople have the right mindset, motivation and approach to failure is a critical part of building resilience. Resilience that will keep them mentally healthy and learn the skills needed to be successful in sales over time. 

About The Author

Jeff Riseley is currently the Founder of the Sales Health Alliance and Mental Health Advocate. With over a decade of sales experience – Jeff understands the importance of Mental Health in achieving peak sales performance.

Jeff combines his sales (Sales Mentor Alliance) and Mental Health expertise to improve sales performance through a mix of sales mentorship and mental health best practices. His strategies have helped sales teams improve their sales process, while helping them become more motivated, resilient and better equipped to tackle stressful events within sales.

He is currently delivering these strategies through on-site workshops, coaching and speaking engagements. To explore working with Jeff contact him at [email protected]

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