Why Don't We Talk About the Emotional Side of Sales?

“It’s the hardest, ‘easiest’ job in the world.”

Those were the words of a friend’s uncle, whose advice I sought before accepting my first sales job. I was on the cusp of making a momentous career choice – leaving the law after four years of practice, the three difficult years of law school that proceeded it, and the nearly $150,000 of debt I’d incurred to make it all possible.

But the law wasn’t for me. I saw it as a stepping-stone to the business world; I was ready to take the leap. I didn’t want a job where I’d sit in a room all day reading one large pile of papers so I could produce another large pile of papers. I wanted to interact and connect with people. Sales seemed like the perfect fit.

I took a job in wealth management, a fancy title for a salesman of insurance and financial products. My friend’s uncle had made a decision to change careers and accept a similar job a year before, and his advice proved prescient. I’ve since moved on from that role – I now call myself a serial entrepreneur and consultant – but at my core, I remain a salesman. It’s a title, though, that I still struggle to embrace.

A word cloud in author Daniel Pink’s book, To Sell is Human, shows that most people associate words like “pushy,” “yuck,” “difficult” and “annoying” with salespeople. That’s because most don’t fully understand or appreciate the challenges that come with sales. It’s a highly emotional job.

The details of a salesperson’s job seem fairly straightforward: reach out to someone you think has a problem you can solve, talk to them about it, and convince them to take action. But when prospecting, people repeatedly hang up on you, put up defenses when they realize you’re in sales, avoid you, make it clear that you’re bothering them, or flat out say no. Such reactions can spark intense emotions – the fear of rejection, even issues with self-esteem.

Psychologists have found that rejection often triggers the same areas of the brain as physical pain. This made sense when we were hunter gatherers – if you were rejected and cast out by your tribe, there is a high likelihood that you’d be dinner for the next saber toothed tiger. While excommunication and death are unlikely consequences of a sale gone wrong, to our brains, the risk and pain of rejection feels very much the same. 

The best salespeople – and their managers – realize that emotions matter. They connect with their own emotional state, and with the hearts of their customers, not just their heads. They understand the feelings customers grapple with when they’re faced with change. Business strategist Tony Robins says “change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.” Science backs this up. In behavioral economics, the concept of “loss aversion” shows that people are more likely to protect what they have – however unsatisfactory – than reach for more.

Salespeople have to convince potential customers that the perceived pain of making a change is worth enduring. This isn’t an easy task, as humans tend to exaggerate the pain of change and our instinct is to stay with the status quo. Our brains like patterns and predictability; they seem safe, even if they aren’t making us happy. The world beyond change is scary and unpredictable. If you doubt the power of this instinct, think of someone you know who chooses to remain in a bad job or relationship, instead of facing the difficult work of leaving.

An appreciation for these dynamics is key when it comes to overcoming customer hesitations or objections. The best sales organizations anticipate potential hurdles to a deal, and when customers raise them, effective salespeople are empathetic and deliver thoughtful responses. Their message is: “I understand why you think that, and you’re right, it’s an issue. We’ve thought it through, and offer these solutions to mitigate the pain. Trust us. We’ll support you through the transition.”

Emotions are also key to effective sales management. The worst performing sales teams are often those made up of reps that feel neglected and unsupported by their manager in the difficult task of making quota. Managers must be regularly available and responsive to their reps’ needs, particularly in times of distress. They need to encourage reps and trust them, which boosts confidence. In a sense, it’s a caring role, like parenting. Trust and healthy outcomes develop from nurturing, encouraging support and availability. 

Unfortunately, the role of emotion in business and sales is one that’s all too often overlooked. Western society likes to pretend we’re all driven by logic. Topics like rejection, fear of change, feelings of neglect and empathy are simply hard to capture in a spreadsheet, so we often brush them aside in the business world. When we leave emotion out of the picture, it’s easier to stamp salespeople as the ultimate capitalists, motivated exclusively by monetary rewards and not by the desire to help others. And too many live up to the low expectations we set for them, leading to the popular disapproval of sales.

But for successful salespeople – and I believe, the salesperson required by the economy’s increasing complexity – that’s just not true. The best approach their work with empathy. They’re thoughtful, while also pushing customers to take actions that boost the bottom line. And their sales managers support them, helping them grow both professionally and emotionally.

People are emotional creatures. And in sales, like with all of business, relationships and emotions drive outcomes. It’s time for the business world to wake up to the emotional side of sales.

PS - I was recently a guest on an incredible podcast on psychology and marketing, and discussed this topic in detail. You can access the recording at any of the following links:

Link to podcast site: http://copythatpops.com/023

Link in iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/023-managing-psychology-emotion/id1106880454?i=1000374856820&mt=2

Link in iHeartRadio: https://www.iheart.com/widget/?showId=27628689&episodeId=27673297