Quality lead generation, sales and startup life

Sales psychology – why it’s better to be rejected than ignored

Conventional wisdom tells us that when approaching a prospect we should tiptoe carefully so we don’t put our prospect off or get rejected, but Ian Price, a business psychologist specialising in the science of sales performance, says different. In this interview with Ian, an honorary fellow of the Association of Professional Sales, he explains that psychology informs us that we should actively seek rejection in sales – and shows us how to go about it.

Hand showing rejection

In your experience what is the biggest mistake that sales teams make when prospecting?

Gone are the days when I could say with confidence to the sales people I coach: “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” Nowadays, most of the sales teams I work with have to go out into the world to discover and create their own opportunities. This is hard and it all starts with prospecting, yet what I discover time and time again is that salespeople have too few opportunities in the top of the hopper. This creates a variety of negative consequences including having too much riding on too limited a number of opportunities. In turn this leads to other problems, such as a reluctance to qualify properly (because you’d have even fewer leads), a poor negotiating position and sales forecasts that are way off.

So how should sales people qualify leads better?

In short, be persistent, seek rejection and be prepared to face up to reality early on. Persistence predicts success in sales, as these stats from LinkedIn indicate, yet most salespeople don’t take it far enough and never reach the point of rejection. One reason for this amongst the teams I coach is that being persistent is simply difficult: it requires resilience, strong organisational skills and the ability to bounce back. Another reason is that if you’ve got too few prospects in your hopper you’re less likely to want to face the reality that someone is not interested because, guess what, it means you’ll have even fewer prospects.

The good news is that being rejected isn’t nearly as bad as you may instinctively think. Salespeople often tell me that a polite “Thanks-but-no-thanks” message is a liberating thing and I agree with Peter Seenan’s advice about sending sales follow-up emails: ask openly if your prospect would like you to stop. Hearing back that someone is not interested is good, firstly because it acknowledges the fact that they haven’t forgotten about you (they’re receiving your messages), and secondly it gives you clarity: now you know where you stand and you can strike that potential client off your list.

What I’ve found listening to salespeople at the heart of the process – and I know this also to be true of the most frontline of sales guys, street fundraisers – is that being cold shouldered is the worst experience and far harder to accept than outright rejection, because it preys on our most primal fear, being ignored or irrelevant.

Do you have any evidence that being rejected is better than being ignored?

Yes, recent research published in the journal, Organization Science, suggests that being ignored is in fact even worse than being bullied for one’s health and satisfaction. A team from the University of Columbia’s Sauder School of Business found that employees who were ostracised or ignored suffered greater health problems and were more likely to leave their jobs than those who experienced direct harassment, in other words bullying.

This might seem surprising at first, but if you look at it from an evolutionary perspective it makes a lot of sense: consider that in our ancestral environment early humans lived in small communities relying on each other, much as the remaining hunter-gatherers do today. To be ostracised by one’s group for something shameful was the worst possible fate, because it could lead to expulsion, something which ultimately could lead to death.

So what does this mean for 2017’s B2B sales guy?

We are hard-coded to treat being ignored as a disproportionately negative experience and that’s why it’s so hard to take. Earlier I talked about how you have to be resilient to face rejection, but in actual fact we suffer more when we are ignored to an extent that doesn’t bear much reality to the world around us.

As a sales performance coach, I see time and time again salespeople giving themselves an undeserved kicking because they think their prospect a) doesn’t think them worth responding to, and b) never wants to hear from them again. This is what psychologists call the “spotlight effect” and it means that the ignored salesperson attributes all sorts of thoughts and judgements to the situation – mistakenly believing they are noticed more than they are – when the simple likelihood is that their prospect is, like everybody else, frenetically busy.

All too often after following up a couple of times, salespeople give up completely fearing that their prospect does not want to hear from them again. And yet most sales people I’ve met can give examples of clients they’ve chased repeatedly (to the point of discomfort) only to receive a warm reply thanking them for their persistence and a closed deal.

What tools or principles do you suggest can help with the habit of following up?

1) “Outsource” your follow-up management to your CRM: By making heavy use of your CRM’s scheduling function, you can learn to treat this part of the sales process as exactly that – a process. Schedule reminders to follow up as you work and then act when you see the reminder. This is a lot less emotionally draining than repeatedly trawling your prospect list.

2) Have a reason to get in touch: Make use of LinkedIn updates like Connections in the News, marketing activity and events to have a new reason to get back in contact. Even sending a link to a relevant news item can help spark a renewed sales conversation. Leadfeeder can help you pick the best moment to reach out in a couple of easy ways.

Firstly, Leadfeeder’s MailChimp integration shows you when a prospect visits your website and what they’re looking at so you can unobtrusively reach out with an appropriate message. And secondly, if you’re using Pipedrive or Zoho CRM Leadfeeder will automatically update your deal when a prospect visits your website, thereby letting you know that now’s a good time to follow up.

Screenshot of Leadfeeder with Mailchimp integrated
Knowing what a prospect is reading on your website gives you the angle for a new conversation

3) Use different media: Some prospects may ignore emails and voicemails but will happily get back to you right away if they receive a text message. Consider social media channels, like LinkedIn or Twitter for nurturing leads. For example, Leadfeeder shows you when a prospect comes back to your website and because of their LinkedIn connection it’s easy to spark up a new conversation at the right moment.

LinkedIn connection
Leadfeeder informs you when a company visits your website and because of their LinkedIn connection it’s easy to renew a conversation with a prospect

4) Book a diary slot via the prospect’s PA: If your prospect has a PA who manages their diary, call the PA directly and get some time booked in for a call or face-to-face meeting.

5) Let go of the fear of pestering: Some sales people feel that it is rude to persist in making contact when they’ve heard nothing back – after all, should they not “take the hint” – but persistence pays off (one recent study concluded that the 5th follow-up email has a higher open rate than the third and a lower unsubscribe rate than the 1st follow-up). In the distant days before email, it was considered rude not to reply to a written job application or request for a meeting. At some point, the sheer volume of such requests meant that it became socially normal to do so. But it is also commonplace to neglect to respond to things that you are interested in. You will probably recognise services you have bought in your domestic life because a follow-up email has caught you at the right time and you have acted. If you still feel uneasy, include some language that gives the prospect permission to reject you: “If this is no longer of interest to you, of course please feel free to let me know.”

What’s the one big thing we should take away?

The consistent use of these powerful selling tools will help ease the psychological negativities that come with our evolutionary wiring. Developing CRM-based follow-up habits enables sales teams to consistently stay in contact as part of an emotionally neutral process. As David Foster Wallace wrote: “You will become less concerned with what people think of you when you realise how seldom they do.”

If you’d like to continue the conversation with Ian Price you can contact him at Recludo Consulting.



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