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Can Your Sales Team Perform Under Pressure?

Wednesday, April 10, 2019
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You think your sales team is ready to meet your customers. You’ve invested heavily in their sales methodology, tools, and training. But what happens in the moment when the stakes are high and the pressure is on? Will they be successful? Or will they choke?

High-Pressure Situations Change Everything

Even when your salespeople know their stuff, there are always situations that present significant challenges and that take your team out of their comfort zones.

In The Art of Failure, Malcom Gladwell explores why certain situations may be stressful for some people, but may not be for others. Perhaps it’s an unusually large opportunity, or maybe it’s meeting with customer executives. Whatever it is, for the average salesperson, anxiety in high-pressure situations will alter their ability to successfully engage customers.

Let’s look at three essential, default behaviors that every salesperson should master to maintain their composure under pressure. But first, let’s define default behavior and understand how the stress response works.

What Is a Default Behavior?
A default behavior is an automatic response. It’s something people do without thinking.

Under pressure, a seemingly well-prepared salesperson might talk excessively, not read customer cues, fail to ask good questions, or even project a defensive body posture and tone.

Examples of people who are highly trained to perform under great pressure include astronauts, commercial pilots, and Navy SEALS. Astronauts may train for more than a year for a relatively short mission. Pilots practice emergencies repeatedly in simulators. Navy SEALS know that lives may be lost if they have to think about how to react.

What do the people in these examples have in common? They’ve trained their default behaviors to maintain composure under pressure. Salespeople can do this too. Being adept and flexible during a high-stakes moment translates to consistently successful customer engagements.

Short-Circuit the Stress Response

According to a Harvard Medical School study, when someone experiences a stressful event, changes in the amygdala send distress signals that communicate through the nervous system, setting up a surge of epinephrine, cortisol, and other stress-related hormones.

The heart races, blood pressure goes up, the chest tightens, and breathing becomes very shallow. Things that are normally easy to do become hard or impossible. Nonverbal cues are missed.

To get past this requires developing three specific default behaviors that short-circuit the stress response.

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Behavior 1: Default to a Pause—Time to Think and Breathe

Often a salesperson’s default behavior under pressure is to try to get through their slide deck regardless of customer cues. They talk about product features and benefits rather than focusing on the customer’s needs or concerns. And their speech is filled with ever-increasing clutter words like “ums” and “ahs,” thereby decreasing the customer’s trust.

Simply pausing allows space to think and breathe, to assess and adjust, and for the customer to process and get a word in. An effective salesperson uses pauses when they feel like the wheels are coming off and they need to get back in control. Studies show that a simple moment of taking a deep breath has profound effects on the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary bodily functions, including heart rate and tightening chest muscles.

When under pressure, pause to breathe, assess, and think through what needs to happen next.

Behavior 2: Default to Sustained Eye Contact—Gather Feedback

In stressful sales situations, eye contact often becomes fleeting and erratic. The resulting sensation is unsettling for both the salesperson and the customer.

Thoughtful, sustained eye contact with the customer audience creates a dynamic feedback loop that stimulates the conversation centers in the brain. Neuroscience tells us that speaker-listener connections become enhanced with the release of oxytocin, which can’t easily happen with transitory, rapid eye contact.

When a salesperson uses their eyes to truly connect with each customer, they are not only able to sense reactions (Are they tracking?), they also encourage the customer to become more engaged, more focused, and more receptive.

Behavior 3: Default to an Open Posture—Feel More Relaxed

When humans feel stressed or threatened, the body’s natural inclination is to protect itself by closing up. Unconscious postures may be crossed arms over the chest, continuously clenching and unclenching hands in front of the body, or constantly playing with a ring or a pen. Many psychology studies on body language recognize just how accurately the body’s actions, consciously or unconsciously, reflect one’s mental state.

Ironically, this kind of behavior only intensifies feelings of panic, and vividly shows the customer how nervous the salesperson really is. The best way to short-circuit this stress reaction, and to instantly feel more in control, is to simply shift into a relaxed, engaged, open posture. Whether sitting or standing, the effect is immediate—blood pressure tends to lower and emotions level out.

Salespeople who’ve mastered this practice know that open postures not only induce a relaxed and confident state of mind within themselves, but also project this mindset to their customers.

Building the Right Habits

These three crucial composure behaviors can’t be developed just by reading a book or watching a video. In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle explains the science behind why the more we practice a behavior under pressure, the less we’re aware that we are doing it. It becomes default. This practice needs to start in the classroom, with expert coaching, and be reinforced in the field with feedback from sales team members and leaders.

When you look at your sales enablement strategy and investments, do they include building these essential default behaviors that ensure your sales team can perform under pressure? The potential return for doing so on your overall investment is enormous.

About the Author

Brad Holst is a principal and the executive director of communications strategy and innovation at Mandel Communications, Inc.

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