As a sales manager, you may be glad to put the days of handling rejection behind you. Let’s be frank: selling is a hard job. Getting hung up on, losing a deal, and being told no sucks.
This is why having some empathy for your team is critical.
“Salespeople are burning out faster than ever before” blared a Forbes headline a few years ago. Unfortunately, they’re right. Various reports suggest that sales turnover hovers between 25% to 34% and the cost to the company of a churned salesperson is twice their base salary. Changing employee expectations may shed light on the problem:
“Employees who do not feel they can achieve their career goals at their current organization are 12 times more likely to consider leaving than employees who do feel they can achieve their career goals. Even worse, this number skyrockets to about 30 times for new employees.” –WorkTrends report, Kenexa High Performance Institute, 2013
SAP’s massive Workforce 2020 report found only 41% of employees believe their company offers them opportunities to expand their skill sets. The same study in the previous year said 1 in 5 high performers are likely to leave their job in the next 6 months.
It sounds like sales managers have their work cut out. The good news is that in your role, you have a chance to offer your team learning opportunities through mentoring and sales coaching. We go into detail about what coaching is and how to start here. If turnover is your pain point, or something you want to avoid, a great place to start is the quintessential sales pain point of rejection. Perhaps it is stereotypical, but everyone experiences it, and everyone can stand to learn from it. Start your mentorship journey where your team is hurting the most.
All too often, after an opportunity is marked closed lost, focus shifts to how to meet quota or fill pipeline. This is a missed opportunity for growth. It is time for this to change. Here are a few steps you can take to start treating rejection as the valuable resource it is.
Target rejection with a learning culture
“Cultivate a learning culture” is easy to say, but making it happen is hard. The two key areas to target are the hiring process and developing a vulnerable manager-employee relationship.
If you are hiring coachable, knowledge-hungry, curious people that love to learn and see themselves improve, you are taking the first step. Ask any manager who regularly coaches their team. They will quickly tell you there is a big difference between a coachable person vs. an uncoachable person.
Assuming the team is coachable, the manager-employee relationship needs to grow within a coaching structure. To start building a learning culture, managers need to have scheduled, individual time to focus on skill improvement. This should be away from the day-to-day activities, pipeline reviews, standard team meetings, or other distractions. It is SO EASY to just schedule more 1:1 meetings with reps and say “Look! I’m Coaching!”
Wrong. More 1:1s is not coaching.
Without proper care and feeding, these meetings will quickly turn into another pipeline review, or get hung up on one isolated lost deal and fail to ever focus on long-term skill improvement.
How a learning culture reduces turnover
A learning culture should make the team comfortable and open with management about rejections. This is possible when you start your coaching sessions with development goals that motivate the team. Using development goals as context gives them the ability to reframe every rejection as a learning opportunity, a chance to make progress towards the goals.
A learning culture is nurtured in a group setting with the right leadership choices. In addition to cultivating best practices within the team, the team can act as a support group. Peers can soften the blow of rejections, and help reframe the rejections. Group dynamics can go the other way, too, making members feel ashamed or like failures when they get rejected. This is where a learning culture is key to help your team move forward.
The research has shown that a learning culture reduces turnover intent. Studies published as recent as 2015 consistently tie together factors like learning cultures, trust in the organization, and reduced turnover.
How to prepare to coach through rejections
Set goals with your team
This is the most important part of rejection coaching. As mentioned earlier, set the goals to set the context. These are not activity number goals, but rather sales skill goals. Become a more empathetic seller. Handle objections better. Improve negotiation skills. These shared agreements become focal points for your conversations.
Get a sample set of rejections to coach from
Your coaching will be most useful if you are referencing the real thing. Set up a running keyword searches through your team’s sales call transcriptions for rejection words and phrases. Another method is to create a sample set of the last call from each salesperson’s last 5-10 closed lost deals in the CRM. This material will give you lots of good discussions. The larger your sample size, the better, because then you can start to notice patterns that need addressing.
Find the rejections that have learning lessons
This is the hardest part of rejection coaching to get right. The majority of rejections should be seen as useful. But the challenge is not thinking about exactly what you would have done in each situation. We’ll talk in the next section about why. Rather, look for how the experience fits in to the goal context. Don’t think “here is what you should have said”, but “here is how reaching your improvement goal will affect this sales conversation.”
Prepare the right questions
Much like the discovery questions that were so effective in your sales days, asking your team open-ended questions can be very useful. Prepare these questions ahead of time, and give them some thought. “Tell me how you feel about this rejection experience.” “What learning opportunities are you seeing in this lost deal?” “What would you say differently when a customer objects next time?”
Ignore your instincts
When you hear a rejection recording or story, your gut reaction is to tell your employee what you would have done instead.
This is common, especially if for managers with a successful background in sales. But sales is about improvisation. What worked for you won’t necessarily work for your team. Good improvisers can read a situation and come up with the response that works for the moment. That means your job as manager is to help your reps do a better job reading the situation, not give them the one-liners that you would use instead. You don’t want to risk them hesitating on future calls to think “what would my manager say.”
When I was in inside sales, I had a particularly particularly memorable prospect named Helmut who had a cartoonish-ly furious reaction to being called on the phone. He yelled at me, and hung up on me, even though I was responding to his web inquiry.
After that incident, my teammates developed the sarcastic term “Happy Helmut” to describe anyone who reacted negatively to our phone calls. This helped protect our emotional well-being by reframing the rejection into something goofy that we could laugh at.
The team culture did its part, and rallied behind me. But if I had a manager that adopted sales coaching, I could have learned something more from this interaction. Maybe I should have done better pre-call research, and realized that the prospect would prefer to communicate by email or text. Maybe a sales coach could have helped me recover with Helmut to make a sale. Even though the team rallied around me, my selling skills never improved, and I left that job shortly thereafter, never to return to inside sales.
If you are struggling with inside sales turnover, it is likely the team is feeling underinvested, or a lack of optimism. You can address both of these with sales coaching. Start with rejection, the most frustrating pain for any new sales rep, and expand it from there. Your team will thank you.