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Fear Of Failure

by David Brock on April 28th, 2019

As sales people and leaders, we have an interesting relationship with failure.

We are in an intensely competitive profession. Our customers are and should be evaluating alternatives. In any buying decision, there will only be one supplier selected, with the others losing.

As good as any of us are, we all fail!

Like any other human being, we probably have an aversion to failure. It’s discomforting, sometimes embarrassing. None of us want to admit to failing.

Too often, managers or marketing seek to orchestrate our activities and days. They strictly prescribe what we do, with who, scripting the words we say to our customers. They know what “works,” they want us to apply the formula rigorously. They don’t want us to fail–I think less for our own self esteem, but more in an attempt to make the numbers.

Other managers, thinking they are “coaching,” get into tell mode—“This is what you must do, I’ve seen these situations more than you, I know what you must do to succeed.

Sometimes fear of failure paralyzes us into inaction. We don’t want to pick up the phone to make that prospecting call, we do a little more research and preparation, just to make sure it goes right, but really trying to postpone that moment.

We’re cautious in our discussions with prospects and customers. We don’t want to say anything that will be misunderstood or disadvantage us. We want to stay on their “good side.” Often, we don’t have the conversations we need to have, for fear of failing–ironically, it’s those conversations that cause us to differentiate ourselves and succeed.

Managers sometimes have a paradoxical view of failure. If a sales person doesn’t make their numbers they are gone, yet managers often tolerate non performance for years (or until they are forced to take action). They don’t trust their people to succeed, so they micromanage every customer engagement.

It’s ironic, despite this fear of failure, as a profession we seem to be failing miserably. Year after year, % of sales people making plan plummets. Turnover (voluntary and involuntary) is skyrocketing, tenure on the job is plummeting. Our ability to engage customers in meaningful ways is horrible–at least based on customer feedback and surveys.

So despite all our attempts not to fail, we are failing miserably.

Our reaction? Do more of the same at ever increasing volumes and velocity.

As we reflect on this, one mind-blowing “truth” becomes apparent.

One of the most important ways we learn, change, innovate, or improve is through failure.

We are replete with inspirational stories about failure. Whether it is Edison and the number of attempts to invent the light bulb, a sports figure/team overcoming adversity, or the resilience of some Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

Despite all of this, we don’t seem to understand failure, learn from it, or improve. In fact, our intolerance of failure betrays an unwillingness to change, learn, and improve.

Sales has the oddest relationship with failure I’ve ever experienced. We shouldn’t seek to fail, but in our avoidance, perhaps we are missing the real breakthroughs.

From → Performance

One Comment
  1. Joel Lyles permalink

    Hi Dave!

    Thank you for writing this post. Last quarter and this month I crushed my numbers as an SDR but I failed a lot as I tried to advance out of my safe zone of setting appointments and doing discovery calls. Even on good calls/demos with understanding clients, I felt bowled over by how little I knew about our clients’ real interests or the world of IT. I wanted to retreat back into the safe world of scripts and keywords and passing things off to a more experienced rep right away.

    I’m meeting my numbers, sure, but one thought that kept occurring to me after such bungled meetings/calls was ‘I could easily be at the top of the board if I just focused on my own job rather than practicing for other roles’.

    Just being told it’s okay to fail helps me to try to pick up the pieces and move my career forward.

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