Break Out of Your “Groundhog Day” Rut: 5 Reasons Why Salespeople Struggle to Change

Start doing this. Stop doing that. Do more of this or less of that. Sales development often feels like the dreaded Groundhog Day – destined to repeat while failing to advance. Why is it so hard to change our behavior?

For more than a quarter century the movie Groundhog Day has been synonymous with meaningless, go-nowhere repetition until the protagonist embarks on meaningful change to better himself.

The movie endures because it’s funny, touching, and something we can all consciously (or subconsciously) relate to. The struggle – to recognize the need to change behavior to achieve different results and move forward – is real. It’s why maintaining New Year’s Resolutions are so difficult, for example.

Routines are hard to change. On a personal level, it could be healthier eating, time management, sleep habits, exercise, organization, financial goals, or learning new hobbies and skills.

In the workplace, you haven’t maintained the cold calling numbers you wanted to hit, or your pipeline isn’t as healthy as it should be. A disgruntled customer just called and you reflexively offered a discount, and you haven’t grown your product knowledge as much as you promised you would.

It seems like it should be so easy to change your behavior – make a decision to do something, and then follow through. But whether it’s in our personal life or in our career, changing behavior is hard. Here are five reasons why.

Reason 1: Lack of Focus

When we think about change, we tend to think on a grand scale. “I want to lose weight” or “I’m going to sell more” are examples of big picture changes that many people want to make. But when it comes to behavior change, aiming to change the big picture rarely works. Grand scale changes require altering many smaller behaviors. For example, “I’m going to stop vaping” involves changes to your social behavior, your behavior in the car, your behavior on breaks, and many more. “I’m going to grow my book of business” is similarly complex – you could change your cold calling, your follow up, your pursuit of opportunities, your account rounding, and so on.

Going after the big change is rarely the right way to meaningfully change behavior. That doesn’t mean that large scale behavior change is impossible. It means that to get there, you have to focus on changing the smaller behaviors that make up the great big goal. Changing something small, like setting aside an extra half hour each day for cold calling, is a good way to take steps towards the larger goal.

Reason 2: Not Anticipating the Reward Curve

How many times have you woken up exhausted and said to yourself, “That’s it, I’m going to bed early tonight”? We often fail at this kind of behavior change because of a principle called the Reward Curve. Essentially, the closer you get to a reward, the more you want it. In the morning, you’re exhausted, and making the decision to go to bed early is easy. But when the evening rolls around, the desire to watch one more episode of your favorite show easily overwhelms your morning resolve. By morning, the idea of watching TV is no longer appealing, and you promise yourself (again) to go to bed early.

In a sales environment, it’s easy to promise yourself to change behavior, but then back out at the last minute. Let’s say you’ve resolved to overcome that cold call reluctance, and make more calls to prospects than you usually do. That’s an easy thing to decide to do on a Friday afternoon, when you’re thinking about what you want to change on Monday. Your first call is a ways off, and doesn’t seem that daunting. But as you get ready for work on Monday, and that first call is growing closer, it gets more real. Eventually, the hesitation you feel to pick up the phone overwhelms your promise to make more calls, and you wind up finding other things to do.

Successfully overcoming the reward curve requires practicing to solidify new behaviors, and setting up contingencies so you can’t back out at the last minute. These things are not part of typical sales training.

Reason 3: The Behavior (Both Good and Bad) Is Automatic

Many individuals who suffer from alcoholism report that taking the first drink happens without their knowledge. Before they know it, they’re off the wagon. People with anger issues can find themselves yelling before they realize what they are doing. They had no intention of raising their voice, but suddenly they’re shouting.

Automatic behaviors can also make growing as a salesperson difficult. Imagine that you’ve decided to change how you negotiate with clients. You’ve promised yourself that you won’t immediately offer discounts when facing an unhappy customer. Yet despite your best intentions, you soon find yourself apologizing and offering a discount to a disgruntled customer the moment they express their displeasure. You kick yourself afterwards for failing to follow through on your plan.

Automatic behaviors like these can be very hard to change because they happen outside of conscious awareness. In order to change how we act, we must have the opportunity to make a choice to do something different in a given situation.

Failing to change these behaviors is extremely frustrating, because the situation feels hopeless. How can we change if we can’t stop our automatic reaction? The pressure of a phone call or Zoom meeting triggers us to act without thinking, and most sales training doesn’t provide the mental tools needed to overcome automatic reactions.

Reason 4: Muscle Memory

If you play golf, you’ve probably “grooved” your swing – you’ve got a basic swing that you can do without thinking about it. You don’t have to focus on the position of your head, arms, wrists, hips, knees, and feet every single time. Similarly, a lot of your sales behaviors are probably “grooved” by now. The way you address an email, the way you conduct yourself in a meeting, even the time you get up and start work. We commonly talk about “muscle memory” as a way of discussing things we can do without thinking about them.

These behaviors are a little different from the automatic behaviors listed before. These behaviors don’t happen automatically, but they are comfortable. They seem to fit us well and we feel good doing them. They come naturally. And, as a result, the more well grooved a behavior is, the harder it is to change. This is a common reason people cite for failing to change – they’re just so used to doing things the old way that they drift back into the old behaviors. As a result, we wind up believing unhelpful things about learning new sales skills: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” “Our company culture doesn’t support that,” or “They’re just wired that way.”

Most sales training doesn’t address the idea of muscle memory. There isn’t enough practice provided to allow you to start grooving new behaviors to take the place of old ones.

Reason 5: You Don’t Really Want to Change

For over 100 years now, psychologists have talked about motivation as a fundamental part of changing behavior. In order to change, you have to want to change. And to want to change, you have to be able to see that the end state is better than where you are now. 

Visualizing the end state to improve motivation is different than just knowing how you want to change. Most people find their motivation by visualizing the change itself – “I want to close more deals” or “I want to lose weight.” Some advance to the next step by thinking about the end results – “I want to be a good closer” or “I want to be physically fit.” But neither of these approaches truly makes the change real in your mind.

Few activities are less motivating than sales training. The pre-work, the lecture, the roleplays – all things that salespeople have to be pushed into doing, and all things that in no way help you to see the new “you” at the end of the path. Sales training fails so often that it has become expected. Sales enablement puts a program in place, cajoles the salespeople to take part, and eventually the materials get put in a drawer, never to be seen again. A few months later, the next “flavor of the month” training comes along, and the cycle repeats. How motivating is that?

In order to build motivation, sales training has to be a “pull” from sales people, not a “push.” Training has to be easily accessible, enjoyable, and appear to have a good chance of really working. Programs like these are few and far between, but they are the ones that make a lasting difference in salesperson behavior.

Conclusion

It’s easy to feel frustrated when you’re trying to change your behavior. A lot of us have been through several cycles of trying to change, only to feel more frustrated each time we fail.

In sales, entire industries exist to try and change behavior, and companies will often hire one consultant after another trying to bring about a behavior change that sticks. It’s extremely discouraging to realize that most people expect sales training to fail, and yet they still hire people to use the same tired methodologies. 

It does not need to be that way, in our personal or our business lives. The principles of effective behavior change are well known, and not difficult to implement. They just require understanding, and a willingness to try things differently. In a future blog post, I’ll start discussing what you can do at work and at home to change your behaviors for the better.


David Solot
Author: David Solot

David Solot, Ph.D., is Chief Science Officer & Senior Vice President of Product Management at Sciolytix.