As customer interactions have shifted to Zoom, sales jobs have become increasingly transactional and lonely. Recent research suggests this is a costly problem that goes beyond a hit to morale: It’s actually causing three problematic behaviors — social awkwardness, impaired memory, and conspicuous overspending on customers — that could damage business performance. The authors offer eight strategies managers can implement to help salespeople feel less lonely and ensure your team is approaching customers with confidence.
Sales has always had lonely moments. However, when the pandemic sent salespeople home to Zoom, the loneliness became palpable. This is becoming a costly problem.
Many of the changes to the sales profession are no longer temporary. Our clients are reporting that a portion of buyers are permanently working from home. Sales organizations are hiring more remote employees and video calls are the expected norm.
In an agenda-driven video sales call, the social elements (handshakes, shared coffee, etc.) that once humanized the sales interaction have been stripped away. Without these emotionally engaging elements, and without a bullpen of colleagues to buoy their spirits, sales jobs are increasingly becoming transactional and lonely roles.
As one seller put it, “Before, I was busy all the time, and some of it was fun. Now, I’m on Zoom just trying to stay awake. I’m realizing I need more social interactions, but at the end of the day, I’m too exhausted to make the effort.”
Left unaddressed, salesperson loneliness can become a costly problem. Recent research conducted by one of us (Dr. Good) reveals that loneliness goes beyond just a hit to morale — it has begun to impact salesperson behavior with customers, leading to an erosion of revenue, margin, and market reputation. Dr. Good’s data was gathered from two studies that surveyed more than 250 B2B and B2C salespeople from a variety of industries, as well as follow-up qualitative interviews, performance data, and observations of more than a dozen sales teams. Findings revealed that salesperson loneliness is causing three problematic behaviors that ultimately create a cycle of poor performance:
1. Social awkwardness
When social skills aren’t routinely practiced, they deteriorate like any other muscle. Sellers in the studies were frequently observed misreading social signals and misjudging the importance of key details in exchanges with customers. While not surprising — all of us are a little awkward these days — sellers play a particularly heavy price for missing social cues. Buyers are less likely to engage, and the trust required for relationship building doesn’t happen.
Further compounding this problem is the fact that sellers may be coming into a sales interaction moments after having been rejected by a previous customer. Without the buffer of peers in close proximately to help them reset, this could increase the potential for a confidence deficit, contributing to even more initial awkwardness on the next call. An awkward start has a chilling effect on customer engagement and can derail or, at the very least stall, what could have been a successful sales process.
2. Loss of focus on customer needs
Sellers who are overeager for social connection don’t listen deeply during the needs assessment phase of the sales process. The data revealed that these lonely sellers were more likely to forget critical customer information.
In a virtual environment, the visual cues that make each customer distinctive and memorable are often absent. When each customer is just another tiny box on your same computer, in the same room, talking about the same things, they bleed together. This lack of distinction makes what happened (and what the customer said) harder to remember. As one seller told us, “I’m on with 20 customers a day, and every call feels the same.”
We also saw evidence that because they don’t have enough meaningful social connections outside their job, sellers can wind up treating the customer as a confidante, someone they share with, rather than someone whose needs should be the organizing element of the conversation.
Without a clear understanding of customer-specific needs and goals, sellers are unable to create a compelling or differentiated story about their solution. This impaired memory early in the process winds up hobbling them when they try to close.
3. Conspicuous overspending on customers
Nowhere was the direct cost of salesperson loneliness more readily apparent than their expense account. Dr. Good’s studies showed that salesperson loneliness was directly connected to increased spending on customers. It’s not hard to understand why someone who’s lonely would want to buy their clients gifts and meals, or why they might want to reduce the price to maintain a client friendship. These actions usually generate a warm response from customers, and what lonely person doesn’t want to generate a more positive emotional reaction from the people they spend time with?
However warm it might feel in the moment, this “sweethearting” did not improve salesperson performance in either of the two studies Dr. Good conducted. While buyers may have been grateful, and sellers may have gotten the dopamine high of a positive social interaction, this conspicuous overspending did not create additional revenue. It was a cost with no return on investment.
In the current social-starved environment, many sellers are over-indexing on the old adage, “people buy from people they like.” In an effort to be liked, salespeople have forgotten that the true purpose of sales: to improve life for customers.
How Managers Can Help Lonely Salespeople
As humans, we’re hardwired to seek meaningful connection. The challenge for sellers (and their managers) is two-fold: the shift to virtual created a huge interpersonal void for salespeople whose time had previously been filled with human interaction. Second, when salespeople try to mitigate their loneliness, their coping behaviors play out with customers, which has a direct impact on the organization’s financial health and reputation.
The three above behaviors create a dangerous cycle that erodes competitive differentiation, eats away at the margin, and results in costly turnover in the sales role. With the virtual world of selling unlikely to fully revert, it is crucial that leaders proactively mitigate this problem. Here are eight strategies to break this cycle:
Create situations that encourage non-competing.
When every sales meeting feels like Shark Tank, with coworkers pitted against each other, it reinforces the loneliness. Go beyond the usual sales reporting meetings and give your salespeople regular opportunities to be together without an agenda or contest. Something as simple as a weekly 15-minute “Share your favorite TV binge” huddle gives sellers a way to connect with coworkers rather than thrusting their loneliness on unsuspecting customers.
Activate a sense of shared purpose.
Sales loneliness magnifies when sellers feel that they’re nothing more than a lone wolf quota filler. You can help counter this feeling by regularly reinforcing a sense of higher purpose. Make a practice of discussing how your organization’s solutions make a difference to customers, and how each member of the team contributes. This reminds sellers that their jobs have meaning and that they’re part of something bigger than themselves.
Design a structure for peer-to-peer support.
Hold regular peer meetings in which sellers brainstorm together to help improve each other’s skills. For example, you can ask people for their favorite questions to ask during discovery or how to open new conversations without awkwardness. Putting sellers in a situation where they’re sharing best practices creates a support structure they can draw upon during times of challenge and change.
Do some brain training.
Listening skills were the most obvious (and potentially detrimental) thing to decline for reps experiencing loneliness. Reverse this trend by running a quick training drill for your sales team where they practice listening and responding to each other describing personal things like weekend plans or how they’ve arranged their workspace. Improving their listening skills in lower-stakes social settings, where there’s not a deal at risk, will help them do the same in front of customers.
Make sure your sales team is crystal clear on your value proposition.
When a rep has confidence in the value proposition they’re offering to customers, they’re less likely to discount or “sweetheart.” Without this solid base, a rep is more likely to feel like they are risking the personal connection by offering a price that may be perceived as too high or overspend on the customer to mitigate negative feelings.
Set spending guidelines and model appropriate gifts.
When spending guidelines are vague, it diverts attention from the true objective of the sale, which is to improve life for customers. Show your sellers exactly what appropriate and effective spending looks like. Perhaps it’s giving customers a helpful book about an issue they’re facing or providing a coffee gift card for them to use in your meeting. Demonstrate to your team that your solution combined with their own expertise is enough; you don’t need elaborate gifts to make connections.
Encourage your salespeople to schedule small breaks between client calls.
Tell your salespeople, “Give yourself five minutes between calls to review the notes, have a glass of water and remind yourself how we improve life for these customers.” This will increase their confidence in their offering and give them a chance to shake off what may have been an unsuccessful past call. Grounding themselves in the value of their offering helps them start more strategically and curbs the impulse to overshare.
Encourage friendships outside of work.
Your customers don’t need another friend, but your salespeople probably do. But to have friends, you have to be a friend. Truly caring leaders would be wise to encourage salespeople to seek opportunities to pursue friendship outside of work. While friendship may seem like a touchy-feely topic inappropriate for leadership commentary, the research tells us that a salesperson’s lack of friends can be quite costly. Given the high stakes, it’s a problem worth addressing.
Salespeople are no different than the rest of us. When they’re lonely, they become more awkward, they tend to overshare, and they try to connect in using whatever means they have at their disposal. The above strategies can help mitigate salesperson loneliness, and ensure that your team is approaching customers with calm confidence.