Why Sales Reps Fail More Than 85% of the Time

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There are two types of people who don’t like cold calls: the one making the calls and those on the other end of the line. Let’s face it; whether it’s from a great referral or from a cold list, making cold prospecting calls is the worst step in the sales process. Creating a relationship out of thin air is hard, but it’s nearly impossible over the phone. This is why the average rep fails almost 9 out of 10 times.

It’s why most veterans hate to refill their pipeline and also why the burnout rate is so high for those just starting out. Many accept the fact that prospecting is something you have to push through, a time for paying your dues, like rainy days on vacation – it’s an unavoidable part of life.from a great referral or from a cold list, making cold prospecting calls is the worst step in the sales process. Creating a relationship out of thin air is hard, but it’s nearly impossible over the phone. This is why the average rep fails almost 9 out of 10 times.

Actually, there is a better way. But it’s counter intuitive to nearly everything you’ve learned about selling and influence. And it’s not about making more calls or beefing up your value proposition. It’s about bolstering receptivity – NOT selling. Therefore, if you deploy the same tactics – communicate benefits, be passionate about your solution, proactively pursue the opportunity and overcome objections – you will be part of the 85% club. In fact, most everything you have learned in sales will work against you when making an uninvited call. This is why – no one taught you the Principle of Receptivity.

The Principle of Receptivity

Every time we attempt to engage a decision-maker, the person is in one of two emotional states: emotionally closed (i.e., unreceptive) or emotionally open (i.e., receptive). Guess what percentage of decision-makers is emotionally closed/unreceptive? You got it! Eighty-five percent of them are emotionally closed, which therein lays the flaw in most sales strategies.

If we try to persuade someone who is emotionally closed/unreceptive with logical arguments, they will become even more unreceptive. Let that sink in…the more we try to sell or persuade the unreceptive prospects to engage, regardless of the power of our argument, the more unreceptive they become. In other words, only a small percentage of prospects start out receptive, and using typical sales tactics on unreceptive prospects actually reduces our chances of success.

To succeed where most fail and take the pain out of prospecting, the key is to change our objective from “selling the meeting” to creating receptivity. The first step is debunking the top three misconceptions about cold-calling. As you read through the list, keep in mind that these can apply to a phone call, a face-to-face meeting, or an email. Regardless of the channel we use to initiate the relationship, the truth of the principle applies.

Lie #1 – Keep Them on the Phone

Like the car salesman who knows that if you leave the lot you will never buy a car, once we FINALLY get a live person on the phone we’re not letting them go. As soon as we see the door open a crack, we wedge our foot in and do everything we can to make sure they stay on the call. Then the more we try to MAKE them stay on the line, the more they want to leave. It’s human nature. If we don’t feel the freedom to choose, we will always resist – even if it’s in our best interest to comply. This is why a significant majority are so unreceptive. They feel the pressure, the impending confrontation, and they bolt, making up any reason to get off the phone. Here’s the truth: you should let them go.

I know that sounds like crazy talk, but it works. I call it Drop-the-Rope®, as in don’t play tug-of-war but Drop-the-Rope®. Find a way at the beginning of the call to release the pressure. Tell the prospect that you’re not sure your service is a fit or that you’re unsure of their needs. Focus on the tone of your voice. Is it non-threatening but confident – like a surfer who went to Harvard? Or does it sound desperate, pushy, or overly aggressive?

Don’t “throw the rope” by asking this question at the beginning of the call, “Is this a good time to talk?” At this stage, they will most likely say “no.” The best approach is to be passionate and confident about what you offer, how it’s helped other clients, and the desire to explore a potential relationship. But Drop-the-Rope® by never assuming or stating what THEY should do. If they feel the freedom to exit the conversation or determine if the solution is right for them, they are more willing to stay. If they feel trapped, forced to stay on the phone, they will create a reason to leave – regardless of the scandalously amazing thing you have to offer.

Lie #2 – Communicate Benefits

People think in terms of problems rather than in terms of benefits. So when crafting your introduction, lead with what’s on their whiteboard and not with what’s in your brochure. In other words, connect the purpose of the call to something you know about their key objectives, initiatives, or challenges. They ALWAYS care about their whiteboard and, at this stage in the process, seldom care about your solution. Think about all the marketing emails you receive. How many are about you? How many do you read?

“But what if I don’t know what they care about?” You protest. Then ask an inside “coach” or guess. If you have to guess, think through the top three problems or challenges that similar customers face, in their language, and lead with this information. This approach is your best opportunity to create immediate interest, and it will also bolster their belief that you have the expertise to solve their problem.

Lie #3 – Focus on Setting the Appointment

Most reps like to play the cat-and-mouse game – dangling some juicy morsel of obscure information (“We can save you thousands”) in hopes of securing a face-to-face appointment, assuming there just isn’t enough time or emotional connection to build the case over the phone. The logic makes sense. A face-to-face meeting is a much better environment to sell your services – for them and for you. The problem is the success rate is low. It’s tantamount to saying to a blind date – “I know you don’t know anything about me, but I’m great. So let’s meet for two hours and I promise you will like me. So do you want to go out on Tuesday or Thursday night?” It’s probably not a great strategy for securing the first date. Plus, once they say no, how do you respond? You have zero information on what’s important to the prospect.

Instead, try this:

Setup a mini discovery meeting over the phone. Focus your introduction on spending a few minutes over the phone to determine if (did you pick up the rope being dropped?) it makes sense to set up a face-to-face meeting. The success rate in securing a three-minute discovery meeting is far greater than that of landing an appointment that comes with emotional strings.

Once agreed upon, focus on a few high-level, open-ended questions that tee you up to position the benefits of a face-to-face meeting (e.g., business challenges) while avoiding a dead end (e.g., “Are you interested in _?”). You will find that you’re much more likely to secure a face-to-face meeting when you know a bit more about the prospect and you’ve had the opportunity to begin to build a foundation of trust and credibility.


Tom Stanfill, a founder and CEO of ASLAN, has focused his 18 years of experience consulting and developing training programs for inside and field sales organizations for some of the largest and most respected companies in the world. He is widely recognized as a thought leader in the field of account management, acquisition and growth and is considered one of the pioneers in the field of inside sales effectiveness. Tom has published numerous articles on the subject of selling and is a frequent speaker at the most prestigious industry events. He is a native of Atlanta and a graduate of Georgia Institute of Technology.

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