How to Reawaken the Passion for Selling

By Richard Boyatzis, Melvin Smith, and Ellen Van Oosten, Professors, Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University

When salespeople stay in a sales role for more than seven years, two things occur. One, they know the products or services well and have built relationships with clients. Two, they are likely to get bored. 

The latter fact is based on a well-researched and age-old observation: About every seven years, people get bored or restless with their lives and work. After all, how exciting is the sixth incentive trip to Hawaii? 

After you’ve been in sales for a number of years, the same old incentives and motivational speeches can start to get stale. When people hit their mid-life crisis or transition, they are seeking novelty – and sometimes meaning. Just doing more of the same is not sufficiently exciting, and making more money doesn’t always motivate us the way it once did. 

How to Keep Salespeople Motivated
An experienced seller wants meaning or a sense of purpose. Recent surveys tell us that the 21- to 37-year-old millennials are particularly sensitive to this issue. Here is where you, as a sales manager, can help. 

We have been studying how to motivate people to learn and change for over 30 years. With 39 published longitudinal studies showing dramatic behavior change that sustains itself for five to seven years, plus three fMRI neuro-imaging studies and two hormonal studies, we have discovered two things that can help. 

#1: Focus on dreams or a deeper sense of purpose in the work, not merely goals.
Our brains react to goals with a defensive posture where we have to prove we can reach them. While that might help performance in the short run, it is not sustainable in the long run. When discussing the purpose or long-term dream for selling your product/service and building relationships with the clients, a part of your brain activates that helps you open up to new ideas and other people. You can adapt and learn new approaches in this state. 

The technique is simple: Ask the person to help your associate imagine, envision, and dream of their future. Specifically, we find that asking the following questions can invoke these more open parts of the brain and mind: If your life were ideal in 10-15 years, what would it be like? What would you love to do? Who will you be surrounded by? 

After a few conversations about that, follow-up questions include: In what ways does helping clients with our products or services move you closer to that vision? How are you helping your clients move closer to their dreams? 

Before you dismiss this approach – feeling it is too much like group therapy – pause to ask yourself whether people respond with energy when discussing how winning $100 million in the lottery (after tax) would change their lives and work? Yes, they do. People enjoy thinking about it because it pulls them into dreaming. These are not goals or forecasts, but dreams.

When the dream and deeper sense of purpose are the context of a selling moment or relationship with a client, the possibilities open up far more than when a specific goal or problem is the context. 

#2: Identify core values.
Our core values are beliefs we hold about what is good, right, and true, and serve as our anchors in life. Questions to ask include: 

  • What core values are most important to you? 
  • What kind of person do you wish to be?  
  • How does your work with customers and clients fulfill your values? 
  • How can your clients see you as a partner – helping them move closer to their values and dreams – rather than a vendor? 

Reflect for a moment. Who most helped you become who you are or most helped you get where you are in life? When you remember certain people in your life – whether parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, managers, or partners/spouses – they all helped you see new possibilities in life and work. They believed in your strengths and talents. 

Our research has shown that these moments are powerful for people around the world. We feel energized and grateful for those people and moments. We know that, by invoking gratitude, we help a person feel compassion and stimulate a part of their brain and body that helps them feel hopeful about the future, learn new things, and adapt. 

Isn’t that the impact you want to have on your salespeople? Imagine how it would reinvigorate your seasoned salespeople if you had that kind of impact on them. 

Keeping salespeople motivated well into their careers requires a different kind of conversation. It involves caring about the person and their interests, dreams, and future. Acting in the way others helped you will inspire both your clients and salespeople. 

Richard Boyatzis, Melvin Smith, and Ellen Van Oosten are professors in the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Richard is the H.R. Horvitz Chair of Family Business, Melvin is faculty director Executive Education, and Ellen is director of the Coaching Research Lab. They are the authors of Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth