When Persistence Becomes Stupidity

By Landy Chase

I have a plaque on the wall of my office that has been a fixture in my work environment since it was given to me as a fledgling salesman nearly twenty years ago. The words were penned by Calvin Coolidge, and they are among my favorite quotes. Space limits me here from reproducing it here, but the piece is entitled “Persistence” and the main idea it offers is that nothing can stand in the way of persistence; that if you are persistent in your efforts, it is inevitable that you will attain your goals.

Like most people, and particularly as a former sales person, I have learned from personal experience the truth in those words. However, when it comes to making a living as a sales person, this principle becomes a bit complicated.

Why? Because too often, sales people equate persistence with doggedly pushing on, even when it is not productive to do so. They have bought into a myth that in the sales profession could be considered a ‘sacred cow’: the simple idea that the harder you work, the more success you will experience.

For example, I can’t begin to count the number of times over the years I have had the following mantras waved in my face by former bosses, sales people and even some of my fellow pundits conducting seminars. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

  • “Sales is a numbers game. The more calls made, the more sales you close.”
  • “Don’t take no for an answer.”
  • “Cold-call your way to success.”
  • “Wear them down with persistence – they’ll eventually buy.”

Don’t get me wrong - I admire a strong work ethic in sales as much as anybody. What frustrates me is all of those hard-working, goal-oriented sales people who follow these rules and work themselves to the bone while barely scratching out a living – all in the name of working hard instead of working smart.

Let me share a real-life example of what I’m referring to. Not too long ago I spent an afternoon with a very promising but inexperienced sales representative who had been infected with this persistence-creates-success virus. His marketing strategy? We spent a long, hot, down-the-street afternoon in his sales territory, dropping in unannounced on legions of cheery, sword-wielding receptionists. He asked them clever, engaging questions, like “can I have a few moments with your decision maker”, then “okay can I have their phone number, then “okay can I have their email address” and “what is a good time to reach them” and …and…..well, you get the idea. At the end of the day, this poor guy had worked his tail off, collected some marginally-useful information on some marginally-qualified prospects, and had sold, well, nothing. Oh, but he was persistent. No, he wouldn’t give up, not he – at least not on that hot afternoon. Predictably, I heard later that he gave it another six weeks before quitting “sales” – if you could call it that - and moving into a different field. Chalk up another example of the persistence crossing over into stupidity. The travesty was that he was a bright, ambitious guy given poor direction from his manager.

This, of course, is but one example. Here are some other common examples of stupidity disguised as persistence:

  • The untrained sales person who lacks good phone skills and finds that they have to make 100 telephone calls to generate two or three marginally promising appointments;

  • The sales person who delivers boilerplate proposals or quotes to yawning, uninterested prospects, then persistently calls ad nauseum for a decision – perhaps 12 or 15 times – all in the name of “good follow-up”;

  • The sales person who doesn’t invest in training on negotiation skills, then persistently drops their price without a corresponding reduction in value, blaming their poor performance on the economy or the competition;

  • The sales person who lacks the skills to identify the proper decision process in an account, then persistently tries to sell to people who do not have the ability to buy what they are selling;

  • Finally, and worst of all, the sales manager who reinforces these bad habits by focusing measurement of individual productivity on activity, i.e the number of calls made, instead of on attainment of specific bottom-line results.

In today’s fast-moving, hyper-competitive business environment, the skills required for selling success have been turned upside down. Certainly, you still have to be persistent – more so than ever – to be successful in sales. However, you must also recognize the difference between “good persistence” and “dumb persistence”. You must recognize the fact that your job has changed in four fundamental areas:

1)   You are an entrepreneur, not a “peddler”. You are franchised by your employer to run a business in your territory. Your success is determined by how you run your business, not by how hard you work. You must therefore run an efficient business.

2)   Marketing, the ability to create opportunities to sell, is a more important skill to you than selling, which is what you get to do when your marketing works.

3)   Using the definition in (2), cold-calling, while important, is the least effective form of marketing that you have at your disposal.

4)   Time is money, and how efficient you are at utilizing your time – not how many hours you put in - will determine your results.

Given all of the changes in our profession, you should remember that we, as sales people, sell in exciting times – times that are rapidly changing. As noted earlier, choose wisely in your approach to being persistent. In the race to the top, you are either the fast-moving hare, adapting quickly to the environment around you, or you are the plodding, dependable, tried-and-true tortoise – that unfortunate species whose carcass gets splattered on the new super-highway of success. Work hard – but work smart.

Read other articles and learn more about Landy Chase.

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