Sales managers have a difficult relationship with luck.
They love it when it’s helping their teams, but they know how unreliable it is. They’ve seen it occasionally give a lift to morale, but they’re probably familiar with studies showing that attributing success or failure to random outside factors drains salespeople’s willingness to try new strategies.
As a consequence, many sales managers de-emphasize luck, instead stressing the importance of stable, measurable, and controllable factors such as motivation and specific behaviors.
But if you downplay the power of luck, you stand to fall behind competitors who have learned how to manage it.
Manage it? Yes: My research shows that luck should be viewed as a controllable determinant of salespeople’s achievement. Success derives not from effort alone but from a combination of effort and luck. An understanding of luck’s synergistic role in success can improve performance and increase young salespeople’s confidence in the face of uncertainty and failure.
My findings are based on a set of studies: exploratory interviews with 19 people, including successful sales professionals and sales students, and research involving 250 university sales students who sold sponsorships and openings for players in a (real) golf tournament and sold job advertising and recruiting booths for a career fair. The students had territories and quotas and used a customer-relationship-management system.
Through the interviews I found that experienced salespeople can tell many tales of luck, and they tend to say that an important factor in their jobs is provoked luck: unexpected events that come about because their strategic behavior has maximized the opportunities. An example of provoked luck is a salesperson I knew at Xerox who first lost an important account, then won it back because he happened to help a client of the account’s, and the client put in a good word for him. (This salesperson was always getting himself into lucky circumstances.)
The research findings involving the sales students allowed me to estimate the importance of luck-related events in selling. For example, in one semester, after 70 students sold more than $132,000 in golf-tournament sponsorships, they attributed more than two-thirds of the revenue to luck. In fact, of more than $430,000 raised in selling the golf tournament and career fair, about 60% came from what I call “luck circumstances,” with the rest deriving from standard sales processes. From 76% to 88% of the luck circumstances were incidences of provoked luck.
The numbers would no doubt vary somewhat in other contexts, but I’m confident that luck is part of sales success in many if not all segments (in most other business endeavors too, but that’s another story).
So how do you manage this hugely important sales input? The key is belief.
Don’t groan — I’m not playing mind games. I found that the greater a salesperson’s belief that success is a combination of luck and effort and that good luck will come along sooner or later, the greater his or her sales activities, such as making phone calls, meeting prospects, qualifying prospects, and gathering intelligence about prospects and competitors. The greater the sales activities, the greater the opportunities for luck and the greater the person’s provoked luck. The greater the provoked luck, the higher the performance.
Belief in the power of luck seems to boost self-assurance, thereby helping experienced sales professionals remain optimistic in the face of setbacks and assisting inexperienced salespeople in overcoming uncertainty and fear of failure. These factors are critical in helping salespeople maintain motivation and job satisfaction. They also matter a lot in reducing turnover, especially for rookies.
Not only does a belief in luck boost sales behaviors, but it works the other way around too: sales behaviors can set the stage for improved luck. Here are a few such behaviors; best of all, they’re teachable.
Gathering competitive intelligence. Salespeople should be trained to search for knowledge about customers, prospects, competitors, and the overall market. The more field intelligence a salesperson has, the smarter and luckier he or she becomes.
Striving for mindfulness. Salespeople should learn to be calmly alert to what is going on in their environments so that they’re focused on customers’ objectives and open to unexpected opportunities. Salespeople who are more aware of what the customer is saying are more interesting to the customer.
Setting high goals. I’m not talking about quotas. I’m talking about ambitious goals, such as trying to surpass one’s past performance. Salespeople should be encouraged to adopt such goals, because they drive forward-looking behaviors. Ambitious goals make salespeople more creative and strategic.
Failing better. It’s important for salespeople to remain positive in the face of failure. Encourage them to set failure goals, such as being denied by x number of customers in a day or month. That way, everyone can feel good about failures as well as successes.
Changing circumstances. Salespeople should be encouraged to disrupt their habits, get out of their routines and comfort zones, and meet new people. They should do new things, expand their networks by going to unusual places, and build new alliances. In sales, opportunities lie not among the people you know but among those you don’t.
The nature of sales is that reps face endless uncontrollable sources of potential failure, ranging from competitors’ better deals to budget cuts to customers’ unwillingness to make quick decisions. The setbacks can be so demoralizing that young sales professionals too often give up before they begin to see positive results.
A young salesperson’s best tool for getting through this valley of despair is a firm belief in luck — not the luck of the random windfall, but the kind of provoked luck that truly helps increase the odds of success.
* Copyright © 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing