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Motivating our Sellers to Adapt Requires us to Adapt our Approach to Motivation

By Alice Walmesley | October 14, 2022 | 0 Comments

Selling is a high-pressured job at the best of times. And in the economic turbulence of 2022, we’re really starting to feel the squeeze of belts tightening; projects get cancelled, even loyal customers jump ship, and prospects avoid sellers with greater determination than ever.

Many of us are wondering, “how do we keep sellers motivated in such a volatile market?”. Sellers need higher than ever levels of motivation: the motivation to hunt new deals when even the most certain of purchases get short circuited, the motivation to overcome eleventh hour obstacles as increasingly risk-averse organizations put new buying protocols in place, and the motivation to continue contacting customers when doors keep slamming in their faces.

Moreover, most of us have recognized that to succeed in today’s environment of intense variability, carrying on doing things the same way is not enough; we need to do things differently. We need to respond to market fluctuations and customer expectations, and that requires sellers to learn new things and do things differently: perhaps selling new products in the same market, or selling the same products in new markets, or selling new products in new markets. Sellers may need to learn new skills, or to sell through new channels, or to use new technologies. Regardless of the specific situation, we need sellers to go the extra mile, and to adapt as the situation evolves.

Yet we’re facing an uphill climb to motivate sellers to change when their energy levels are at an all-time low. Despite our best efforts, our current approach to motivation just isn’t working. Gartner’s 2022 Seller Motivation Survey found that 89% of sellers are burned out and 54% are actively looking for a new job. So what do we do?

As Colleen Giblin explains in When Work’s a Drag, Deals and Sellers Start to Disappear, the conventional approach in sales is to motivate through “drive” towards work. Typically, sales leaders invest in a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators such as compensation, gifts, bonuses, flexibility, recognition, and winner’s circles to increase seller drive. But it’s not enough. While drive towards work is important, we’ve overlooked a more impactful factor in motivation: drag. “Drag” is demotivation away from work and exists when sellers struggle to focus, procrastinate, feel bored, think about taking time off to avoid work, and “go through the motions” to meet activity tracking requirements. Sellers with high levels of drag have higher levels of burnout, lower quota attainment and are more likely to be actively looking for a new job. Drag has a stronger pull than drive, it negatively affects 87% of sellers, and presents the biggest opportunity for sales leaders looking to boost seller motivation… but it has been largely overlooked until now.

How can we reduce drag? The biggest causes of drag are sellers’ perception of a lack of development opportunities and when they feel “like a cog in a machine”. We need to create tangible growth opportunities through laterals moves that go beyond traditional promotions to manager or selling a larger portfolio. Experience-based career lattices give sellers options to explore cross-functionally and should be de-risked as much as possible to make these development opportunities realistic. To avoid sellers feeling like a “cog” with no control over their own destiny, we should empower sellers to make their own decisions to solve customer problems and improve business processes. This means supporting new ideas even when they are risky, providing freedom to solve creatively for customer needs, and rewarding sellers for finding ways to improve sales processes.

While we can’t control external disruption, we can influence how we respond to that disruption and our sellers’ level of motivation. Most sales leaders underestimate the importance of creating development and true empowerment opportunities. Just like our sellers procrastinating on important selling activities, these are things we think we’ll get to at some point, but perhaps aren’t motivated to prioritize! The lesson is that if we want to motivate our sellers to adapt, we need to adapt our approach to motivation.

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

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