11 ways to overcome sales call reluctance & build iron confidence
Making sales calls is scary. When you’re cold calling prospects, they will reject you.
When you follow up with a prospect you’ve been serenading for weeks and a deal is within reach—they suddenly go cold on you. And then there’s simply the act of making a phone call at all in today’s world of “texts only, please.” No wonder sales call reluctance is a thing—not just among noobs, but can even come and hit seasoned hyper-pro.
So how do you overcome this fear that's keeping you from picking up the phone? The real thing you need to overcome is yourself.
Writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about fear in the context of a creative life. But her advice applies to the sales process, too: “Fear is boring, because fear only ever has one thing to say to us, and that thing is: ‘STOP!’” And listen, stopping before you even give it a go just won’t do: up to 80% of new salespeople fail within their first year on the job because they’re not prospecting enough.
Most salespeople have struggled with this exact problem at some point in their career. Even top performers: if you look at common traits of the most successful sales people out there, many of them are successful because they learned to manage their emotions well, including fears and frustrations when dealing with prospective buyers.
But the way most people (including sales managers who should know better) deal with telephobia is all wrong: a quick “smile and dial” pep talk or essentially bullying yourself into a sales call won’t do the job. Whether you’re a full-time salesperson, business owner, or startup founder who needs to drum up new business, everyone can overcome call reluctance.
What causes sales call reluctance?
So you’re afraid of rejection. 👋 Hi, so are most people. Fear of rejection is normal (and crucial). You start imagining worst-case scenarios as soon as you think about cold calling, and yep, the call might be uncomfortable before you get in your groove. But it also might be great.
This fear manifests as the need to be liked. Sales development pioneer Dave Kurlan found that 62% of sales people score high on this trait, and that they’re 147% less likely to reach decision makers, and their probability of closing is 151% smaller. And it leads to different forms of call reluctance.
You also don’t want to come across as sales-y, which feels awful to deliver and is off-putting on the receiving end. Maybe you don’t want to bother people, and if this is the case, I challenge you to change your perspective: you’re calling to introduce them to a solution, you want to make their work easier or more efficient. More than calling to make a sale, you’re calling a prospect to uncover a better way to get results.
That’ll get you in the door, but then you have to embrace being salesperson. It’s your job to close deals, so own it. It’s a conversation as much as it is a sales pitch. You best know the benefits of your products and services, and you are the conduit for presenting those benefits to the buyer.
Remember you aren’t alone in this fear. Most of your sales colleagues are also taking that deep breath and psyching themselves up before dialing. Everyone’s scared, sometimes! Now what?
How prospecting procrastination manifests itself
We're all great at tricking ourselves into avoiding the things we fear, fully believing that what we’re doing makes total sense. No, this is not an avoidance behavior at all, but in fact totally necessary! Right?
Afraid you’ll not be able to answer some of the prospect’s questions?
The perfect time to make the call is now, before you’ve gotten in your own way. You don’t have to be perfectly prepared for any question they might ask.
Think you don't have enough product knowledge? Make the call anyway, and if you run into questions you can’t answer, just tell the prospect: “Great question! I don’t know the answer, but I’ll find out and get back to you.” Then educate yourself, and the next time a prospect asks you this question, you’ll know how to handle it.
Convinced that meaningless busywork is absolutely mission critical, and over-preparation is the way to succeed?
The Instant Gratification Monkey that has you doing this, that, and the other before tackling the one task you don’t want to do does not have your best interest at heart. For example, wasting time with administrative tasks in your CRM to avoid actual prospecting is not setting yourself up for success; rather, it’s self-sabotage.
Push busywork to the side and start your day with the task you’re dreading. Don’t overthink it. Start a habit of knocking out that “scary” call first thing in the morning, and then it’s done.
Need more time to research the prospect?
Stop bullshitting yourself. Face the facts: Yes, while researching your prospect, you might have found an in-depth Goodreads review they've written for a book on the evolution of the solar system, but your Wikipedia deep dive into meteor showers is procrastination, not research.
And for your own sake, stop excessively researching prospects on social media or memorizing LinkedIn profiles. Bringing up the health of their child’s pet rabbit is not going to make them any more likely to buy. If anything, it'll get you closer to a restraining order.
You can do the hard thing. "Forgetting" to ask for referrals (also known as referral aversion), for example, is only delaying the inevitable, because referrals are a lifeblood. You know you’ll have to do the thing you’re dreading anyway, so do it now.
Books on overcoming call reluctance
Telephobia is so widespread that there are even books on the subject, in case you’re the researching type:
- The Psychology of Sales Call Reluctance: Earning What You're Worth in Sales by George W. Dudley and Shannon L. Goodson (the co-founders of Behavioral Sciences Research Press)
This might well be the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire of call reluctance books. It comes in at 454 pages, and it’s highly detailed and technical, explaining the science behind the fear.
- From Hello To Yes In 3 Minutes Or Less: How to Overcome Call Reluctance, Know Exactly What to Say, and Avoid Rejection When Using the Telephone as a Network Marketing Professional by Paul G Walmsley
A fit for a multi-level marketing beginner, this book focuses on building your business by using the telephone.
- Selling From The Heart: How Your Authentic Self Sells You! by Larry Levine
There is authentic, introspective work involved in finding the humanity behind selling. Larry Levine employs case studies and stories to describe how to make customer connections.
- How I Conquered Call Reluctance, Fear of Self-Promotion, & Increased My Prospecting! by Sidney C. Walker
Reviewers say they learned to work with their own limitations and strengths, getting to the root of the problem instead of treating the symptoms.
- Smart Calling: Eliminate the Fear, Failure, and Rejection from Cold Calling by Art Sobczak
How do you make cold calling less frigid? Pre-call planning. The author includes sample scripts you can tweak to give you a starting place.
Sometimes all you want is a little direction, plus the comforting science that proves you aren’t completely nutty. But quite frankly, before you start ordering any of these books you should just apply some of the advice below, because most of these books are as cringeworthy as they appear.
11 ways to overcome sales call reluctance
If you want to reach peak sales performance, you have to find a way to work through your fear. Fortunately, there’s more than one way—try what works best for you, and be free to combine and remix these techniques any way you see fit. There’s no right or wrong here. There’s only one thing that counts: Does it help you master your fear?
1. Expect the yes, embrace the no
Whenever you initiate contact with a new prospect, you should expect the yes, and embrace the no. What do I mean? Anticipate that your call will be great. The stars will align, and the gods will look favorably upon you.
So much of this work is both convincing yourself of your ability and accepting the possibility that despite your skills, some prospects just aren’t having it. Some people will say no. Maybe they aren’t ready, maybe they’re having a bad day, maybe it didn’t turn out to be the best call of your life.
What will your takeaway be? What can you do differently next time to land the yes? You can only control what you can control.
2. Turn your fear of failure into fearlessness
Many years ago, one of the people on our very first fledgling sales team had this problem. I assigned him a pretty out-there task: intentionally failing. Flubbing calls on purpose. Once he’d done his worst a couple times, he nailed a call. Then another and another. He transformed himself (because again, it’s your own work that will make this change) into an energetic, unstoppable machine.
I find that fearlessness is attainable when you face what you’re actually doing: selling a prospect on a solution. Not rocket science. Not brain surgery. It’s just sales, when you shrink it down. It won’t bite.
3. Transform anxiety into excitement
I myself internalized this tactic to overcome my stage fright. I went from wanting to puke my guts out before public speaking to being energetically excited. First, I tricked myself into believing my confidence: Anxiety is an energy, after all, so what if I used that energy to gesture more, speak louder, or even admit that I’m nervous? Then, wouldn’t you know? The audience followed. They believed me, too.
It was like magic—and yet it wasn’t. When the audience felt the vigor I had for the topic, they got on board, too. They were “yes and-ing” my energy, a sea of nodding heads.
Since you’re meeting a prospect over the phone, it starts and ends with your voice. Smile when you initiate the conversation so they know you’re glad to be making this connection. They shouldn’t feel like it’s a slog for you to make the call. Smiling will also trick yourself into believing you’re happy to be there, which you’ll learn to be.
4. Build confidence in 2 ways: short-term hacks & long-term training
We’ve all heard of faking it until we make it, acting confident until you really believe it yourself. What surprises me again and again is how well this works. In sales, it's more about how you respond than the words you’re using to respond. You're transferring your confidence to them.
The shortcut to overcoming social self-consciousness in sales is simple: use a script. When you're working with a script, you don't have to think about what you're going to say. Instead, you can focus on how you say it: the tone of your voice, your intonation, and the emotional qualities of your words.
That’s a short-term hack. But for the long-term? There’s no hack.
It takes both success and failure. Failure teaches you what your voice sounds like, where your mind goes, what you use as a crutch. Only through experiencing the shittiest, most gut-wrenching calls—and coming out the other side—will you grow into a confident salesperson. You are training yourself. It’s again that famous Bill Gates quote: “It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”
5. Master your own voice
Increase your confidence through physical changes. First, hit the Goldilocks of call volumes: not too quiet, not shouting, but just right, there in the middle. Then, be mindful of the pace at which you tend to speak. (Ask co-workers what they think of your phone voice. Are you rushing through your spiel or speaking agonizingly slow?) Finally, your posture. Even though the prospect can’t see you, your body language does transmit your confidence or uncertainty over the phone.
Put together these mindful adjustments to become the you you want to be over the phone.
6. Have a routine for recovering from bad sales calls
Get to where you know how to handle yourself after a call goes south. I’m a big fan of physical movement following a tough call: Stand up from your chair, go pour a coffee, or take a brisk walk. Anything to remove yourself from the charged environment and avoid the temptation to vent. Even though co-workers might join in on bashing sales calls, all you’re doing is creating a negative culture.
It can also help to have a set time or place to talk through these calls. That way, you know you’ll be able to get it out over lunch with a mentor or during a team meeting, and you won’t take those bad feelings into your next call.
And part of your routine should include making more than one call a day. Not only does this give you practice, but it also won’t ruin your whole day if the one call you had to make doesn’t go well. Block out part of your day to offer your service or product to someone, and then someone else, and then one more. One bad call could lead to the next stellar call, overhauling your day’s outlook.
7. The old penny jar hack
There is no salesperson—nope, no one—who hasn’t experienced rejection. Owning rejections as a badge of honor is part of trading experience. If you aren’t losing some of your deals, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough.
You know you can close a deal. That ability might even be what got you into sales to begin with: winning feels so damn good. But how many rejections can you handle?
Measure it yourself using the penny jar hack. Sales reps have been doing this for decades; it's been part of a lot of old-school sales trainings, but funnily enough, it still works in 2021. Every time you get a no after a meaningful sales conversation or are blocked by a gatekeeper, put a penny in your jar. As the jar fills up, congratulate yourself on the amount of times you tried. They’re your pennies, your attempts, you own them. Some calls will go poorly no matter what, so you toss in a penny, reevaluate your efforts, and move onto the next call.
8. Remember that you’re creating value
Assuming you believe in what you sell (and if you don't, then you should quit and start selling something you do believe in), getting it in front of the people who stand to gain the most from it is creating value. Yeah, it will also mean getting in front of a lot of people who aren’t a good fit, but that’s part of your job as a sales professional: to identify those who are a good fit.
It starts with listening. Make sure you’re fully present for and digesting what the prospect’s needs are instead of rushing into a solution. You are not selling anyone on something that will make their life worse. When you approach these calls with strength and empathy, you’re more likely to gain trust to close the deal.
9. Listen to your call recordings
I know you’ve heard yourself in a voicemail you’ve left or a video you’ve made and thought, “Do I really sound like that?” We aren’t the people who know ourselves best when it comes to the way we present to the world. Noticing the phrases you overuse or vocal tics you’ve developed is tricky.
Unless you have a mentor to help pick apart your problems, start recording your calls. (If you’re using our inside sales software, your calls are automatically recorded and stored in the cloud.) Set aside an hour each week to review these and take notes. Listen to your pacing, stumbling, and missed opportunities so you can improve next time.
10. Do mock sales calls
Quite simply, the most indispensable training tool is the mock sales call. You’re able to try different tactics in a low-pressure environment before getting a real prospect on the phone. Whether you’re a green sales rep yourself or training new sales team members, I can’t recommend these mock call sessions enough. Approach it seriously, stay in character, and take notes.
Now all you need is a volunteer to be Bill Buttlicker.
11. Level up with a sales coach
Ask for help when you need it, OK? At this point in your career, it just isn’t cool to pretend otherwise. If you’re still ambivalent or downright shaking in your boots, confronting and addressing that cold calling fear is the only way it’ll change.
Find someone—a co-worker, your sales manager, etc.—who’s up for partnering 1:1 to help build your skills. It doesn't have to be an “actual” sales coach; it can be someone whose prospect calls are legendary and has some experience to share. No one expects you to know everything, all of it, right away, all the time. C’mon, now. Start training to improve.
The more comfortable you get calling potential customers, the better you'll get at closing sales. Build confidence through training, call reviewing, and being honest with yourself—and others!—about what you’re dealing with.
Realize that sales call reluctance is part of the process. You experience it, you explore it, and finally you learn to handle it. I know some very successful reps who have been in sales for decades and still feel anxious when they pick up the phone. But you can’t tell when you watch them work: They’ve got it down to a T. They can’t control the involuntary feeling that comes up, but they can control how they react to it, what they do with it. They surely don’t let it get in the way between themselves and sales success—and neither should you.
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