Numbers down? 3 steps to deal with stress in sales

Numbers down? 3 steps to deal with stress in sales

It's unprecedented: The world was thrown into chaos, and everyone's work situation has changed drastically for the foreseeable future. More sales professionals than ever before report that they're experiencing high levels of stress. In this post, I'm going to cover how to handle sales pressure.

After all, there’s no stress quite like sales stress because there’s no career quite like a sales career. On top of that, we're going through a time of unprecedented stress due to the spread of coronavirus and its economic impact. Research by Professor Christian Dormann and his team of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz showed that work stress and burnout are mutually reinforcing, and ultimately can lead to a vicious circle.

Sales is already a high-pressure, results-driven career. That's why, when disaster strikes, the results of a high-stress environment on an already stressful job can seriously take their toll on your mental health.

Here’s what you can expect from this post:

There’s a lot riding on your performance. From the financial well-being of your family to the success of your company, you’ve got a lot of people depending on you to meet your sales quota.

So what happens when you don’t? How do you deal with the stress of letting yourself and your team down, especially in these challenging times?

No surprise, there are right and wrong ways to deal with this stress; and most salespeople don’t handle it well. But before we get there, let’s talk about what stress really means, because it might not be what you think.

Enlightenment from a t-shirt

At best, stress is uncomfortable. At worst, it’s downright painful; so no one is going to blame you for thinking of it as a bad thing. I know I used to—at least until a chance encounter with some random guy in a t-shirt.

Let me explain: I was out walking one day, stressed about one thing or another, when a modern-day Confucius crossed my path. I don’t know his name and we didn’t exchange any words. We didn’t even make eye contact. But he taught me a valuable lesson that day.

Plastered across his t-shirt was a simple sentence: Stress just means you give a fuck.

I love that. If you’re stressed about something, it means you care. It means it matters to you.  And sure, the feeling of stress itself isn’t good, but the fact that you’re stressed is a good sign.

Because “giving a fuck” is the most important part of sales success. And now that you understand that, let’s talk about what you can do to manage, reduce, and even eliminate that stress (by continuing to give a damn).

Stress management 101

At its core, stress management really means emotional management.

The more capable you are of recognizing, realizing, and managing your emotions, the more control you have over your time, your energy, and your focus. And once you've got control over your time, energy, and focus, there simply isn’t any room in your life for stress.

So before we get into specific stress management techniques for salespeople, let’s start with the five basic things every human being needs to do on a consistent basis to reduce stress, especially during a worldwide pandemic.


I can tell some of you want to scroll past this section because “you’ve heard it all before.” That may be true, but you need to hear it again. Just because the information isn’t “new” or “sexy” doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

In fact, without the five principles below, the sales-specific stress management techniques I cover later on won’t even work. So think of this section as a quick but necessary review of the things you should already be doing.

1. Go to sleep: Work will still be there in the morning

I get it: Silicon Valley idolizes workaholism and there’s this unspoken pressure that if you’re not working, you’re failing. It isn’t true.

You’ve probably heard the stories of hyper-successful entrepreneurs who only sleep 3-5 hours each night, right? They’re the exception, not the rule. If you need sleep habits to look up to, how about these:

  • Elon Musk sleeps 6 hours each night
  • Tim Cook sleeps 7 hours each night
  • Jeff Bezos sleeps 7 hours each night

Go to bed. Work will still be there in the morning. Besides, you’ll probably get more done in 8 hours of rested productivity than 12 hours of sleep-deprived dabbling and better be able to handle sales pressure.

For more on the importance of sleep in stress management, check out this article by the American Psychological Association.

2. You are what you eat

We’ve all got that one meal we know isn’t good for us, but we can’t resist. You know the one: You’ve convinced yourself it helps you relax and unwind, but really it just leaves you feeling like shit. Stop doing that to yourself.

I’m not saying you can’t eat junk food; I’m just saying it shouldn’t be a staple of your daily eating habits. Ditch the fast food a couple days each week and eat something that leaves you feeling (healthfully) energized instead.

For more on foods that help with stress management, check out Health’s "12 Superfoods for Stress Relief."

3. Break a sweat

You can’t spend your entire work day in front of a computer and your entire evening in front of a TV. You’ve got to carve out at least 30-45 minutes each day to be active.

I don’t care what that looks like for you: Lift weights. Take a martial arts class. Go for a jog around the office. Do whatever you want, as long as you break a sweat.

This balances out your body chemistry so you not only feel less stress, you’re better equipped to handle the stress you do have.

For more on the effects of exercise on stress, check out "Exercising to Relax" by Harvard Health Publications.

4. Take a break

You may be getting enough sleep, but are you taking enough breaks during the workday? I don’t care who you are: You can’t possibly be working at peak productivity from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. every day.

If you find yourself doing that, pause and ask yourself, “What are my most and least productive hours?” Then simply stop working during your least productive hours and use them for exercise or a healthy meal instead.

For more on the importance of taking breaks, check out Buffer’s "The Science of Taking Breaks at Work: How to Be More Productive By Changing the Way You Think About Downtime."

5. Clear your mind

Meditation means different things to different people. However you define it, make time for it.

Pray. Sit along the beach. Feed ducks at the pond. Do yoga. As long as it clears your mind, calms your body, and allows you to focus on the here-and-now, it’ll help you let go of current stress and equip you for future challenges.

For more on the importance of this practice, check out our article on 3-minute mindfulness.

Stress management for salespeople in 3 steps

Alright, you made it through the basics. (If you didn’t and just skipped down here, go back and read them.) Now let’s dig a little deeper and talk about how to deal with the stress of missing your quota.

Here’s a 3-step formula that’ll help you get clarity around why you missed the mark, help you develop an action plan for the future, and reduce your stress along the way.

1. Know your shit

You know you missed your quota, but do you really know why? You can’t solve a problem until you understand it, and the best way to really understand something is The Five Whys.

The process is pretty self-explanatory: Ask “Why?” a minimum of five times until you uncover the underlying source of a problem. Most salespeople stop at one “Why?” and it looks something like this:

“Why didn’t I meet my quota this quarter?”

“Because I didn’t make enough cold calls.”

As far as they’re concerned, that’s the end of that. The problem was obviously call volume so, in the future, all they have to do is make more cold calls, right? Maybe, but let’s run this through The Five Whys to make sure.

“Why didn’t I meet my quota this quarter?”

“Because I didn’t make enough cold calls. Why?”

“Because although I was doing my 100 cold calls a day, I wasn’t reaching anybody. Why?”

“Because most of the numbers I had weren’t valid. Why?”

“Because I bought 100,000 leads off a website to meet my quota, and the leads were poor quality. Why?”

“Because the goal I set for myself this quarter couldn’t be reached with the leads provided by my company.”

And there it is. Suddenly it’s clear the problem had nothing to do with call volume and everything to do with an unrealistic goal. (But if call volume is in fact the culprit, technology can help. A predictive dialer for example can help sales reps drastically increase both their call volume and reach rates!)

Before we move on to step two, let’s take a quick look at some of the most common root causes of missed quotas:

  • Unrealistic goals: You set goals for yourself that are either unattainable or can’t be reached with the strategies and resources you have in place.
  • Inaction: Your heart just wasn’t in it this quarter; whatever the reason, you failed to take the actions necessary to succeed.
  • Poor-quality action: You took action, but the actions weren’t backed with the necessary knowledge or experience to produce results. You did the right things but in the wrong way.
  • Market: The market shifted in some dramatic and unseen way. Maybe the economy crashed or a competitor swooped in and stole your customers.
  • Company: Your company made meeting your goal impossible. Maybe they set an unreachable quota or got caught up in a major PR debacle.

You have complete control over the first three and practically no control over the final two. But whatever the root cause is for your situation, the simple act of knowing it is often enough to dramatically reduce your stress.

2. Own your shit

90% of the bullshit in sales comes from stressed salespeople trying to cover up the fact that they aren’t hitting their numbers.

You’ve probably seen it too: Someone suddenly calling in sick to meetings, engaging in fewer conversations, dropping off email strands, and eating alone. All in the hopes that if no one notices them, no one will notice their numbers.

No surprise, it rarely works.

So a lot of struggling salespeople will go so far as to blatantly lie about their numbers (although usually with good intentions). They think, “Alright, I’m going to tell everyone these are my numbers. That should buy me a couple weeks to overperform and make up the difference.”

In this case, “overperform” usually means an unethical shortcut like:

But that never works either, not in the long run. All you’re doing is digging yourself deeper into a hole that’s becoming increasingly more difficult to climb out of. Don’t sabotage future business to resolve present crises.

Once you’ve identified your problem, confront it. Own it. Your team’s gonna find out eventually anyway, so it may as well come from you. And the sooner you’re honest, the sooner you can get help. Speaking of which ...

3. Fix your shit

You’ve identified the problem. You’ve owned the problem. Now you need to solve the problem, or at the very least, prevent it from happening again. At this point in the process, you may already have the knowledge and clarity to fix it yourself. If you do, great! Get started.

If you don’t, get help from someone who does.

Unless you’re in a hostile and competitive sales team, your teammates don’t want you to fail. So look at the numbers and find out who crushed it this quarter, then ask for their advice, guidance, or mentorship.

Research published in the Psychological Bulletin showed that the effect of burnout on perceived work stress can be somewhat mitigated if employees have more control over their own work and receive support from colleagues or superiors.

If no one on your team is willing or able to help, reach out to your sales manager. If they can’t help, find a successful salesperson outside your company. And if even that isn’t enough, there are countless resources online to troubleshoot whatever challenge you’re facing, such as:

Rest assured: Whatever sales hurdles you’re facing, someone else has already overcome them, and they’re probably more than happy to help you do the same.

Failure happens to the best of us, but …

Most sales stress is caused by salespeople afraid to face their failures.

So if you’re not going to hit your quota this quarter, don’t panic. You know what to do: Identify the problem, own the problem, and fix the problem.

Once you’ve taken full ownership and responsibility for something, there isn’t much room left for stress. That’s not to say you’ll eliminate it entirely, but that’s alright. Because remember:

A little stress just means you give a fuck.

Videos more your style? Watch as I break down how to deal with stress when you're missing your quota.

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