Sales Burnout Is a Real Thing
Sometimes employee burnout is really boredom. But… what about when it’s not?
In sales, where rejection is a part of the job even in the best of times and today’s selling environment has grown more stressful, competitive and demanding, signs of burnout are becoming more common across the profession.
As salespeople grapple with new technology, complex deals, sprawling buying committees and increasing commoditization, many are wondering whether it’s even possible to build a successful sales career anymore. They’re beginning to question what value they can bring in a multichannel world where customers can find any information they need from an internet search and a cognitive agent. And while demand for good salespeople has never been higher, many recruiters struggle to even convince people to go into a career in sales. All of this can be pretty draining and demoralizing.
In 2021, 40% of employees cited burnout as the top reason for leaving. Britt Andreatta, Ph.D., author of “Wired to Resist” and other books, explains that “Burnout is actually a diagnosable state of exhaustion that comes from when we have been dealing with a long-term stressful situation.”
The costs of losing a salesperson are significant. And high turnover can impact your customer’s perception of your brand and their confidence in your ability to meet their needs. Against the backdrop of The Great Resignation, it’s something sales leaders and talent management leaders have to address head on, especially since burnout is now the number one reason people are quitting.
What causes sales burnout?
To address sales burnout, you first have to understand what’s causing it. Each person is unique, and there are any number of reasons they might be feeling burned out, but here are a few of the common culprits:
One of the ways we recognize people who work hard and are good at what they do is to give them more responsibility. This is often a stepping stone to career advancement and all the rewards that go along with it. But that’s not the same as expecting your top performers to take up the slack for the rest of the team. Not only is this an unsustainable solution, it will inevitably lead to resentment, dissatisfaction and exhaustion among your most reliable players.
There are other reasons someone’s workload might exceed capacity. It could be a problem with the sales process or time management skills. Sometimes people feel they can’t say “no” or that they don’t have the autonomy to control how their work gets done. They feel pressured to always be on call 24/7 to respond to customers, their manager or colleagues. Regardless of what’s causing the overload, if it’s not addressed, eventually the cost/benefit scales will tip, the burden will simply become too much, no matter how committed they are to the job.
Lack of goal clarity
Goal clarity is one of the biggest drivers that motivates salespeople. It releases energy and achievement drive that will override the negative behaviors that can hold them back. But we’ve found that goal clarity is also consistently the lowest self-reported trait among salespeople. When salespeople aren’t operating with a clear set of goals that are meaningful to them (vs. just being handed down from above), it’s all too easy to lose passion for the work. After all, this is a job where you’re going to face resistance, rejection and challenges at every turn. If you don’t have clarity to connect what you’re doing to a personally motivating “why,” it’s going to be that much harder to push through when the tough times hit.
Just as goal clarity releases energy and someone’s achievement drive, values misalignment depletes them. Your inner values define you are, and if the sales approach, products you’re selling or culture of the company conflict with those values, it will eventually sap you of the enthusiasm and motivation to work hard and persevere. Even whether they internally have a positive or negative view of sales will ultimately make or break a salesperson. Salespeople who are expected to sell in a way that’s not consistent with their values will inevitably see their performance drop off and lose passion for their job.
Lack of feedback
Particularly now that more people are working in remote or hybrid environments, they may not be receiving consistent feedback about how they’re doing. And that’s a big problem, especially if your sales reps feel like they’re working harder than ever but not getting anywhere.
It’s both tiring and dispiriting to feel like all the effort you’re putting in is for nothing. The longer this goes on, the more apathetic and pessimistic your salespeople may become, which will ultimately affect their performance and create an even further downward spiral. Feedback and coaching are how your salespeople know they’re making progress and feel connected to the organization and its mission as a whole even when the numbers aren’t yet showing it.
How to prevent and address sales burnout
While you may be telling your sales reps to unplug when they can, get better at time management or focus on self-care, these things just aren’t enough to address or even prevent the burnout people are experiencing today.
Jonathan Malesic, author of The End of Burnout, notes, “Things like learning to say no or putting your phone down may not be bad ideas, but they’re not going to fix the problem of burnout, because they’re just individual fixes to a problem that is located in the workplace and the culture at large. Burnout is not caused by an individual’s bad habits.”
Fortunately, as a leader there are a number of things you can do to help stem the tide of burnout and make sure your salespeople stay healthy, engaged and successful.
Coaching is one of your most important tools as a leader, and it has applications to nearly every potential cause of burnout highlighted above (and others).
For example, if you find yourself piling the work on to a select few because you know “they can handle it,” it’s a sign you need to do more coaching to bring others up to their standard. You should also be consistently coaching and providing feedback to each of your team members to ensure they’re not just spinning their wheels and that they have a clear picture of where they are, where they need to go and how far they’ve already come. Look for signs of burnout by asking and listening more than you talk. Make a point to focus not just on technique and numbers but also on issues like goal clarity, self-belief and any unconscious barriers that could be adding to their burden and getting in the way of their progress.
Effective sales coaching includes helping people believe they can continually achieve more and expand the area of what’s possible. Of all the factors that influence someone’s productivity, expectations and beliefs—their own as well as their manager’s—rank at the top of the list.
Build new habits and confidence through sales training
Don’t just leave people to figure things out on their own. Sales training is a critical component of any strategy to address and avoid burnout. This includes product knowledge and selling skills, but just as importantly, training must encompass the mindset factors as well. This means helping reps understand their own inner motivations, values and self-beliefs and how to align them to achieve what they want in their professional and personal lives.
When sales training addresses both the skillset and mindset aspects of the role, it will help your reps develop a sense of ownership and purpose that will fuel their passion for the work.
Do a culture check, and be brutally honest about it
What does your culture reward? Is it how many hours someone puts in a day (and night), or is it what they actually accomplish? Are empathy and compassion valued leadership qualities? Do people have a clear understanding of the broader mission and purpose and how their work contributes to it?
As long as the culture and its leadership project an expectation that salespeople should just take on more and more and get used to overwork and constant change without any support or relief, burnout is going to persist. And the top performers (and those with potential to be) aren’t going to continue to put up with it.
For salespeople, it’s been a long and draining couple of years, filled with stress, turmoil and outsized pressures. But the truth is, in any year, sales is a demanding job. That doesn’t mean burnout should be part of it. Take steps today to prevent and address it, or risk losing some of your most talented people.
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