Sales

10 Ways Mindset Can Influence Salespersons’ Success

With the right mindset, the sky’s the limit

Recently I wrote an article about the importance of mindset to personal growth and success in life. This article focuses specifically on how mindset can make a significant difference in both the short-term and long-term success of salespeople.

First, a quick recap of mindset: Carol Dweck tells us that people generally fall into two camps in terms of their attitude towards personal ability. Some people think we’re born with a fixed amount of personal ability and can’t do much about it, and others see ability as very malleable and able to be improved through hard work.

Your mindset influences the type of goals you set for yourself. There are two general types of goals that people set for themselves, performance goals and learning goals. Performance goals are about reaching a set target, which is frequently related to how you compare to others. Learning goals focus on learning, getting better and comparing yourself to yourself.

The prevalent quota-based, competitive, short term goal approach of most sales forces is highly conducive to performance goals, but research shows that learning goals actually lead to superior sales performance, both in the short term and in the long run.

In one study, researchers tested 167 medical device salespeople involved in a 90-day sales campaign for a particular device. It cost about $5,000, and salespeople were offered a $300 bonus for each device they sold. The nice thing about this study is that it was real-world, with actual dollars at stake and precisely measurable results.[1]

Before the campaign was announced, the salespeople were given a questionnaire to determine whether they were performance-oriented or learning-oriented. Basically, they were asked to indicate their level of agreement with statements such as, “It is important for me to learn from each selling experience I have,” or “I feel very good when I know I have outperformed other salespeople in my company.” In addition, the researchers also asked participants questions about their personal sales targets, how much effort they planned to put into the campaign (they still had to sell everything else), and how much planning they would do.

The study found that “a learning goal orientation had a positive relationship with sales performance” which is the academic way of saying the learning-oriented salespeople kicked ass.

Based on that study, plus some additional research[2] and my own 20 years’ experience in sales training and consulting, I’ve listed ten ways that the proper mindset and goal orientation make you more successful in sales:

  1. You set higher goals for yourself. In general, when people set goals for you, you strive for that goal and no further. When they set goals for themselves, those with a learning orientation tend to set goals higher, and higher targets lead to higher performance. In this study, there was a direct correlation between goal orientation and personal targets.
  2. You try harder and spend more time. When the challenging goal you have is one you set yourself, you are also going to put in greater effort. Learners believe that effort makes you successful; performers believe that trying hard shows you must not be very good to begin with.
  3. You plan more. This was shown in the questionnaire results. It’s a cliché, but I can’t resist: “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
  4. You are more willing to try difficult things and take risks. I’ve seen this in sales training sessions, where some people are very reluctant to role play or present their opportunity plans; others volunteer and don’t mind if they don’t get it at first.
  5. You stick with it longer in the face of failure and frustration. Performance oriented salespeople see a failure as evidence that they don’t have the ability to accomplish the task, so they are more likely to give up when they hit a rough spot. Learners relish the challenge, and see initial failure as a learning opportunity.
  6. You are more optimistic. Knowing that you can have a direct impact on your own “talent” gives you a greater sense of control over what happens to you. When change happens, you spend less time fighting it and more time figuring out ways to adapt.
  7. You become more creative. It’s hard to be creative when you’re tense, because you’re worried about what others think. You’re likelier to find a solution when you believe a solution is possible.
  8. You are more willing to seek and accept feedback and coaching. When your self-concept is wrapped up in looking good in front of others, the last thing you want to do is ask for advice or feedback. As a trainer, I can spot the difference in orientation right away: some folks respond to coaching by making excuses or explaining why the role play was artificial and of course they wouldn’t do that in an actual sales call.
  9. You learn more, which carries over. When you’re looking for them, learning opportunities pop up everywhere—maybe it’s the chance remark someone makes, or the “stupid question” your customer asks. You pay more attention to things and process things deeper. Many studies have shown that most professionals reach a certain level of performance and then stay there for the rest of their careers.[3]
  10. You enjoy yourself more. Okay, this last one is pure personal opinion, but I believe that since life is going to throw challenges at you anyway, you might as well learn to get something out of them. The knowledge that your best days are ahead of you and not behind you should be a deep source of personal satisfaction.

In sum, the right mind-set can give a you sales force of happy, productive, self-starters.  These results should lead to two obvious questions: can you test for goal orientation before hiring, and can you teach a learning orientation to those who don’t have it? The answers are yes and yes, but that is a topic for next week’s article.


[1] VandeWalle, Brown, Cron, Slocum: “The Influence of Goal Orientation and Self-Regulation Tactics on Sales Performance: A Longitudinal Field Test.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 1999.

[2] Mindset, by Carol Dweck.

Succeed, by Heidi Grant Halvorson

[3] See, among others, Development of Professional Expertise, edited by K. Anders Ericsson.

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