The math is simple: Successful sales people consistently initiate contact to start new fruitful alliances and close deals. However, for many, making contact is so uncomfortable that they avoid it, delay it or fake it with ineffective strategies such as conducting e-mail blasts or calling on only limited, emotionally safe segments of the market. Sales call anxiety describes this worry or dread of making contact with customers.
“You don’t have to control your thoughts. You just have to stop letting them control you.” – Dan Millman
Sales call anxiety–also referred to as call reluctance–is potentially catastrophic to any career with a sales component. It can affect a salesperson’s ability to communicate effectively with customers and may increase sales failure. The greater the perceived call anxiety, the poorer the effectiveness of communication and sales volume. Therefore, it is considered to be an obstacle that decreases sales performance.
Call anxiety is prevalent in selling situations, affecting up to 40% of salespeople at some point in their career. It can be present at the onset of a sales career, or it can strike suddenly in long lasting highly productive employees. It is even said that the covid-19 pandemic has created an epidemic of Call Reluctance.
In this blog post, we will provide you with hands-on actionable tips that are based on current insights from the cognitive approach to social anxiety. Specifically, we will focus on 4 steps to reduce sales call anxiety.
1. Reduce negative self-evaluations
2. Neutralize perceived negative evaluations from customers
3. Counteract physiological symptoms
4. Help fight urges to perform protective actions
As always, our researchers have searched through dozens of peer-reviewed articles that are published in leading journals to bring you our research-backed results on how to deal with call anxiety.
What is sales call anxiety?
Sales call anxiety has long been recognized by salespeople as a problem. It is often accompanied by urges to avoid contact with customers, and when contact is made it can prevent salespeople from interacting effectively. If the salesperson is not effectively making calls, there will be fewer appointments, fewer sales leads, and ultimately lower sales and profits for the employee and the company.
The biology. Anxiety affects our brain and body in myriad ways. When anxious, our bodies release stress hormones such as cortisol, our attention narrows, and we interpret ambiguous information more negatively.
While in a good mood you may think the phrase “Next time, I would prefer it if you would call me in the afternoon” is constructive feedback; in a bad mood (i.e, when stressed or fearful) however, you might interpret this as a personal criticism. This can lead to a downward spiral where people become increasingly anxious, expect failure, and perform worse.
The 4 dimensions. After exploring the concept of sales call anxiety on the basis of conceptualizations of social anxiety, psychologists Willem Verbeke and Richard Bagozzi identified 4 primary dimensions of sales call anxiety and tested these among 189 salespeople. These dimensions are:
- Negative self-evaluations (e.g., “I am bad at this”)
- Perceived negative evaluations from customers (e.g., “they think I am unhelpful”)
- Physiological symptoms (e.g., stuttering, tension)
- Urges to perform protective actions (e.g., delaying sales calls)
Do I have (sales) call anxiety?
Questions to ask. First, it is important for employees (and managers) to know whether they have sales call anxiety. The following questions may help:
- Do you think you will be unable to have a constructive conversation?
- Do you worry that potential customers or clients will think negatively of you?
- Do you start to stutter, have shaky hands, or experience other physical symptoms when making (or thinking about) a call?
- Do you spend more time on email or email blasts instead of more effective direct communication?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have some degree of call anxiety. (For a more detailed assessment, you can take a free online assessment here). Acknowledging that you have sales call anxiety is important because it rarely gets better without putting in effort.
What to look for. Managers should also be aware of signs of SCA in their employees. In many cases, managers will notice second-order effects of anxiety when sales force strategies or targets change (e.g., when quota on new customer contact increases). When you detect symptoms of SCA, you should discuss this with your employee. Things you can look out for in your salespeople:
- They’re displaying signs of insurity like talking down on oneself, overly worrying about not reaching targets, easily giving in, thinking that they don’t come across convincely
- They regularly think that customers don’t think they’re competent, professional, or able to sell.
- They come across as nervous, panicky, repeating themselves, or cannot handle silences.
- They avoid direct questions like “will you sign the offer?”, offers the customer too many extras, or apologizes quickly to the customer.
Identifying the specific issue. The next step is to find out which specific aspects of sales calls the employee finds challenging and why. For instance, some salespeople may over-prepare because they find it difficult to close with customers, whereas others dread speaking to strangers so they struggle to contact new prospects.
Recognizing the underlying challenge is important because you have to act accordingly. For example, one way to cure over-preparing is to make sure your employee makes calls during set hours or leaves the office by a certain time, which cuts down on the amount of time they have to prepare. Another employee might suffer from stage fright, and this could be dealt with by encouraging practice in front of a group of peers on a regular basis to diminish fear of public speaking.
Step 1: Reduce negative self-evaluations
Sales call anxiety often develops when employees take the refusal of their products and services personally or consider themselves to be failures if they do not constantly make sales. This is called negative self-evaluation.
Cognitive theorists provide evidence that it is not specific events or problems that cause anxiety, but rather the individual’s interpretation or evaluation of these events. It is therefore important to make sure that your employees cope well, and make positive interferences, even when facing disappointments.
Shift attention. One approach to counteract negative self-evaluations is to help your employee to disconfirm counterproductive thoughts and negative self-appraisals. You first need to identify these thoughts and appraisals, which you can do by promoting constructive self-analysis. A coaching role is again central, and you can go about this by, for example, asking:
- “What signals do you look for when interacting with customers?”
- “Are these opinions I have of myself or facts?”
- “Are there any positives in me or the situation that I am ignoring?”
These questions may help your employees develop knowledge about their thought patterns and call anxiety, which enables them to break through the cycle of escalating anticipatory fears.
By teaching them to focus on cues that reflect positive information and avoid cues that normally trigger overwhelming fears, they aren’t ‘locked’ up in their brain and are better able to use their attentional resources to problem solve and consider helpful information. Only by managing anxiety will it be possible to practice adaptive selling behavior and work smarter.
Set realistic, winnable goals. Another thing to keep in mind is to ensure that employees set realistic goals. Stretch goals can be an effective motivator, but employers and employees should also identify regular reachable goals that are within the employee’s control.
For example, one way of eliminating the fear of repeated failure is to measure success by the number of scheduled appointments on the contact list or number of calls made (rather than number of sales or other measures that are less within the employee’s control).
Step 2: Neutralize perceived negative evaluations from customers
Another major part of sales call anxiety is the fear of being negatively evaluated and rejected by customers. Usually, these employees are high in seeking approval, which means that they fear rejection and want to feel well liked. This is often paired with imagined negative evaluations from customers, which is a toxic combination.
You can help eliminate the fear of being rejected by reassuring your employee that it is the product or service that is being rejected, not the salesperson. In addition, you should help your employee to understand what their self-worth is based on, so they don’t need to overemphasize the need for approval. You could for example ask them, “what evidence do you use to infer that the customer might not like you?” or “how can we make the potential client like the product more?”
Positive emotions. Also insights from neuroscience can help when fighting call anxiety. Both directly, as indirectly by neutralizing perceived negative evaluations by others. Although some people believe that negative emotions are helpful in a sense that stress would give them a boost for their performance, often this is not the case. Feeling pain for a split second can indeed be useful, however, continuing to feel negative emotions harm both performance and happiness.
As noted above, anxiety can lead to a downward spiral where our attention narrows and we interpret things overly negatively. To avoid such a spiral, you should try to shift to the ‘positive region’ of the brain.
You can for example increase positive emotions by making your employees aware that helping others makes us happy (because research shows it does!). Whether it is helping out a colleague, friend, or neighbor, random acts of kindness are an easy and fulfilling way to bring positive emotions into your life. One way to do this is by organizing a fundraising event or making a (digital) posting board where people can report on their (received) random acts of kindness. You could also reward this by making someone employee of the month based on these actions. Also take a look at one of our previous posts on how to increase positive emotions.
Step 3: Reduce physiological symptoms
Often, call anxiety is accompanied by displaying physiological symptoms, such as an excessive self-focus on shaky hands, sweating, a quiver in the voice, or an upset stomach. As you can imagine, this can be very discomforting and could interfere with interpersonal communication.
Relaxation techniques. One way to act upon this is by using relaxation techniques. You could, for example, teach your employees to concentrate on relaxing the muscles during a sales interaction (this is also referred to as Progressive Muscle Relaxation, PMR).
Another thing you can try is making them aware that breath focus techniques can help. With this simple method you take long, slow, deep breaths (which is known as abdominal or belly breathing). As you breathe, you gently disengage your mind from distracting thoughts and sensations. Through practice, relaxation techniques can have generalized, long-term effects on reducing anxiety. Also take a look at one of our previous posts about reducing stress and anxiety.
Desensitization techniques. You don’t have to dive in deep and start off with cold calling that difficult customer. Rather, desensitization techniques suggest starting small and slowly building up to more anxiety-producing calls.
For example, you could begin by calling someone whom you feel comfortable with, just to get more familiar with the feeling. If low-level exposure makes you feel anxious, keep practicing relaxation techniques to work through that fear. When you get more comfortable with this level, build up by calling someone who is more distant to you one day or week later.
Ample research shows that desensitization is extremely effective in reducing anxiety. Remember that slow, gradual exposure is a key component of this approach. Little by little, they will learn from these low-level experiences, build confidence, and desensitize their fears. The goal is to replace the anxious feeling with a relaxed state. They might have to try each step multiple times, and that’s fine.
Finally, with additional practice in selling and the development of interpersonal skills and product and customer knowledge, the negative effects of physiological symptoms should become easier to control.
Step 4: Help fight urges to perform protective actions
One common reaction from employees who have call anxiety, is to try to protect themselves by avoiding calls, sending out emails, or only calling “safe” clients. Ironically, this only makes things worse as these protective behaviors reduce sales and stop the employee from tackling the underlying problem.
Protective actions could also be seen as “safety-seeking behaviors” and they encompass a wide range of coping responses. Many are involuntary but some can be learned or unlearned to a certain extent. Examples of involuntary protective actions are gazing away and avoiding eye contact, speaking quickly, and fiddling with the hands. Other protective actions are more subject to self-control and entail avoiding self-disclosure, saying less, or standing still. Withdrawal from contact and avoidance of future contact are extreme and usually dysfunctional protective actions.
Self-regulatory tactics. Probably the most important remedy for overcoming dysfunctional protective actions is to develop self-regulatory tactics. One way to do this is to learn to plan. Employees with call anxiety usually ruminate about making a phone call, and they try to get rid of it by seeking reassurance that it’s unfounded. One good way to get out of the reassurance trap is to use the fundamentals of planning, since this can calm a ruminative mind. After making a plan, employees will feel better for a few minutes and then start reviewing the plan.
To avoid this, you have to make them aware that they can use this plan as a concrete reassurance, it will never be perfect, but having it will prevent many potential problems. It provides written solutions even to problems the ruminator considered to be complex. The plan can become a part of the thought-stopping statement, “Stop! I have a plan!”.
To make it more specific, you could for example instruct your employee to develop a ‘script’ that can be activated when customers raise questions that they aren’t able to answer. This will give them something to ‘fall back on’ and as a consequence they will be better able to handle call anxiety and function effectively.
For example, when a customer asks a product-related question to which the employee has no answer to, they can say “I cannot answer your question fully now, but I will check in with my colleague and I will call you back this afternoon”. This could serve as a sort of life-line in situations that are typically dominated by stress and anxiety.
You could also think about other self-management tactics that can be developed that are more tailored to your specific problem. For instance, look for alternative ways to make a sale, maintain commitment, and overcome obstacles to goal achievement.
Intentional failing. Although this topic has yet to be systematically researched, a novel technique that you can try is intentional failing. The idea is you do something you are likely to fail at on a regular basis. It might sound counterintuitive, but by regularly experiencing failure you learn to cope with it, and it shows that failing is not the end of the world. (It’s basically a form of desensitization.)
When you expose yourself to more difficult situations, the ‘normal’ situations appear much easier and do-able. In addition, by accepting that failure is part of life, you become more open to trying new things and learn from mistakes. The more you embrace failure, the more you become ok with the possibility.
Recap of four ways to push past sales call anxiety
Sales call anxiety is detrimental to both employees’ career and the company. If the problem is left unresolved, it causes frustration and loss of sales and revenue. Keep in mind that you should take a coaching attitude towards yourself and your employees. It is important to avoid any stigmatization about call anxiety.
You can do this by emphasizing that everybody will experience call anxiety to a certain degree now and then. Also, it may help to explain that anxiety is contingent on situational cues that can be anticipated and coped with. When employees recognize that in certain circumstances, they are vulnerable to anxiety, they can invoke corrective efforts from themselves and turn to management for support.
In this post, we focused on the following steps to reduce call anxiety:
1. Reduce negative self-evaluations
2. Neutralize perceived negative evaluations from customers
3. Reduce physiological symptoms
4. Help fight urges to perform protective actions