Sales excellence – understanding the clutch player

An interesting article – Performing Best When It Matters Most – appeared in the Kellogg Insight (August 2011).  The report was a summary of the authors’ work on understanding the “clutch player” – that person that consistently performs well under pressure. As one might guess, a lot of the research was done with athletes and high stake jobs like stock traders where the collection of quantifiable data is easy and there are a number of well defined moments of pressure.  However, we thought the findings were also applicable to B2B sales since major account executives clearly face their fair share of high stakes moments. First let’s just review some of the major insights from the report:  

1. Individuals differ significantly as to their ability to perform under pressure – some people raise their game while others “choke or allow anxiety to degrade their performance. 

2. Both nature and nurture contribute to an individual’s ability to perform under pressure – some of the capability appears to be about “talent” and some is a learned skill. 

3. People recognize the importance of the ability to perform under pressure but most individuals tend to rate their ability to be greater than it is

In a typical B2B sales process there are a number of high pressure situations and the consequences of being able to raise your game are significant.  The situations vary by market but include interactions such as: meetings with senior level decision makers, discussions with buying committees, and final shoot out presentations.  

So what might all this mean to those of us concerned about sales effectiveness?  Three considerations deserve highlighting. 

1. Selection.  Because selling is one of those professions where ability matters, an individual’s skill in this area should be assessed during the hiring process.  It would be easy to incorporate questions into the structure interview guide that tap into the skill set. 

2. Training.  Since a portion of one’s ability to deal with high pressure situations is about practice and feedback, high pressure situations should be identified and incorporated into sales training programs. A good design approach would involve crafting role-plays and case studies where the participants have a chance to practice and discuss alternative approaches for handling the high pressure situations.  

Making the clutch play

3. Coaching.  A third approach would be to place the ability to deal with high pressure situations on the coaching agenda.  Sales coaching is a particularly effective approach since the manager and sales person can agree on and target very specific situations where the rep is experiencing difficulty.    

Since the difference between winning and losing is often determine by how a sales person handles a few critical discussions in a few high pressure situations, helping folks to perform better when it matters most is a worth while priority. 

If you found this post helpful, you might want to join the conversation and subscribe to the Sales Training Connection.     

©2011 Sales Horizons, LLC

About Richard Ruff

For more than 30 years Dr. Richard Ruff and Dr. Janet Spirer - the founders of Sales Horizons - have worked with the Fortune 1000 - such as UPS, Canon USA, Smith & Nephew, Boston Scientific, Owens & Minor, Textron - to design and develop sales training programs. During his career Dick has authored numerous articles related to sales effectiveness and co-authored "Managing Major Sales", a book about sales management, "Parlez-Vous Business" which helps sales people integrate the language of business into the sales process, and "Getting Partnering Right" – a research based work on the best practices for forming strategic selling alliances. Dr. Ruff received his Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Tennessee and a B.S. from Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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