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Personal Stress: The Hidden Achilles’ Heel of B2B Sales

In B2B sales, relationships built by salespersons with customers are critical for success. However, adverse events in salespersons’ personal lives can cause high stress, that can spill over into their workspace and damage these crucial relationships. Firms and managers need to be cognizant of how personal adversity can impact salesperson performance and proactively tackle it at the levels of the salesperson as well as customers to avoid declines in sales and revenue.

As of 14 February 2022, COVID 19 has infected over 410 million people globally and claimed over 5.8 million lives. Economic activity has suffered a serious setback through business closures, broken supply chains, and inflation. Peoples’ lives have been disrupted completely. In this crisis, managers have been thrown into unprecedented situations where they must balance organisational performance goals with the welfare of employees. And while this situation is applicable for all businesses, it is especially relevant for B2B sales where salespersons are crucial to developing and maintaining relationships with customers.

In today’s ultra-competitive environment, B2B salespeople must respond rapidly to changing customer needs. Anything that reduces a salesperson’s physical or emotional availability to customers can be disastrous for a B2B organisation. It can lead to customer dissatisfaction and churn, and to loss of sales and revenue. Given this, the question firms and managers are asking is: How does personal adversity affect a salesperson’s capability, and what can be done to mitigate its effects? A pathbreaking study into the impact of adverse events in salespersons’ lives attempts to answer this question.

The study found that adverse events in salespersons’ personal lives can cause stress that spills over into their work environment. Salespersons have a finite amount of time and internal resources (physical, mental, and emotional) for dealing with work and personal issues. Hence, pressures of personal adversity (e.g., deaths, illness, relationship problems, or financial problems) compound work-related stress caused by their role as salespeople (e.g., role ambiguity, role conflict, or role overload). This can affect their ability to build and maintain relationships, and they might neglect customers or show negative attitudes. What’s worse is that the impact of such events can last even for the medium or long term.

Such severe stress can also lead to salesperson burnout. Burnout could manifest as a cynical attitude towards work, a sense of detachment from the work and its value, a reduced sense of personal accomplishment, feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of achievement, and emotional exhaustion or even depression. Salespersons can withdraw from work demands and responsibilities, and distance themselves from supervisors, colleagues, and customers, which can cause further low motivation and sense of isolation and reduced worth.

This study has significant insights for salespeople, sales managers, and firms for managing situations where personal adversity threatens salesperson capability. Salespersons can cope with adverse personal events through grit. Grit as a human trait to overcome adversity was made famous by Angela Duckworth and refers to “perseverance and passion in pursuit of long-term goals”. It is the quality through which people with long-term focus are able to persevere through difficult situations. Grit is helpful for stressed salespersons as it reduces the impact of detachment from work. Salespeople who are gritty are less likely to withdraw from their responsibilities towards customers. Research shows that grit can be developed through participation in high-level competitive sports or other activities that stretch endurance and perseverance.

This is where firms can also help salespersons. They can organise activities that develop grit so that when faced with adverse life events, salespersons have a store of grit to cope with it. Firms will also do well to ensure that their salespersons have the necessary support in terms of policies and practices, group insurance, and flexibility to deal with personal difficulties. Organisations can also provide regular counselling for employees to support them during difficult times at work or in their personal lives.

Managers have a key role to play in dealing with salesperson stress actively. They need to balance organisational expectations with compassion for their employees. The first step in that is listening to employees and understanding the challenges they face. Managers can have regular one-on-one meetings where work and personal issues are openly discussed. Based on these discussions, managers can arrange for appropriate care or counselling for the salespeople. They can also look for signs of burnout and help affected salespersons through sales support, allocating additional resources to look after customers, counselling, reassigning tasks, or temporary adjustments to performance metrics.

Another step that managers can take is to assign multiple salespersons to service valuable customers. By doing so, they can avoid adverse impact on customer relationships if any salesperson goes through stress from personal adversities. By proactively managing their relationships with salespersons, and by being strategic in developing relationships with valuable customers, managers can help both their employees and their organisation to deal with the fallout of adverse life events in salespersons’ personal lives.

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