Overconfidence Kills

Here is a question for you to think about: How many individuals on your current sales team were with your company three years ago? If the answer is not many, then you need to give serious consideration to this article.

The fact is that sales personnel turnover could be harming your business and your salespeople as well. But what can you do to address this serious issue that you are not already doing? Later in this article, I am going to discuss a solution to substantially reducing this problem.

Why should you take the time and delve into this issue? Because this scenario is playing out all the time – a sales manager hires a candidate hoping for the best for the individual but was soon disappointed. The newly hired salesperson was excited about the opportunity and then feels like a failure. For both sides, the employer and employee alike, hopefulness was dashed by the reality of underperformance. Why does this continue to happen?

Perhaps one reason is that individuals do not attend college to become salespeople. So, when they start a job with a new company, most lack the persuasive skills necessary to be effective. Additionally, because of overconfidence, they usually underestimate what it is going to take to make it. Why? Again, they have no formal education in the actual job of selling. Therefore, their chances of being productive are exceptionally low. The realities of a career shift to the sales profession will, in most cases, overwhelm a new member of a sales team since they are not a master salesperson and are at best a novice. Therefore, when faced with the actual day-to-day requirements and adversity of their job, it usually leads to an unsatisfactory conclusion.

Yes, in many cases, all parties involved, both employer and candidate, oversimplify what it will take to be ready to perform at a high level, and in many cases, there is a form of hubris that often seems to creep into these situations. Yes, new salespeople often act just like new untrained soldiers since both want to appear confident and self-assured, and sales managers start to buy in as they are hopeful for the best outcome and then fall into the trap of overconfidence as well.

To understand how overconfidence, or hubris, comes into play in these situations, consider the following. According to Merriam-Webster, the English language picked up both the concept of hubris and the term for that brand of cockiness from the ancient Greeks, who considered hubris a dangerous character flaw capable of provoking the wrath of the gods. In classical Greek tragedy, hubris was often a fatal shortcoming that brought about the tragic hero’s fall. Typically, overconfidence led the hero to attempt to overstep the boundaries of human limitations and assume a godlike status, and the gods inevitably humbled the offender with a sharp reminder of his or her mortality. To the Greeks, hubris referred to extreme pride, especially pride and ambition so great that they offend the gods and lead to one’s downfall. Hubris was a character flaw often seen in the heroes of classical Greek tragedy, including Oedipus and Achilles. The familiar old saying “pride goes before a fall” is referencing hubris and certainly applies to salespeople, sales managers, and, as you will see in the following account, soldiers, and their leaders. Unfortunately, this unjustified overconfidence hurts future chances of success and is often the cause of failure.

I recently came across a fascinating account that applies to this subject of how hubris affected a group of early colonial soldiers and their leader, taken from American history annals. In the book The Pioneers by David McCullough, he outlines the events surrounding the late 1700s. In the account, we find an expansion of the young colonies into the Ohio Valley, which had become the new western frontier. One of the leaders of these efforts was Rufus Putnam, and once he and his fellow pioneers settled in Marietta, Ohio, the local indigenous population decided that they would like the settlers to leave and proceeded to kill some of them. Putnam then called on the new fledgling federal government for protection, but the colonies had no trained regular army nearby to help. So, Congress decided that the territory Governor, Arthur St. Clair, was to take matters into his own hands and quickly raise an army of 2000 men to fight the confederacy of natives. The Major General who was appointed to command the military was the same St. Clair, who was also to remain territory governor.

Keeping this setting in mind, in the spring of 1791, many of the frontier people that lived around Marietta, Ohio, and knew St. Clair thought he was arrogant and overly determined, but that was the plan decided on by Congress, so everyone went along with the proposal. In May, St. Clair began to assemble his supplies and gather his army. He visited nearby Cincinnati, where he found the quality of arms and other military supplies available were insufficient for an effective campaign. But undeterred, he pressed on, and if that were not enough, the potential new soldiers he found also left much to be desired. Here is why – they consisted mainly of men collected from the streets and jails of eastern cities bribed into service with money and whiskey. Also, keep in mind that these recruits had no formal training and were unacquainted with the matter of soldiering. Even with these significant obstacles confronting him, St. Clair moved forward and gathered 1,700 men and 200 camp followers to support the effort, not quite the original number of 2,000 hoped for but still a sizable army.

Then in October, St. Clair believed that he finally had a sufficient fighting force and supplies, so he led his troops off to confront the enemy, with what results? It was a total disaster, “worse than any loss suffered by the American army during the entire Revolution,” and the most significant defeat of an army at the hands of natives until then. They lost 623 men, including 39 officers. Also, 200 other men, women, and children were killed, leaving the dead, and wounded at least 1,094 people. On the other side of the battle, the native combatants lost only 21 men and had 40 wounded. It was a complete and absolute defeat!

There are several lessons we can take away from this catastrophic historical event. It is evident because of overconfidence that individuals can often underestimate what it will take to accomplish necessary tasks and be ill-prepared, such as St. Clair’s army.

That is what is happening with many sales organizations. Like St. Clair’s army, sales teams lack basic training and readiness, which then causes a business to lose a good percentage of their sales team members every year on the sales “field of battle.” According to Harvard Business Review, today an average company has a 27 percent annual sales personnel turnover rate. Based on that statistic, if a business loses 27 percent of their sales force every year, their team has changed by 81 percent in three years.  I think we can all agree that this is way too much loss and is hurting organizations. Some turnover is expected; the goal most people would say is optimal is around 15 percent. Anything higher is not healthy.

What can you do to get your team better prepared to perform on the sales field of battle and reduce your sales personnel turnover rate? First and foremost, do not fall into the trap of being overconfident, be realistic about new sales recruits’ skills and limited experience, and realize that they will need much more education than what you have previously been providing. But the question is an education in what? In the fundamentals of sales, ensuring your team understands the foundation of selling and the science of human behavior and persuasion. Yes, your team needs substantial training in the foundation of consumer behavior, sales psychology, and sales process. This endeavor is not going to be accomplished in one meeting or discussion. Instead, this type of education takes scheduled instruction over weeks, months, and ongoing reinforcement. By taking these steps, you can prepare your sales team adequately to have sufficient readiness to perform and survive in the field of sales. If you focus your people on sales fundamentals, you can substantially reduce the effect that sales personnel turnover has on your business.

By the way, here is the conclusion of the story I shared with you earlier, soon after the defeat of St. Clair’s army, Congress sent the regular military to the Ohio Territory, and with their trained troops, they quickly defeated the Native Confederates.

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