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The State of Burnout in the Sales Industry

“Would I be a different sales manager today knowing what I do, and understanding the power that burnout has on the effectiveness of my team?”

In today’s fast-paced society, the line between work and life is fading, making mental health increasingly difficult to prioritize. Most individuals spend one-third of their adult lives at work, which can exacerbate conditions such as anxiety, burnout, and depression.

The stress, depression and lack of feeling in control, that comes with burnout, are finally being formally recognized (the World Health Organization (WHO) recently recognized burnout as a legitimate medical diagnosis), leading employers to prioritize mental wellbeing for their employees. This makes it, not only an ethical priority, but a business imperative. Most recently, Starbucks announced it is planning to improve mental health benefits for US employees. It hopes to encourage more employees to take advantage of the company’s mental health care package.

With all this talk of wellness and mental health in the news, I wasn’t seeing very much if anything about how the day to day of someone in sales deals with stress. I recently collaborated with UNCrushed.org, a non-profit platform, and community for mental health awareness, on a survey focused on understanding the true state of burnout in sales professionals specifically and found a staggeringly high percentage are close to or currently experiencing burnout. While it is a small sample, many conversations we have had since continue to validate these findings

I’m a firm believer that being in sales, as an executive or an individual contributor, is one of the toughest, yet most rewarding jobs out there. High Risk = High Reward! My professional career began in sales over 25 years ago, and I have had an upfront and personal look into the daily demands of ‘carrying a quota’, which for all intents and purposes, brings in the revenue that keeps the lights on in most businesses. That type of responsibility can be motivating and paralyzing all at the same time. Salespeople work in a fast-paced, high-stress environment. With customer expectations higher than ever, you have to always be ‘on’ and available.

Sales usually comes with the challenge of an additional stressor, it is called ‘variable compensation’ – that is a portion of your income is considered base pay and the other portion (which is at a set percentage) is based on commissions earned.  That can be amazing when you reach or exceed quota. It can be devastating if you have a tough quarter or year earning little more than your base salary if you even get one. In ‘The Story of Sales’ by Quotable.com, we learn that some industries, like real estate, you make no money if you don’t sell a house. One stat shows the average realtor across the US sell an average of 1.5 homes a year, it’s very low. Which means, how can they pay their bills? Right? If you have children, you are a single parent, or you are the breadwinner of the household…it’s stressful!

Below, I share my personal experiences and thoughts on this topic. You can watch my full interview on The UNCrushed Podcast.

Being Reflective

My own story is one I have only begun to reflect on – and the roll my actions may have played in my own team burning out. Let me set the scene: I had not slept at home for three and a half years, for seven straight nights between 2001 and 2003. I was working in Los Angeles and commuting to work in Atlanta Monday through Thursday, flying home for two days and then turning around and doing it again. I was grinding, and it wasn’t sustainable if I expected to have any life outside of work. I was absolutely burning out. I was in the office at 7:00amand I would work until at least 7:00pm every day jumping from meeting to meeting and then taking the last few hours each day to ‘do my work.’ I wasn’t spending any time on myself. I realized about six months into this routine that I wasn’t laughing, I wasn’t having fun and I hadn’t seen my friends. I was always tired. I was just traveling, I was maniacally focused on being the best sales leader I could be, delivering the quota to my CEO, who was a high-powered sales executive in his own right.  I wasn’t aware that I was actually burning out. I just felt like this is what you have to do as a sales, customer service, and marketing executive at an internet start-up if you want to be successful. Yes, I was making great money …but was it worth it?

I left that job after the company changed hands to join a Fortune 500 company and stand up their very first indirect channel program between 2004-2006. I found a bit more balance from the days at a startup, but not much. I found myself inside a company that had little appetite for what they hired me to do. Each day was filled with struggle and the desire to change a culture that was born with the founder and remained to that day. However, it wasn’t all bad. I worked with an amazing team, and we were really delivering results. And while those results were ‘according to plan’ – the executive team wanted them faster, and wanted even more. It seemed to be never enough.

The day I made the decision to leave being a sales leader behind was a bit cliche – I was standing in front of a mirror getting dressed for the day and I no longer recognized myself and the lack of excitement I had for the job I loved,  the roll that had given me so much pleasure, financial stability and career success was killing me…not literally, but figuratively. I realized I had nothing left to give, I had to get off this merry-go-round, before it got the best of me,  so I decided to leave.

I didn’t only leave that company, I actually decided to leave corporate sales altogether – I just needed a break. I needed to find my way back to my life. Some who know me might not believe that I actually slowed down when I joined Gartner back in 2006. I had to learn an entirely new skill, being an analyst. I had to give up the thrill of winning a deal and crushing quota. While it was jaring at first, I got my weekends back, I re-injected myself back into my life with my family and friends.. Very quickly I realized I had to unwind a lot of bad habits that I had formed over time, like working weekends, late nights and being a slave to the daily, monthly, quarterly, yearly, quota cadence. I’m not saying that it took years for me to get back on track. It was like six months later, one thing would peel off,another six months, two or three more things would peel off and then finally, I was able to feel like myself again. I left Gartner in 2016 to pursue my next adventure as the growth and innovation evangelist at Salesforce, again not carrying a quota. Now don’t get me wrong….I miss being in sales. I like to call myself a ‘recovering seller’ because today I get to vicariously sell with an amazing sales organization, and help our customers improve how they sell as well — but it isn’t the same. I feel as if I am at a point in my career where I want to give back to an industry and profession that has been so good to me. This most recent work with Uncrushed has allowed me to be reflective and find ways to bring a voice to this topic of burnout in the sales profession. Will I ever go back? I’d say, never say never – as Dan Pink says, “To Sell is Human.”


Sales is a 24/7 role

The responsibility of a salesperson is “I have to sell, I have to bring money in the door, and if I don’t, people are going to lose their jobs. I might lose my job. My bills might not get paid.” It’s non-stop pressure. In the UNCcrushed survey we found 74% of respondents agree / strongly agree that they feel they are on call 24×7 and have to respond to customers immediately or it will impact the relationship. In some ways, this is self inflicted. We have trained customers over time that no matter when they want to talk to us, or need something, they just have to reach out- we always answer- at the dinner table, on vacation, with our kids- it doesn’t matter, we always make ourselves available for our customers.

The responsibility of a salesperson is “I have to sell, I have to bring money in the door, and if I don’t, people are going to lose their jobs. I might lose my job. My bills might not get paid.” It’s non-stop pressure. In the UNCcrushed survey we found 74% of respondents agree / strongly agree that they feel they are on call 24×7 and have to respond to customers immediately or it will impact the relationship. In some ways, this is self-inflicted. We have trained customers over time that no matter when they want to talk to us, or need something, they just have to reach out- we always answer- at the dinner table, on vacation, with our kids- it doesn’t matter, we always make ourselves available for our customers.

That behaviour is even more amplified at the end of a quarter or year-end, when the stress level is ratcheted up another notch by the company to deliver against stated revenue targets. As salespeople we are trying to be as responsive as we can.  Have I responded in time? If I don’t respond in time, will my client go somewhere else? That responsibility carries a heavy burden. I think I missed a tremendous opportunity as a sales leader to actually be aware of the pace I was keeping myself and how that impacted the performance of my team.

There seems to be a heavy correlation between sales stress and burnout in general. As a sales rep, the pressure and stress you feel is almost non-stop. Ultimately, there is the daily risk that you will get rejected every time you pick up the phone, especially if it’s a cold call. There are two things I learned early on. Firstly, you better have thick skin and know how to deal with (lots of) rejection. Secondly, you are not going to win every deal. I mean, the stats out now are a little north of 50% of people will miss a quarter this year, that means more than half of sellers will not get paid more than their base salary, if at all. If that isn’t stressful, I don’t know what is.

The other part of the job that is leading sellers to feel stressed has everything to do with the day-to-day activities they are expected to perform and the productivity metrics that follow. Selling isn’t just about meeting with customers, there is a lot more that goes into the job. However, those other non-selling activities are capturing more than 60% of their time. Which if we do a bit of quick math, that means only 40% of a salesperson’s time is spent on actually selling. We found that 57% of respondents agree / strongly agree that their workload is in excess of their capacity.


Burning The Candle on Both Ends

This high pressure leads to many sales professionals working long hours. 67% of respondents said that they often worked extra long hours, way above and beyond the contracted hours. If salespeople work 40 hours a week to 50 hours a week- I feel like that’s relatively normal. I never had a problem putting in an extra hour or two a day, to network, prospect, and build pipeline early on in my career. I felt like that was just part of the job. However, those seemingly small sacrifices can all of a sudden get away from you. If one hour becomes two and two hours becomes three, you will soon find yourself in a 60+ hour workweek without even realizing it.

I think, rather I should say, I know from experience that you just start to become less effective. You are tired, you are not paying attention in meetings, and you are not following up with customers. The ball gets dropped…because you are just burned out. Then there is the impact that it will have on your home life outside of work. You just can’t find the energy to do much else when you get home.

So the question I like to ask now when I am talking with salespeople about burnout, is “how can you carve out an hour a day to just do things that you want to do?” It could be listening to a podcast, it could be going for a walk or it could be talking with a coach or a mentor. Go to the gym at lunch, whatever it might be – make the time.

I think that recharging is really important, because just adding another hour on the day, and then saying, “It’s okay, I’ll take some time off at the end of the quarter or at the end of the month.” Taking a few days is never going to make up for the two hours a day over the course of 20 days, which is 60 hours, over the course of a month that you’ve spent working. It all takes a toll.

That goes back to what I was saying- there was nothing left to give by the time I found myself staring in the mirror that one morning when it all changed for me. There was no candle left, I’d burnt it on both ends. I would say that finding a way to take the time, not only for yourself, but support, even expect, that same behaviour from the rest of your team- especially if you are a manager or sales executive, is where it starts.


The Ethical Responsibility on Managers

Would I be a different manager today knowing what I do and understanding the power that burnout has on the effectiveness of myself and my team, and keeping people motivated and inspired to do what I need them to do every day? Yes, I do believe I would manage differently today. I wouldn’t be so focused on the short-term prize of winning a deal ‘at all costs,’ at the expense of my own wellbeing and the wellbeing of my team.

I’d say that sales managers have a responsibility to make sure that they are paying attention if their team or an individual is appearing to be burned out, where they are not as talkative as they normally are, or their behavior has changed dramatically – you must step in and make sure they are ok. Make it safe for them to tell you how they are feeling, not about a deal, but about themselves personally.

Unfortunately, the research shows that many people are reluctant to come forward to their manager to ask for support, even if the organization is supportive of mental health. 58% of respondents feel there is a stigma in their workplace in coming forward and talking openly about mental health.

What I see is that we have two conflicting pieces of data. One, everybody seems to be hyper-stressed. Two, they are afraid to come forward and say something for fear of the stigma that exists when you are dealing with mental health issues like burnout or anxiety. The stigma can be daunting sometimes. The good news is, 71% report that their company has resources available to them to help them cope with this. It’s interesting to me that such a high percentage say this, yet another percentage reports, “No, I don’t want to say anything, because I just have to keep trying harder. I just have to keep grinding. I just have to keep going. Stay the course.” It’s a shame. Why have that feeling and have that resource and not take advantage of them? I think it is safe to assume that they are taking a cue from their managers as well as others on their team.

Ryan Bonnici, CMO G2 Crowd wrote “No one, at any business, should feel afraid to take a mental health day. And no one should ever be punished for doing so (and if you are, it might be a sign to quit your job). As executives, we already have enough challenges before us. Let’s not allow this to be one of them.” (Read the full article ‘Workers are Afraid To Take a Mental Health Day’ here.)

As a manager, as a team-leader, as a sales executive, you have to set the example, which has everything to do with raising the compassion and empathy you have towards the struggles of your employees. If it’s a non-strength (weakness) of yours, then lean on the people that do this for a living, such as those in HR. But do not put your head in the sand and act like it’s not happening. If 67% of the people in the survey say that they are feeling stressed, 67% of your team is feeling stressed, or maybe its 50% or 40% — bottom line, there are people on your team today, right now, feeling overwhelmed and crushed by the job. You, your company and your team are not immune to the fact that people are feeling burnt out, stressed, and in need of help. Be there for your team in good times and bad. Listen to what they are really saying, not what they want you to hear. If you show vulnerability to the stress of the job, it goes a long way to help others do the same.


Click here for a full list of resources to help with mental health challenges such as burnout.

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