One weekend not so long ago, I was walking through Williamsburg, an artsy and colorful neighborhood in Brooklyn.
“Why do people smoke?” I asked him. He was clueless. So we directed our curiosity to a lady passing by. “I don’t know why,” she shrugged, as she offered me a cigarette.
As unassuming as her answer was, it was a spark of brilliance.
What if salespeople could follow up, like the way many people puffed, snorted, shot or stoked their favorite chemical — unconsciously, effortlessly, and without even “knowing why”? That’d be sales on cruise control. And we’d crush it.
That woman made me realize I was asking the wrong question. Instead of why do people smoke, the right question is: Why do people keep smoking? Is there some sort of neurological and chemical reaction that makes smoking so effortless?
There is, and we call it addiction.
Unfortunately the word makes us cringe, because we tend to believe that addicts are “bad, crazy, ignorant people who need to get good, become sane, and become better educated in order to get better,” according to University of Texas professors Carlton Erickson and Richard E. Wilcox, researchers who explore neurobiological causes of addiction is widely cited.
If there is any silver bullet to success in sales, it must be that salespeople have to get addicted to following up.
Neuroscience reveals that the chemical in our brain which is largely responsible for altering moods based on substances we take — whether drugs, alcohol, or sweets — is dopamine.
Dopamine, a common chemical neurotransmitter when released in the pathway of the brain, “reaches a widespread portion of the brain that is concerned with emotion, pleasure, memory of emotional events, and decision-making ability for emotional events,” say Stanford University researchers Robert C. Malenka and Steven E. Hyman (from National Institute of Mental Health).
Not only that, dopamine, “plays a role in learning and memory formation and reward in particular, making you feel good,” Stephanie Fine Sasse, the Executive & Creative Director at The People’s Science, told me.
So essentially, dopamine is associated with whatever makes us feel good. A laugh. A kiss. A workout. Sex. Sugar. Whatever.
But the reason why dopamine is so potent in combination with drugs is that “it can actually increase [dopamine production] up to 10 times,” Fine Sasse told me.
Over time, this “can lessen the amount of dopamine naturally released by the brain, or reduce the number of receptors, such that the system requires more of that drug in order to get the same effect. In a sense, it shifts the way your brain processes rewards.”
That’s ultimately how people become addicted.
Salespeople and leaders can take advantage of the brain’s reward circuitry just as dopamine does — by pairing the desirable behavior of constantly following up with a reward. You can actually think of it as the “proverbial carrot, a reward the brain doles out to networks of neurons for making survival-enhancing choices,” says P. Read Montague of the Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.
Not only will that make following up feel good, but with time, the dependence between the pair will become so strong that higher amounts of following up will be needed in order to feel good about following up.
Hacking Sales the Dopamine Way
“Think about what someone already associates as rewarding and then you have to couple that with the behavior that you want,” Fine Sasse said. “So if you can pair those two things, you can eventually get people to associate the other one with the same reaction.”
For sales teams and leaders, one way you can make this work is to batch up following up. After every 10 or 20 follow-ups, give yourself a reward. Over time, you’re conditioned to associate the reward with following up.
In my mind, the best result to tie to your reward is not just a follow-up, but a resultant “No” from a customer or prospect. Each time you get a No, give yourself a reward. That way, we deal with the real roots of following up — our fear of rejection.
There are three things to be mindful of when choosing the reward:
- Convenience: The reward should be within your scope of reach or activities. Think proximity. Going to see a new movie in the theatres is more convenient than taking a trip to space.
- Affordability: The reward should be reasonably priced and within your budget. A new Apple Watch instead of a Tesla Model S, for example.
- Sustainability: The reward should be attainable repeatedly over the period of time conditioning. Buying a new Apple Watch every time you reach your follow-up goals may not be the most sustainable reward. Also, you don’t want to pick a reward that you oversaturate yourself on in a negative way because it’s eventually bad for your health.
“The most important thing is to learn as much you can about other people but figure out how these ideas apply to you specifically,” Fine Sasse says of the reward. “Try to do self data collection — what works and doesn’t work for you.”