Don’t be a hot head, be a blue head

Gazing Performance believes that techniques used by top sporting personalities can be applied - with equal success - to the call centre.

Some of TV’s most memorable images are of sportsmen and women dealing with high pressure situations, either successfully or not. But are these fortunate few, who are able to deal with pressure, just very special people, or can the ‘coping ‘ skills that they use be learnt and applied to other highly pressurised situations, such as inside a call centre?

John Esposito, founder of a sales training company called Gazing Performance, argues that they can and has applied his experience of working with high performance athletes to the sales training arena. The result? A very different style of sales training and some very satisfied call centre customers.

Examples of high-pressure situations in sports are legion. Who can forget the sight of David Beckham stepping up to take that free kick in the dying minutes of the England versus Greece football World Cup qualifier last summer? Similarly, the sight of Rhona Martin, Captain of the British Ladies Curling team winning gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics with her last curl of the competition, was pure drama. Golfing aficionados everywhere will have their favourite memory of golfers who have holed long putts to win championships and most of us will have marvelled at the sheer willpower demonstrated by Paula Radcliffe in setting up a new world record when she came in first at this year’s Chicago Marathon.

But of no less importance are our memories of the fluffed shots; the penalties that went wide in extra time, and all those that simply couldn’t last the pace to win gold or who, perhaps unkindly, are deemed to have ‘bottled it.’

What’s the difference?

What characteristics mark out those that can succeed under pressure and those that can’t? Are those that can succeed born with a special gene that marks them out as being extra special? Our research suggests emphatically not. What they all do have in common however is a form of mental toughness and determination that allows them to focus completely on the task in hand
“When interviewed on their success most sportspeople will use words such as; ‘I just blanked everything else out’ or: ‘I simply concentrated on the task in hand.”
and filter out everything else that is happening around them. It is this ability to think clearly whilst under pressure that makes them different.

When interviewed on their success most of these sportspeople will use words such as; ‘I just blanked everything else out’ or: ‘I simply concentrated on the task in hand.’ When asked what was going through David Beckham’s mind, he answered simply: ‘Nothing.’
This is not a criticism of David Beckham, for if anything it highlights a trait of a successful athlete, the ability to focus on the process (driving the ball into the net) rather than the end result (scoring the goal) and using a skill that has been developed to a very high degree through endless or repeated practice. (It is well known that both David Beckham and Johnny Wilkinson of the England rugby team are consistently the last to leave their practice grounds, as was Nick Faldo when in his prime).

Interestingly, the great Australian swimmer, Ian Thorpe, who won six golds at the world championships was quoted at the time as saying: ‘I don’t concern myself with what the outcome of a competition will be - I concern myself with the process, because that’s something I can actually control.’

Transfer of skills

To succeed in a pressure sports situation then, calls for an ability to screen or filter out all extraneous activity and just focus on the task in hand. And then practice like crazy. But how relevant is all this to today’s call centre industry?

We would argue, quite a lot! High pressure situations in today’s call centres manifest themselves in various ways, but tend to revolve around just one, reaching ever higher targets, be they making more calls per hour; spending less time on each call; increasing the conversion factor between enquiry and sale, reducing the number in the call waiting queue or whatever metric is in use in the call centre. It can also include dealing with reluctant prospects or irate customers, or any number of other issues with which call centre management are only too well aware. And the evidence of what happens to those that can’t hack it is all too evident. Increased staff churn rates; higher rates of absenteeism; more disciplinary issues, are all examples of people not lasting the pace.

Increasing the amount of time spent on traditional sales training does not seem to be the answer either. Although most of these do concentrate on improving the delegates’ skills (more practice), the feedback from most delegates who attend these courses indicate that after a short period of time, they either forget what they have been told or fail to put it into practice. Other problems are that the training is too rigid, or requires continuous reference to the relevant chapter in a large looseleaf binder. Difficult to achieve in today’s call centre environment!

Perhaps the biggest criticism of training – of any sort – are the measures used to benchmark their effectiveness. Using the widely acclaimed Kirkpatrick model, these rate training courses along indicators such as measuring the delegates’ reaction to the course; what they learnt from it; and did it change their behaviour. Few, if any, courses attempt to measure the all important one (at least in the managing director’s eyes); did the training have an impact on sales?
“Perhaps the biggest criticism of training – of any sort – are the measures used to benchmark their effectiveness.”

Our work with Avis, amongst other clients, shows that it is possible to directly link attendance at a training course with an increase in sales. This is achieved by giving the delegates a ‘performance map’ that enables them to navigate themselves through high pressure situations, ie, to steer themselves away from issues that might divert them from their task, such as irrelevant tasks or interruptions and towards areas that they need to cover in order to reach their goal (be it a closing the sale, or whatever). Put more simply, it is a way of getting the delegates to focus on what is important (the objective) and learn to put the rest to one side.

Using maps in this way also proves to be highly popular with delegates for two essentially pragmatic reasons; one is that people use maps in their everyday lives and can therefore easily relate to them and secondly, they are easy to pin-up in their immediate working area and refer to whilst on a call. The map helps delegates understand each basic component of the telesales process, how to apply them and then they can quite literally identify where they are whilst on a sales call and ‘plot’ the required course.

Mapping the effect

Our use of mental maps in our sales training courses was based on our early work with high performance athletes. Intuitively, these athletes are able to dissect their performance and break it down into areas that they can then concentrate on. Returning to the world of golf, Faldo was famous for recreating a new swing. This must have called for enormous powers of concentration and determination, if only to avoid falling back on the old one when things go wrong!

Our work with athletes also revealed another aspect, the critical need to avoid ‘poor me loops’, ie, something that creates a diversionary thought and stops or hinders you. These can then throw up internal dialogues with one voice saying ‘I can’ and one saying ‘I can’t.’ We have since billed these as more user friendly ‘red head thinking’.

Red head thoughts might include: ‘I can’t do this’, ‘I’m struggling’, ‘this is too difficult’. Blue head thinking simply comprises the more positive, ‘I do’. Obviously, winners rarely arrive at the finishing line with a red head! These dialogues are especially found in endurance events or long distance races, where fatigue can allow negative thinking to creep in.

To see the relevance of using red heads and blue heads in sales training within call centres, one just has to read the testimonies of delegates who have attended our telesales courses. ‘Using these structures has given me more confidence on the phone" wrote one Xerox delegate, whilst our client OKI Systems, believes that it has "increased the respect that my telesales guys receive within OKI and raised their individual level of self confidence.” To our mind, then, building self confidence in ones’ abilities goes hand-in-hand in fending off negative thoughts.

Release the pressure

Call centre staff and management are facing unparalleled levels of pressure within their workplace and yet few receive the training necessary to enable to cope with that pressure. By drawing on our lessons and experiences of working with high performance athletes we have observed that the ability to cope with pressure is not an inherited gene passed on only to the chosen few, rather it is a skill that can be learnt or practiced like any other. And the key skill that can be learnt is having the ability to remain mentally focused on the task in hand, and see it through to its conclusion.

We may not all have the sheer bloody-minded determination needed to win four gold Olympic gold medals as Steve Redgrave did during his rowing career, but we can learn to better cope with stress and achieve much higher levels of performance than we probably thought possible.

Driving towards better training

Car rental firm Avis has implemented a sales training package that it claims accommodates the diverse and flexible needs of its users.
Avis has reported a 50 percent increase in sales as a result of adopting the skills learnt from a highly innovative sales training course supplied by training company Gazing Performance.

The course, Inside Telesales ©, has been devised by Gazing specifically for the call centre industry. It is based on giving the course delegates a clear understanding of the different thought processes that a customer moves through when a successful ‘telephone interaction’ takes place, and how to influence that process.

And importantly for Ian Roberts, who heads up the Avis Sales Direct team, it works!
‘The techniques that we learnt from Gazing form the backbone to our department. The team believe in it and use it everyday,’ he says. ‘It has had a significant impact on the performance of the team, not only in terms of sales, where the numbers have gone up, but the team feels less stressed too.’

Roberts’ team, which is based in Hayes, Middlesex, is tasked with selling Avis Advance, a car rental programme aimed at small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and Avis MaxiRent, which offers customers a flexible alternative to leasing. As both products are predominantly sold over the telephone, the wide range of benefits included in the packages, meant that the sales call could be quite lengthy, which in turn can increase the risk of losing the sale as the call progresses. One of Roberts’ key management tasks, therefore, when taking up his post in April earlier this year, was to move the department’s perception of itself from a telesales department to a sales department.

Diversity is the key

‘I needed a sales training course that the team would really buy into. I obviously wanted to see an increase in sales, but didn’t want to impose a brand new "regime" that had to be learnt,’ he says. ‘Many sales training courses impose a fairly rigid structure that you have to follow. This wouldn’t be applicable in our business where the sales team talk to a very diverse customer base. The Gazing training course offered us something that was highly flexible and crucially gave the team the confidence to reach higher levels of performance.’

The course is also unusual in its use of ‘maps’ that provide a clear pathway to be followed during a call, and thus provide the telesales team with the mental tools required to cope with the most challenging or resistant of potential customers.

By having access to a map whilst on a call, the sales team is able to stay focused on their objective and yet not appear to be following a script; important when dealing with SMEs who pride them selves on their independence and non-conformist approach to life

Having a clear understanding of the mental state of the caller and the use of easy-to-follow maps are just two of the characteristics that set Gazing apart from most training companies. The company is unusual too in that its founders have adopted the training techniques used to coach world-class sports men and women to achieve higher performances and have applied these to the commercial world. They now run a range of courses designed to help management and teams perform whilst under pressure.

Gazing lead trainer Ian Cochrane, comments, ‘we are delighted that Avis has been able to increase sales, and yet their sales team feels less stressed! "Pressure" is one of the most over-used words in the business world, yet unlike Avis, few companies equip their staff with the mental tools to help them cope with stressful situations. Our training courses are designed to do just that and focus on the need to achieve "clear thinking." We believe this is especially important when dealing with telesales or call centres, where the pressure to succeed is really mounting.’