The “Breakage” Problem: Why Salespeople Who Can Prospect Effectively Still Fail

While most salespeople cannot find their own leads effectively, even if a sales team does its own prospecting successfully and consistently, they’ll still suffer from what’s known as the “breakage” problem. The breakage problem is, generally speaking, the loss of concentration, focus or aptitude that occurs when you change from doing one kind of job to doing another kind of job. Sometimes breakage is good, and sometimes it’s bad. With salespeople, though, it’s catastrophic.

Let’s say you’re a computer programmer, and your job is to write computer code. It’s possible to sit for hours in front of a computer screen coding, sitting so long your eyes get bleary. Depending on the methodology you’re using, you could be at it so long that you get inefficient or start down a path that you shouldn’t. In this case, breakage, or stopping for a break where you can get refreshed, and that might give you an opportunity to look at the program from a different perspective, would be a good thing. Urban legend holds that that’s why Microsoft included solitaire in Windows, so that their programmers would take their breaks at their desks.

But let’s say that you’re a salesperson. If you’re “in the zone,” if you’re out on the road (maybe out-of-town,) meeting with customers and prospects, people who you already know or have a reason to meet with (because they’re from qualified leads,) you’re doing deals, you’re having fun and making money, then the last thing you want to do is come back into your office and make phone calls to a cold list of suspects. You’ve got orders to take, up-sells to make, and people to see – people with money to spend, who may even actually know you and like you.

If you have to now stop, go back to the office, or even if you have to pull off the road, take out your list, dial the phone, get past gatekeepers who don’t know you from Adam, and introduce yourself to decision makers who won’t give you but fifteen seconds to talk, then you’re going to not only screw up your sales skills and pay an enormous opportunity cost in the field, you’re also probably not going to make very good cold calls either. In this case the “bad” breakage occurs when you change from a pattern of talking to people you know to one of talking to people whom you don’t know or switch back again. And it can be deadly to a territory. It’s not that you couldn’t make the calls – if that’s all you did. It’s the breakage, changing from one mode to another, that causes the problem.

The reason that it’s a problem is primarily the ramp-up and ramp-down time; but it’s also that the skills required to do cold prospecting are different from those required to sell to warm leads. You must psyche yourself up to deal with strangers, “relearn” some rapport-building techniques, and maybe re-learn the high-level value proposition of your offering instead of focusing on detailed features and benefits.

Observations of sales teams suggest that the cost of changing roles alone (i.e., breakage,) is minimally somewhere in the range of 20% of your time in sales. That is, if you would ordinarily do 40 hours a week of selling, and you switch one day a week to prospecting,

you’re going to lose almost a whole day in the changeover. (Think of the ramp-up needed for each role, how long it takes to get your material together, and to get psyched up, and you’ll get an idea of the cost of change. Then think of what it takes to get back into sales mode – getting customer files together, remembering issues, etc.) So, you end up with three days of selling and one day of prospecting instead of five days of selling.

And if your ROI on prospecting is less than your ROI on the non-prospecting part of sales, as it usually is, you’ve immediately reduced your income by at least 20% (at least in the short term), especially if you consider that new sales generally have a lower value than repeat sales.

And that ignores the qualitative degradation that occurs in changing roles.

Breakage makes most salespeople anxious. That’s why sales managers often have to offer incentives for salespeople to participate in blitz days. It’s not that they don’t want to do it. Some salespeople even love prospecting. But it often takes them out of their work pattern. And that makes them inefficient, and in many cases, it makes them irritable or threatened. Of all the roles that salespeople have, including account management, covering bases, developing proposals, making presentations, servicing customers, filling orders, and more, prospecting is the one that fits least with the others because it requires a different set of skills and a different mental framework.

But the main reason that prospecting fits so poorly into the salesperson’s work pattern is that the people that he must deal with when prospecting are strangers. He’s unfamiliar to them so he must introduce himself, establish rapport, and create some credibility – things he never has to think about with customers and warm prospects. And they’re unfamiliar to him, so he doesn’t know where to focus his efforts.

The other reason it’s a problem is the amount of time the salesperson has in which to make his pitch. With customers and warm prospects, he usually has all the time he needs to say what he needs to say. But with cold calls he usually has only a few seconds to make his case. And it’s far less likely that a customer or warm prospect will throw you out of his office, or hang up on you, or that a gatekeeper will block you, than will a cold suspect on the phone. If you’re making cold calls via the telephone, it turns out that you have only about fifteen seconds to get the prospect’s attention and interest and make him want to spend a few minutes talking to you. If you fail, though, you’re done. And out of the game.

Most salespeople can’t inhale in fifteen seconds, no less articulate a compelling reason for the prospect to continue with the conversation.

But it can be done.

About the author

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Jeff Josephson is the founder and CEO of LeadGen.com., the one stop shop for all your sales and marketing needs. LeadGen.com has found nearly a billion dollars in new business for their clients over the years, helping to overcome their barriers and challenges so that can meet and exceed their revenue, growth and profitability objectives.