How do you convince salespeople that they need to change?
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How do you convince salespeople that they need to change?

I once went to work for an organization (which shall remain nameless here) that had a long-established and well-defined process for bringing in new business. The CEO oversaw it personally. It ran like a well-oiled machine.

But it was a machine that didn’t produce anything.

Being the new guy, I thought perhaps I was missing something. One day, I happened to be in a meeting with the CEO, and the conversation came around to the new business process. “How’s it going?” I asked.

“It’s terrible,” the CEO said. “We do all this work and we get hardly any leads.”

“So why do you keep doing it?” I asked.

His answer was long and complicated, involving the changing state of the industry, the fickleness of clients, the hard work of everyone involved, etc., etc. What it really boiled down to, however, was, “We’ve always done it this way, I’m comfortable doing it this way, and I’m not about to change now.”

Young and impetuous

Foolish youngster that I was, I thought perhaps I could convince our CEO that we should maybe try something different.

I tried. And failed spectacularly, of course. Wiser people than me had made the same argument and gotten the same results. Which was too bad — it was a nice place to work while it lasted.

According to a study published last year, I was probably going about my change-management campaign all wrong. The news came too late for me and the company I worked for. But perhaps you can learn from my mistake.

The study, from the University of Michigan — looked at how to motivate people to make changes for the better. They focused on a behavior that many of us can relate to: physical exercise.

The research

The researchers targeted people whose health was suffering because they didn’t get enough exercise. When asked why they didn’t exercise, these people gave all the usual excuses: They didn’t have the time. They didn’t have the energy. And they got defensive.

Next, the subjects were divided into two groups. The first group got a series of messages extolling the short and long-term benefits of exercise. In short, the researchers tried to “sell” these people on the need to exercise more (much like I’d tried to “sell” my boss on the need for an effective new-business program).

The second group received messages that encouraged people to reflect on values that were important to them, such as family or religion. Then, and only then, they were given a brief message about health and exercise.

The first group stuck to their old habits. But the second group actually started to exercise. And they kept it up. A month later, the differences were dramatic and sustained.


The researchers concluded that when participants were invited to reflect on what’s important to them, the message stimulated the part of the brain “associated with self-relevant information.” In other words, the first message got people thinking about exercise, while the second got people thinking about themselves. Instead of getting defensive, they perceived the health message to be highly relevant to their lives.

The takeaway

If you’re trying to get salespeople (or CEOs) to accept the need for change, you might want to start with a conversation about values. For example, I might have started my pitch by inviting my CEO to reflect on the long and successful history of our organization, and how much pride he rightly took in leading it. Once he was connected with the values that were important to him, he might have decided, “I really do need to make a change to protect my legacy here.”

Falk, E. B., et al. (2015). Self-affirmation alters the brain’s response to health messages and subsequent behavior change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(7), 1977-1982.

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