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Dec 3, 2020

A strong sense of purpose creates more meaning in life, improves health and leads to greater satisfaction from work. Yet there’s a problem: At many organizations, the sales function remains an isolated silo, devoid of higher purpose. 

Many people assume that sales teams are motivated by money alone. Consequently, the daily cadence in most sales organizations focuses inward on quotas and targets. And sure enough, when organizations need to grow revenue, the instinct is to double down on revenue targets and dangle financial incentives.

However, a growing body of evidence tells us the traditional approach to sales motivation is backward. A sales team with no compelling purpose other than to “hit the number” is less likely to be engaged and therefore less likely to be engaging to customers.

Indeed, research by social psychologist Jennifer Aaker that tracked over 12,000 employees across a broad range of categories showed that 50% of workers lack a sense of meaning at work and are more likely to slack off or feel dissatisfied with their employers. On the other hand, those who derive meaning from their work are more than three times as likely to stay with their companies, enjoy 1.7 times higher job satisfaction, and are 1.4 times more engaged at work.

The research also found that the feeling of meaning increases when people feel connected to others and to something bigger than themselves — a purpose. That is, if people work only for the money, to close a deal, or to sell a product or service, chances are they’re less effective and less satisfied. But if their work includes a sense of purpose, their work will feel more meaningful. 

The Neurochemistry Behind Sales

In sales, people are often schooled to settle for a quick hit: the ping of a response on a cell phone, a closed deal, even making the “President’s Club.” It’s intense. It causes the brain to release a similarly quick hit of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a “feel-good” chemical whose evolutionary role is to reward and incentivize humans to repeat behaviors to help them survive and thrive. 

But a dopamine hit comes with two significant downsides: (1) Its impact is fleeting. In a world of uncertainty, a sales team that depends on daily dopamine hits and whose sense of self is tethered to short-term sales targets will struggle. (2) It’s highly, highly addictive. As soon as it disappears, a person is compelled to want to repeat the behavior that released it. 

Just as craving a dopamine hit causes people to turn away from loved ones in favor of their phone, it can prompt employees to turn away from customers and each other in pursuit of self-gain. People are more likely to make shortsighted deals, damage relationships, and cut margin to win.

However, pursuing a more noble, customer-driven purpose taps into a different and, ultimately, more powerful neurotransmitter: serotonin. Unlike dopamine, which is focused on rewarding individual achievement, the evolutionary role of serotonin is to reinforce human bonds: between leader and team, salesperson and customer, coach and player, teacher and student, parent and child, etc. Serotonin is released when humans connect with or add value to others (such as creating value for customers).

Understanding serotonin has strategic implications for sales. Salespeople who sell with a sense of customer-driven purpose — of connecting and forming stronger bonds with customers, of adding value to the customer relationship — have higher levels of serotonin and experience deeper, more meaningful and long-lasting customer relationships. They’re also more resilient in the face of challenges, which, not surprisingly, produces more revenue and profit over time than short-term frantic, dopamine-inspired behaviors.

4 Strategies to Infuse Meaning and Purpose Into Sales

Here are four ways to activate a sense of meaning and noble purpose with your company’s sales team and, in the process, establish greater competitive differentiation and create more customer advocates.

1. Tell Customer Value and Impact Stories 

Articulating the impact and value that your organization has on the people and businesses you serve provides the emotional fuel for future sales success. It also catalyzes the release of serotonin to help sustain the desired behavioral shift. 

Sharing examples of how your company makes a difference to customers shifts the narrative from the traditional inward focus on sales targets to an outward focus on the people who drive revenue — customers. While this can feel uncomfortable for leaders who need the sales team to hit this month’s number, it’s worth remembering that the internal conversation becomes the external conversation.

As Adam Grant’s now famous call-center study proved, even a short story about emotional impact improves sales engagement and performance. When call center employees (whose job was to solicit donations) had a five-minute interaction with scholarship students to help them understand the impact of a donation, those callers spent more than two times as many minutes on the phone and brought in vastly more money: a weekly average of $503.22, up from $185.94.

Being specific about customer impact requires going beyond the generic benefits of the typical value proposition. It’s more specific and emotive. Talking about customers as real-life human beings, using their names, and describing their emotions ignites the frontal lobes of your sales team members. They’ll remember the stories more than they would a standard case study, and they’ll be more emotionally engaged when they repeat the customer-impact stories to future buyers.

2. Recognize and Reward Value and Impact

Telling someone “good job” is nice. Giving them a check is also nice. However, if you want to drive sustainable sales effort over time, you can go one step further. Human beings are hardwired to want to make a difference. Research shows that no matter what our role, we crave recognition that spells out how our work positively impacted others. People find their work meaningful when they see firsthand who benefits from their efforts and when they are in a supportive environment. 

You can help your team feel a greater sense of purpose and urgency by being specific about how their actions positively impacted customers. For example, if a sales rep was able to connect successfully with new customers, say something such as, “Being a trusted advisor to these businesses and providing them with strategic insights enables them to feel grounded and able to push forward on their goals in the face of challenging circumstances. You’ve really been a clear-headed voice for your customers.”

This kind of recognition builds pride and reinforces the right kind of sales behavior. Specific feedback about how their sales efforts make a difference to customers, beyond pleasing their boss or hitting a number, fills salespeople with the urgency to do it again and provides the tenacity necessary to rebound in a challenging environment. 

When you lift up examples of how your team made a difference, it tells everyone that their work matters — and that this is what your business values.

3. Evolve Your Ecosystem

In a time of uncertainty, there’s a temptation to obsessively look inward and double-down on activity targets and outreach. While this is understandable, it’s more effective to point your people outward, toward customers. 

Look at your ecosystem: What does your customer relationship management system track? How are meetings run. What type of customer intelligence do you capture. Is your ecosystem focused on internal metrics or on prompting your team to focus outward, on customer impact?

An ecosystem animated by purpose is organized to answer the question: How will the customer be different as a result of doing business with us?

An articulation of the impact you have on customers should sit at the center of the sales function, acting as a perpetual “red thread” through meetings, systems, processes and the leadership narrative.

4. Empower Salespeople to Discover Their Personal Purpose

Findings in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that committing to a personal purpose in life may encourage individuals to develop characteristics, such as a gritty disposition, that help them achieve their long-term aims. Yet perhaps Aaker in her research sums up best the importance of pursuing personal purpose: 

“When we pursue our personal purpose, we feel our lives and work are more meaningful. Meaning is not something you just have or don’t have. It’s more about your mindset. When individuals adopt a meaning mindset, they behave in very different ways. In one study, two researchers, Veronika Huta and Richard Ryan, had half of their subjects adopt a meaning mindset by asking them to do one thing each day to create meaning. These activities, like strengthening a social connection, pursuing excellence or helping others, often required effort. Yet, three months later, these subjects reported fewer negative moods and more positive feelings about their social connections, suggesting that meaning can decrease stress and boost well-being in the long run.”

Two Potential Derailers

Metrics still matter. Many sales teams create a false dichotomy between selling with purpose and having ambitious targets. Purpose-driven sellers do, in fact, have quotas. Noted management consultant Peter Drucker described the link between profit and purpose by explaining, “Profit is not the purpose of a business but rather the test of its validity.” Let’s go a step further: Driving revenue is not the purpose of a salesforce; it’s the test of its effectiveness. If an organization is serious about having a bold impact on the customers it serves, it must measure the impact. 

Magin matters, too. Another common myth about selling with a sense of customer-driven purpose is that sellers must succumb to every request for a price concession. Remember: Money and meaning are not in conflict; they’re inextricably linked. Noble, purpose-driven salespeople have longer, more strategic discussions with their customers. They sell at a high margin because they enable the customer to see the value. They don’t default to lowering the price because their relationships have evolved beyond the price of a particular transaction.

Selling With Noble Purpose

When salespeople are deeply committed to a purpose greater than their own quarterly targets, they experience more personal fulfillment, stronger relationships with customers, and greater career growth. That essence radiates to customers, leaving them with a deeper appreciation and more trusting relationships. 

At the same time, purpose-driven organizations experience greater differentiation, innovation, customer advocacy, and exponential growth than traditional transactional organizations.

Plus, standout organizations use purpose as a catalyst for sales growth. Purpose can breathe new life into a sales team. It’s a powerful source of motivation and distinction that today’s leaders can leverage to weather a storm and come out with newfound differentiation and engagement. 

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Ernst & Young LLP or any other member firm of the global EY organization.