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How Open Office Environments are Killing the Cold-Call - The Science

· neuroscience

Last week, I participated in a roundtable attended by ten of Chicago’s top CROs / CSOs / VPs of Sales in the tech me, who’s in the midst of launching a book (and am not quite sure what to call myself). The meeting was run by Sales Assembly, facilitating meetings like these to provide a safe environment for these leaders to ask each other questions about issues they’re each facing, share best practices, and help each other with lessons-learned.

The bulk of this particular ninety-minute meeting was focused on an issue one of the CROs is facing.

He asked the group, “I’ve taken over a team that has a serious reluctance from picking up the phone and prospecting.” As I’m sure so many of you are facing, email has become the path of least resistance for many who are engaged in prospecting for new business. “How do I establish a culture of picking up the phone?”

As you can imagine, these sales leaders had piles of great inputs and ideas. Following the discussion, I wanted to find a phone and make a couple of calls myself.

Once the dust settled, I made a point that seemingly brought the meeting to a screeching halt.

In my research for the book, The Transparency Sale, I read over twenty books on all things NOT sales. Instead, the primary focus was research on neuroscience. The learnings regarding how our brains function and make decisions has advanced dramatically in the past twenty years, and much of that research has not made its way to our sales enablement content. While the topic of call reluctance didn’t make the final cut for the book, one of the lessons I learned from the reading I wish I would have known back in my sales leadership roles. I made the point that... office environments are productivity killers if outbound phone prospecting is a priority.

One CRO looked at me incredulously, thinking that is totally counterintuitive. Open office environments theoretically were brought to the sales world to motivate and create more opportunities for collaboration, learning and celebration. Hearing someone making a prospecting call should motivate others to pick up the phone, and listening to those conversations are potential learning experiences.

Brain science says otherwise.

Making a cold call creates anxiety, so maximizing brain comfort and focus is vital. Neurologically speaking, one of the primary things that annoys the brain is a sound or conversation that you are not able to tune out, and cannot predict when it will end. It’s why sirens from emergency vehicles are designed the way they are - designed to annoy you so you cannot tune them out. It’s why we’re annoyed by a baby crying on an airplane, even when we have our own children, as we cannot tune it out and cannot predict when it will stop.

"One of the primary things that annoys the brain is a sound or conversation that you are not able to tune out, and cannot predict when it will end.​"

On the other hand, tuning out conversations or music at a coffee shop is easy on the brain, because when it's not relevant, your brain is able to tune it out. For many, chatter serves as white noise for your brain, and as a result, becomes a productive environment to work in for many of us.

However, what happens when someone is talking on the phone at a coffee shop? For reasons explained by brain science, there’s a difference. It becomes harder to tune out because of the brain’s desire to predict how individuals will react or respond. Hearing only one side of a conversation, regardless of relevance, is incredibly difficult for the brain to tune out. Thus, you’re not annoyed by the two-way conversations and the music going on, but you ARE annoyed by the guy talking on his phone, where you’re only hearing one side of the discussion.

The three traits of what is annoying for the brain are CREATED BY open office environments. As a result, productivity goes down. Headphones go on. Collaboration is reduced. Performance suffers. Less calls get made. The sound / conversation that others are having in their prospecting efforts is impossible to tune out for those within earshot because:

  1. It is potentially relevant,
  2. the end cannot be predicted, and,
  3. you can only hear one side of the conversation.

Let’s add one more thing: The best sales professionals are not afraid to make mistakes. However, even the best ones would prefer not to make those mistakes in public. The perception of being judged by others creates anxiety. Making a phone call surrounded by peers generates an assumed judgement anxiety.

Providing an environment free from unnecessary anxiety on the brains of your sellers is vital for fostering a culture of picking up the phone. When designing your offices, while cube walls may seem “cold”, they’re great for reducing call anxiety. Removable / retractable cube walls exist, where you can schedule call blitzes and put up the walls. Room dividers work well, too. Many companies are adding “phone booths” in their offices for private calls. Add more of them, and encourage their use for prospecting calls. One CRO at the meeting described having a “white noise” player hovering above their sales floor helping to drown out sounds and conversations, assisting the brain in focus.

Call reluctance is a real thing. Are you doing everything you can to create an optimized environment for the brain of the caller, or are you exacerbating the reluctance?

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