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How to Escape the Sales “Feast or Famine” Trap

 

You’re on top of the world. The orders are pouring in. And with every sale, customers aren’t just buying your product or service, they were buying YOU.

It feels great… at least until it doesn’t.

Because a month or two later, things dry up. If they were buying YOU in the good times, what does it mean when they aren’t buying in the bad times?

It’s the feast or famine trap.

I’ve been there.

And while feast or famine is at least partially inevitable — even great salespeople lose deals due to factors outside of their control — the extreme highs and lows that many sales reps feel as a result of it don’t have to be.

How to Tell if You’ve Fallen Into the Feast or Famine Sales Trap

There you are, wide awake at 3 AM as your partner tells you to go back to sleep. You wish you could, but for the fifth night this week, your head is spinning.

Your job, your livelihood, and your pride rely on this one deal coming in.

You’re annoyed that you let it get this bad. You knew you should have put more work in earlier in the quarter instead of having to sprint to the finish during the last month.

While the feast or famine trap impacts all salespeople, those involved in B2B, particularly with long, complex sales cycles, are at even greater risk.

Compound the financial impact of losing a deal with the feelings of self-worth that ebb and flow with financial results, and the personal stress mounts.

Stressed-out sales reps feel alone, question their worth, and can even turn to abusing alcohol and drugs.

Tragically, sales was 14th in a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list of occupational groups ranked by rate of death by suicide.

The symptoms

The symptoms of the feast or famine trap are typically fairly clear. You’ll notice yourself experiencing the full range of emotions regarding your self-worth and the value you bring to the firm.

You land the big deal that pushes you past your quarterly targets, and you feel over the moon about your abilities and your career. You’re fulfilled. You’re eating and sleeping right. You’re even finding room in your schedule to hit the gym 3 days a week. Your confidence soars.

Then you have a sub-par quarter and find yourself questioning if this is really how you should be earning a living. Your confidence sinks, you stress eat/drink, and work long into the night to try to bootstrap your way to closing more deals.

This emotional rollercoaster is the most telling symptom that you’ve fallen into the trap, but there are others, too.

Constantly changing tactics: When something doesn’t work immediately, you switch to a new approach. But you don’t give time for that approach to work, either, so you overreact and change again.

Finding yourself consistently late to start new quarters/years: This leaves you working frantically at the end of the quarter/year to catch up.

Your sales pipeline is in flux: You may find your pipeline flipping from empty to full, and back to empty again.

You focus on the short-term: You’ll often find yourself taking actions for short-term benefit that may actually harm your longer-term prospects.

For example, you concede on some terms of a deal just so you can get it closed before the end of the quarter while waiting would have meant a more lucrative deal for your company.

Causes of the Feast or Famine Cycle

Perhaps the biggest cause of the feast or famine sales cycle is complacency.

I experienced this myself early in my career. When I was winning, I’d sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labor, neglecting the daily prospecting I’d done to get me to that point.

Of course, my pipeline would then dry up, and eventually, my results would wane.

Self-doubt creeps in, and in that situation, even the highest-energy salespeople struggle to put their best selves forward.

Prospects can smell this from a mile away, and in turn, they’ll lose confidence in your ability to deliver. This can create a vicious cycle.

Company policies and procedures often contribute as well.

Overcomplicated processes and short-termism at the corporate level can lead entire sales teams into the trap.

How to Escape the Trap

The truth is, you don’t have to be stuck on the rollercoaster. It’s possible to spend most of your sales career on the up part of the ride, free from the trap and largely playing by your own rules.

Here are some tips to help get you there.

Learn your highs and lows

You need to learn to recognize when you’re on a high or stuck in a low. Celebrating the highs will help extend them. Catching the lows before they get worse will help you recover.

This takes a healthy amount of self-awareness, but if you can do it, it will help in every part of your life.

Once you can do this, the next step is to pay attention to your self-talk and behaviors that contributed to you getting to that high or low.

Eliminate and get strategic

You’re almost certainly spending time on things that need to be eliminated — low-value actions, negative habits, self-sabotage, and limiting beliefs.

This is like trying to climb a mountain with heavy and unnecessary baggage — nobody needs to pack a hairdryer to summit Everest.

A simple way to start this process is to assign a monetary value to tasks you do during the day.

In general, if anyone can do it, it’s low value. Either get rid of it or outsource it.

If only you and a few other experts in the space can do it, it’s high value.

Sending ten generic emails via MailMerge might be worth $10, at best. However, crafting a compelling story around how 5G legislation is going to impact your Retail customers and how you can help them navigate this space might be worth $10k.

Doing this, it’s easy to see where you ought to spend your time.

Commit and double down on these high-value tasks and you’ll see your status rise with your prospects and customers as you become a trusted advisor.

In my own tech sales career, I noticed after nine months of toil that 90% of my revenue was coming from just four global accounts. These accounts were all in the telecom space, so I committed to being even more laser-focused on developing my expertise in this area.

It paid off BIG time.

Seek counsel

If you’re lucky, you’ve got a supportive boss who coaches you through all aspects of sales success, and collaborative peers who share their key learnings and techniques.

But not all of us are that lucky. In fact, very few are.

A mix of internal politics, top-down pressure, and needing to manage both their number and their reps means even managers with the best intentions are likely as wrapped up as anyone in quarterly targets and short-termism.

You can rise above the fray by finding a mentor or coach, ideally someone outside of your organization who can stay divorced from the day-to-day pressures that your management and peers are experiencing.

Even the best salespeople can benefit from outside help.

In fact, it’s often the high-performers that are first to reach out for additional support. They’re always keen to refine their game, that’s what makes them top performers.

Seek mentorship or coaching from someone unbiased, someone with a fresh perspective, who can hold you accountable for your own development, and guide and coach you.

The best salespeople understand that investing in their own growth and development can be an effective way to stay out of the feast or famine trap.

Celebrate your wins

Recognize and celebrate ALL wins. Of course, this means big results and closed deals. But it also means the small daily wins — such as spending time prospecting every day for a week.

Celebrating your actions is as important (if not more) as focusing on your results. That’s consistency, and consistency is a win.

Make sure you’re celebrating and taking credit for the positive daily behaviors that will result in the big deals, not just the results.

I have a #wins channel that I use in my sales coaching. Every time a win is entered into the channel, the energy and enthusiasm don’t just fire up the rep that got the win, but also the other reps in the channel.

This starts the flow of positive momentum that becomes an unstoppable force, as it turns into confidence, energy, better health, and better attitudes.

There will always be more deals to close. Make sure you’re celebrating the daily behaviors that will get you there.

Stay Out of the Trap

The feast or famine sales trap is real, and it can absolutely impact your livelihood and personal well-being.

But you don’t have to fall victim to it.

Sales can be an incredibly fulfilling career, both personally and financially. There’s nothing quite like providing a solution to a customer’s problem and having them genuinely thank you for it while handing over their hard-earned cash.

Doing that consistently is what distinguishes the highest sales performers, and keeps them always feasting.

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