Question: My salespeople are content to stay within their comfort zones — the same customers, the same products, etc. How do I get them to push out into new areas?

Answer: Ah, comfort zones. The bane of the jan/san salesperson. I believe that the loss of productivity and sales effectiveness caused by the limitations of comfort zones is so widespread that it could be the number one problem for salespeople.

It certainly is the biggest obstacle I come up against in my work. Let’s dig into it a bit to understand the issue better, and then address the question head on.

What’s a comfort zone? It’s one aspect of the salesperson’s job with which he/she is more comfortable than others. It could be on the market side of things where the salesperson is only comfortable with some market segments, and is uncomfortable with others. For example, one salesperson may be comfortable calling on schools, but uncomfortable calling on manufacturers.

Salespeople create comfort zones composed of types of individual customers, as well. For example, one salesperson may be comfortable calling on production managers, and very uncomfortable calling on CFOs. Another may be very comfortable visiting with maintenance supervisors, but unwilling to stretch out to call on purchasing agents.

The same thing is true on the other side of the equation — the products and services on which they choose to spend their time. Salespeople may be comfortable with one product or product line and thus choose to spend most of their time on it.

And, finally, salespeople form comfort zones associated with the processes and tools they use. For example, one may be very comfortable using a paper calendar, and not at all comfortable using a laptop and the company’s new CRM system.

Now, just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with comfort zones. They are the product of human nature. We all tend to be more comfortable with certain people, places and things than others.  

The real problem lies in the white spaces around the issue. It isn’t comfort zones that are the problem, it is the “uncomfort” zones that surround them. The problem isn’t that a saleperson is comfortable with some element of the job; it is that they are uncomfortable with others. There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable calling on schools, for example. The problem comes when the salesperson is uncomfortable calling on manufacturers.

And, more precisely, the real issue is not the comfort zones, it is the inaction derived from ‘uncomfort zones.’ So, the real problem is behavioral — they don’t do what you want them to do.  

So, what to do?

Identify the missing actions driven by their uncomfort zones and use them to develop additional comfort zones. Understand that comfort comes from confidence, and confidence comes from experience and practice.

At some point, every current comfort zone was an uncomfort zone. And the salesperson, through practice and/or experience, was able to build some confidence and eventually become comfortable.

Let’s go back to the reader’s question now, and answer it. Here is a specific action you can take to help your sales reps overcome their lack of comfort with certain markets: Create experience.

Give a specific direction. Something like this: “I want you to call on 10 (fill in the uncomfort type of business or level of customer) over the next two weeks. I don’t care if you sell anything. I just want you to learn. Fill out a little call report that indicates what you did, and more importantly what you learned about that market and yourself as a result of each call. I’ll talk with you about them after you’ve completed the calls.”

Notice that you are forcing the salesperson into the uncomfortable area and stimulating thoughtful learning by giving a specific, measurable direction.  You are holding them accountable via the written call report and the conversation with you, which follows.

We both know that the salesperson will be more comfortable and confident with the new market after those 10 calls than before. If you do this, you’ll be building confidence by creating experience.

But what if you don’t see yourself pulling that off? Then, fall back on practice. Remember, your solution is first, experience, and second, practice.

Bring them into the office for a training session on the product, market, customer or process that is the source of discomfort. Help them learn about it by educating them in the details of that subject. For example, if the problem is discomfort with a market, help them learn as much as possible about that market: How big, how many people, who makes the decisions, what their problems are, and what their objectives and objections are, etc.

But don’t stop there. Many jan/san CSO’s (chief sales officers) make the mistake of thinking that new knowledge automatically leads to new behavior. It rarely does. So, take it another step. Focus on the action that needs to happen. Help them practice by role-playing various scenarios. Comment on the role-plays, and help them learn from them.

If you do this effectively, they will begin to gain confidence in their ability to handle that market, or person, or product, etc. When they have some confidence, that confidence will spill over into action. And that action will lead to them developing comfort in what was previously a place of the opposite.

Ultimately, you solve the problem of comfort zones by creating more of them.

Dave Kahle is one of the world’s leading sales educators. He’s written nine books, presented in 47 states and seven countries, and has helped enrich tens of thousands of salespeople and transform hundreds of sales organizations. Sign up for his free weekly Ezine, and visit his blog. For a limited time, receive $547 of free bonuses with the purchase of his latest book, How to Sell Anything to Anyone Anytime.