Burnout and the future of B2B sales 

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Selling is inseparable from relationship management. In the past, the one-to-one "human touch" of a salesperson compensated for the standardized nature of their wares. However, today's sales environment tends towards customized solutions and co-creation with the client, especially in the B2B space. In many cases, these trends have greatly increased the network of stakeholders whom salespeople are obliged to keep happy.

Jessica Hoppner
Jessica Hoppner

Research shows that B2B customers benefit from being more involved in the process, but what about the sales force? Does their increased interpersonal burden translate to higher risk of burnout? George Mason University School of Business Marketing Area Chair Jessica Hoppner's recently published paper in Industrial Marketing Management, co-authored by Paul Mills of Cleveland State University and David A. Griffith of Texas A&M University, finds some surprising answers.

Academic explanations of burnout often rely on the job's demands-resources model, which compares workplace challenges against the tools on hand to help employees meet them. When professional demands rise sharply without a corresponding change in available resources, exhaustion followed by burnout becomes more likely.

Hoppner and her co-authors developed a set of hypotheses about the resources B2B salespeople would need to prevent burnout, given the increased responsibilities of customer participation. Their study took the form of a survey (designed with input from actual B2B sales professionals) completed by 210 salespeople. Three-fourths of the respondents reported that customer participation in their company's development process had grown significantly over the past year. The survey went on to ask how burned out they felt by their job, how much autonomy they had in their work, whether they felt sales ability was fixed or changeable and how much they felt it was worth investing time in developing skills, knowledge, and relationships. The final question was about the competitive intensity of their industry in the previous year.

Holistic analysis of the survey responses revealed that the stress of customer participation was not directly heightening the risk of burnout. Instead, B2B salespeople were rising to the occasion by reinvesting in critical resources - the aforementioned skills, knowledge, and relationships. In doing so, they became even more skilled, and better prepared to work with their customers. You could say that they turned stress into their superpower.

The intensity of their resource investment, however, was influenced by (a) their level of job autonomy and (b) their belief that sales ability can improve. The positive relationship between autonomy and salespeople's resource investment was even stronger in less competitive industries.

As Hoppner explains, "The salesperson wants to respond to these new challenges by investing in resources and getting new skills. The autonomy provided by your company influences how much you invest. The competitive environment influences whether you can invest as much. And you only have so much bandwidth as a salesperson to invest in new skills."

But investment always requires both authority and a certain amount of faith. Respondents who believed good salespeople are born not made - i.e. those with what psychologist Carol Dweck called a "fixed mind-set" about sales ability - would presumably consider upskilling a waste of time, whether or not their organization gave them the autonomy to do so. Their fatalistic thinking would prevent them from tapping the resources that might buffer them against burnout. Indeed, the "fixed mind-set" salespeople in Hoppner's sample reported not only less investment in core skills but also higher burnout than peers with a "growth mind-set" grounded in self-improvement.

In today's B2B sector, burnout prevention is a critical issue since value co-creation demands fully engaged and committed salespeople. Widespread burnout defeats the purpose of customer participation.

Hoppner recommends that sales managers remember the winning combination of autonomy and growth mind-set, particularly when customer participation is a top priority. Good B2B sales managers, she implies, will be comfortable transferring some control, especially in high-competition industries that may be more challenging on salespeople to begin with. In addition to receiving a reasonable degree of independence, salespeople should be fully trained in problem solving, project management, and other skills needed for full self-sufficiency.

It is also a good idea to promote a growth mind-set throughout the sales force, so that they will equip themselves with the resources necessary to meet their new challenges. Hoppner emphasizes that mind-sets are malleable. "A lot of times you talk about selection when hiring salespeople. But with one's belief in innate selling ability, companies have the ability to have interventions where you can train, mentor or coach people to have this growth mind-set," she says.

While burnout is a near-universal threat for workplace teams these days, Hoppner is cautious about generalizing her findings, preferring instead that their possible applicability outside of sales remain a matter for future research. She emphasizes that while every individual is different, the typical sales persona and portfolio of responsibilities may foster a preference for autonomy. This preference becomes even greater when their role undergoes a structural shift such as additional customer participation, and they need freedom to navigate those changes more effectively.

"The job autonomy is really the freedom for them to choose what makes sense for the context and what to do for the customer," Hoppner says. "How you're developing close interactions with your client, and creating custom sales solutions. It's definitely a creative endeavor because you are not sure what exactly is going to come up in the processes you're developing, and what the ultimate sale is going to be."

At the same time, she observes that in general "having employees be able to feel in control - over how they do their job and if they have the ability to learn - can help mitigate burnout when job roles change."