How Sales Reps Avoid the Burnout of Chasing Quotas

Bonuses are nice, but they aren’t enough to stay motivated. The key is to find your ‘Why.’

Written by Brian Nordli
Published on Aug. 11, 2021
How Sales Reps Avoid the Burnout of Chasing Quotas

It starts with a bad demo call, or maybe when a customer who seemed like a sure thing stops responding to your messages. Or perhaps a deal is canceled at the last minute.

On their own, all these situations are manageable. But when they’re compounded with the constant pressure of chasing quota, those slip-ups can create a spiraling effect, said Jeff Riseley, founder of the Sales Health Alliance.

Since so much of a sales rep’s reputation and career success is tied to quotas, thoughts might slide from “I had a bad call” to “I’m a failure, and I’m about to fail again.” Anxiety builds, and the motivation to keep up with daily tasks like cold calling and email outreach often dwindles. Along the way, the odds of hitting quota become slimmer.

3 Things a Rep Can Do Right Now

  • Find your personal reason for why you do this work. This internal motivation will help you persevere through tough times.
  • Keep your focus on the present. Dwelling on the future begets more anxiety and stress.
  • Practice a growth mindset. Take the time to write down something you’re grateful you learned each day.

Riseley would know. He went through this exact experience, struggling with anxiety and panic attacks as a sales rep. He also worked with the mental health website UNCrushed and sales consultant Richard Harris to survey more than 800 salespeople, in which they found that 43 percent of respondents struggled with mental health. That number jumped to 58 percent in the most recent poll during the pandemic, Riseley said.

The spike underscores the challenges the past year has placed on all workers, as we lose opportunities to spend time with friends, go on trips or separate home from our workspaces. But it also highlights a deeper issue with quotas: the lack of meaning behind them, Riseley said. 

“Now all we can do is work, and we’re like ‘Oh, this is meaningless,’” Riseley said. “I don’t want to chase a carrot all day.”

3 Things a Manager Can Do Right Now 

  • Don’t dwell on the dashboard. Focusing on the outcomes will keep you from helping the rep when they need you most.
  • Emphasize developing healthy sales behaviors over outcomes. This helps reps maintain a present mindset. 
  • Set aside time in the workweek for reps to experiment or work on professional development. Creativity and solving tough problems will help them tap into their intrinsic motivation. 

This story is part of an ongoing series about sales quotas.

Part IHow to Bounce Back After Missing Quota

Part IIIInside the Billion-Dollar Startup Without Sales Quotas

Part IVAre Your Quotas Too High?


Why Are Quotas So Stressful?

On the surface, quotas are designed to be an ambitious target that any sales rep can achieve. 

The number typically reflects the revenue a company needs to make to grow its business, but also the average close rate, deal size and length of a sale. There are steps reps can take to create a daily plan to make sure they hit their target.

Why, then, are quotas so stressful? It comes down to motivation, Riseley said. But not in the typical sense of, “You’ve gotta want it more.” Rather, it’s about the type of motivation. 

Most sales organizations reward reps for reaching quota with commission or bonuses. When a sales rep struggles, they often motivate reps with more money in the form of a sales performance incentive fund. These are all extrinsic motivators, Riseley said. 

“Meaningful work is a key piece of overall resilience.”

When a sales team is built only on extrinsic motivators, it erodes any sense of autonomy and creativity. The job boils down to a “Do this to receive that” exchange, Riseley said. Over time, it makes it harder for a rep to be resilient.

“It all becomes about achieving that reward,” Riseley said. “That makes it way harder for a salesperson to be resilient, because they lose touch with the purpose of their work and who they’re helping. As a result, they become more susceptible to various anxieties and stressors.”

It also increases the risk that you start equating your self-worth with hitting your quota, Riseley said. And in a job where the decision-making is out of your control, that’s a dangerous combination.

But this isn’t every sales rep’s experience. Top-performing sales reps all have one thing in common that helps them persevere through the bad days and weeks — an intrinsic motivation.

This takes the form of having a strong personal connection to the work, whether it’s a passion for helping people or to support your lifestyle. As long as you have a personal reason for why you do the job, it can help you weather the stress of reaching quota. 

“Meaningful work is a key piece of overall resilience,” Riseley said. “You’re showing up each day emotionally connected to your work because you believe that you’re making a difference and it matters.”

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Navigating the Stress of Quotas

Whenever something goes wrong, Riseley has learned to use a simple mantra: “So what? Now what?” 

As in, “So what, you had a bad call. Now, what can you do next?” 

The mantra keeps his focus on the present moment and what he can control. That’s critical when you’re chasing a long-term target like quota.

“The stressors are what’s going to knock you out of being present and into being anxious and worried about that future target,” Riseley said.  

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When a deal falls through or you find yourself at the bottom of the sales leaderboard, it’s common to feel fearful — or even threatened — because you might not hit your number. If you’re not careful, those feelings can snowball and impact your ability to sell, Riseley said.

“You might push a buyer harder because you need to close a deal. You might cheat, hide or steal leads from a colleague, or you might hide from your manager that you’ve done something shady,” Riseley said. “You start doing all of these things because you’re acting emotionally rather than logically.” 

That’s why it’s so important to have a strategy to return back to the present moment and focus on the activities you can control. If you’ve missed your quota, Riseley suggests writing down three things you can achieve that Monday to start your next month on the right foot. Or take the time to reflect on a time when you previously struggled and how you bounced back to put it in perspective.

“Working harder isn’t going to solve the problem and get you back to performing at a high level.”

It can also help you to think back to what made you excited about your job in the first place, Riseley said. This helps you to return to your intrinsic motivation. Your internal drive puts the stressful situation in perspective. 

This is also where it helps to accompany that perspective with a growth mindset. Rather than thinking “I am failing,” it’s more useful to reframe the situation as a learning opportunity. It can be tough to make that leap, Riseley admits. So, he suggests getting into the practice of documenting one thing you’ve learned that you’re grateful for each day — and taking the time to reflect on past experiences when you’ve struggled and overcome a challenge.

Of course, if this doesn’t resonate, ask yourself “What’s changed?” You may find that you need to create new work-life boundaries or that you’re on the wrong career path. Or it could simply be burnout, and you need to bring that information to your manager.

“Working harder isn’t going to solve the problem and get you back to performing at a high level,” Riseley said. “It’s difficult for reps to have that conversation.” 

“And you can’t have those conversations if there is no psychological safety and the work hasn’t been put in by the manager to create that space where people feel comfortable,” he added.

Read OnTime To Get Rid of Performance Improvement Plans?


What Managers Can Do

When Riseley was at his lowest point as a sales rep, all he needed was for a manager to reach out and ask him if everything was OK. If they had, he could’ve told them he wasn’t sleeping and that he was struggling with panic attacks.

Instead, they put him on a performance improvement plan. Spoiler alert: He left the company as soon as he could.

One of the worst things a manager can do is dwell on the dashboard and then toss out SPIFFs or more training when a rep is struggling, Riseley said. When the focus is placed on the outcome, it’s too late to solve the problem.

“If you’re consistently looking at meaningful numbers four weeks from now, you’re going to be more worried about what’s happening in four weeks than what your rep is doing in the moment when they need the most support,” Riseley said. 

The best way for a sales leader to reduce the pressures of quota is to stop looking at the numbers. Instead, their role should be a deflector, taking the focus off of the outcome and placing it on the sales activities reps can control, Riseley said.

“If you’re consistently looking at meaningful numbers four weeks from now, you’re going to be more worried about what’s happening in four weeks than what your rep is doing in the moment when they need the most support.”

That helps to relieve the pressure from quotas and builds a stronger relationship to the sales process. It also invites more opportunities to be creative. Riseley suggests giving people time each Friday to read about a new sales methodology, do some training or focus on a new skill that’s important to them. 

Doing so keeps the work fresh and creates a pipeline for new ideas.  

“That’s where intrinsic motivation comes through, that creativity to solve tough challenges and improve on current things,” Riseley said. 

But even with the right focus, sales reps might still struggle with stress. When a rep is floundering, managers must approach the situation with compassion first. Riseley suggests sharing a story about a time you had a tough string of bad months — and then leave the door open for the rep to talk to you.

The more you get into the habit of following up on a rep’s emotional health, the more they’ll feel comfortable sharing their struggles. 

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Still, it’s important to keep in mind the limitations of extrinsic motivators like incentives and commission. When a rep is struggling, you can’t tell them what their motivation should be. But you can remind them of it. Riseley suggests asking them what excited them about the job in the first place. Have conversations about why they got into sales and what’s changed. 

It might just reveal a deeper issue, or help them tap into the reserves they need to make it through the grind of chasing quota.

“Maybe they aren’t getting the right career pathing or they’ve lost touch with the company mission,” Riseley said. “Going from ‘What really excited you when you first joined?’ to ‘What’s missing?’ is a way to assess what need isn’t being met to address it.”

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