Delayed gratification key to great sales

In the 1960s, Stanford University psychology researcher Walter Mischel conducted a study. Mischel placed marshmallows in front of 4-year-old children. He told them they could have one marshmallow now, or if they waited several minutes, they could have two. Then Mischel left for about 20 minutes. Some children quickly grabbed a marshmallow and devoured it. Other children chose to wait and adhere to Michel’s directions.

Mischel continued his research and followed these children for 14 years. The children that immediately grabbed the marshmallows, or gave into the pull of instant gratification, ended up having lower self-esteem, got frustrated easily, had more havoc in their personal lives and earned less than their patient peers. The kids that waited and stared longingly at the marshmallows scored about 210 points higher on their SATs, were more socially competent, assertive and dependable.

So why should you care about children eating marshmallows? One of the great predictors of success in life is a person’s emotional intelligence or EQ. The children who did not eat their marshmallows displayed two key traits found in people with high emotional intelligence: delayed gratification and impulse control. Let’s take this research and apply it to the world of hiring salespeople.

Business owners often forget to look for “marshmallows” in their interview process. They interview for competiveness but forget to design interview questions that test for delayed gratification. As a result, companies sometimes experience one or all of the sales scenarios listed below.

Inconsistent prospecting and sales activity. Every good manager works with their sales team in laying out a plan that generates opportunities. So why are so many salespeople still inconsistent about prospecting? Perhaps this salesperson doesn’t score high in the area of delayed gratification. Delayed gratification is the ability to put in the work in order to get the reward.

For example, if one hour of cold calling or email prospecting doesn’t yield instant results, the instant gratification salespeople quit doing these activities. Or if they don’t meet their next big prospect at an association meeting, they stop attending.

You may have heard the quote, “The race is not to the swift, it’s to those who keep on running.” It’s not always the most skilled salesperson who wins the race; it is the salesperson who practices delayed gratification, shows up every day, every week and executes a consistent sales activity plan that earns the big bucks. Years ago, a fellow sales trainer had a brand-new financial planner in his sales training class. Bob had no contacts, no clients and was building a territory from scratch. Bob prospected diligently for five months and still had no closed deals to show for his efforts. Month six was a different story. Bob ended up closing four good deals that month. He continued his business development efforts and ended up exceeding his quota for the year.

Sales skills. Good sales organizations invest thousands of dollars in sales training hoping to improve communication, persuasion and selling skills. A company can hire the greatest sales trainer with good content and nothing will change if the sales team doesn’t practice delayed gratification. It is a well-known fact that repetition is the key to mastery. After attending sales training, there is a clear difference between a marshmallow-eating salesperson and a non-marshmallow-eating salesperson. One turns off reality TV to review and study training notes. The other never looks at their notes again. One turns off their car radio to listen to a sales-training audio. The other turns on the radio and listens to their favorite tunes. One delays the gratification of pleasure to achieve excellence. The other enjoys immediate gratification and settles for mediocrity.

Major account sales. If your company has a long sales cycle with multiple decision makers, you better hire a person who has a proven history of delaying gratification. This type of sale requires more research, navigation and meetings than small- to mid-size accounts. If a salesperson isn’t willing to wait for the reward and execute the ongoing work of a larger deal, the close will not happen. A colleague in the mutual-funds industry recently closed a $1.5 million deal. It was a real win for the company and my colleague. Sales cycle: four years. There is a good chance this colleague did not eat marshmallows as a child.

Change your hiring practices and interview for delayed gratification. Find out sooner rather than later if you have a marshmallow-eating salesperson on your hands.

Colleen Stanley is president of SalesLeadership Inc., a sales development firm specializing in emotional intelligence and consultative sales training. Reach her at or 303-708-1128.


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