Call Reluctance Syndrome

Call reluctance syndrome, also known as call reluctance, is a psychological phenomenon where salespeople experience a fear to reach out to prospects and make phone calls. This situation is most typically observed at the start of potential customer relationships, often referred to as cold calling.

The fear of salespeople to make cold calls is a common issue that many sales teams face. It can become a serious obstacle in attaining your sales goals and impede your business growth if you don’t hire people who actually enjoy the process of sales calling.

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Shannon Goodson and George Dudley, the co-founders of Behavioral Sciences Research Press, shared astonishing statistics in their book The Psychology of Sales Call Reluctance stating that call reluctance is the reason why:

  • 80% of new salespeople fail in their first year.
  • 40% of sales veterans are at threat of decreasing sales.

Signs of Call Reluctance

Fear of cold calling isn’t an easy one to overcome. The first step toward solving this problem is to admit that it exists. To help you define it, here are three main signs of call reluctance syndrome:


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  • Experiencing powerful negative emotions, such as fear, embarrassment, shame, anxiety, guilt, and even panic
  • Having negative thoughts and anticipation of the worst (“They don’t need it.” or “They will turn me down.”)
  • Denying their own negative emotional responses and trying to buy time before calling instead (frequent procrastination, over-preparing for calls)

Results of Call Reluctance

This feeling of a strong mental block that keeps a sales development representative from taking an action and dialing the prospect’s phone number results into: 

  • Failing to meet monthly/quarterly/annual quotas
  • Termination of employment
  • Loss of perspective across young sales talents
  • High-stress level of employees and management
  • Working in a toxic sales atmosphere

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Why Salespeople Experience Call Reluctance

There are different reasons why call reluctance exists. We’ve defined six of them to share with you. Spoiler alert, if you or your colleagues experience this feeling, it’s a totally natural thing. 

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1. The natural fear of rejection

Many sales experts state that the main reason for call reluctance is the fear of rejection. Rejection is a powerful aversive stimulus to our brain that is processed in multiple regions of our cortex at once. It is believed to have an adaptive significance and a survival advantage.

In 2015, Dr. Mark R. Leary published an article “Emotional Responses to Interpersonal Rejection.” According to his research, rejection can cause multiple negative emotions such as hurt feelings, jealousy, loneliness, shame, guilt, social anxiety, and embarrassment. Furthermore, he claimed that people experience a powerful emotional response not only to actual rejection but also to the anticipated or imagined ones. Dr. Leary stated that the desire to avoid rejection has a significant impact on human behavior.

The sales statistics by Goodson and Dudley mentioned above are pretty much justified by Leary’s findings. No one would willingly expose themselves to experience shame, social anxiety, or embarrassment. That is why even sales veterans can become overwhelmed to the extent that they stop prospecting despite the fact that hitting their sales quota depends on it.

2. Neurological predisposition

In 1996, Dr. Geraldine Downey and Dr. Scott I. Feldman introduced a Rejection Sensitivity (RS) Model claiming that some people are more vulnerable to rejection than others. Several scales have been introduced since. In 2007, a group of scientists headed by Ethan Kross conducted research on brain activity with high and low RS. 

The MRI showed that people with low rejection sensitivity have an increase in the activity of a brain region (lateral prefrontal cortex - LPFC) associated with top-down cognitive control of behavior in general.

3. Corporate culture

The values of the company can impact salespeople dramatically. Connie Kadansky, noted author on call reluctance, in her interview for Yesware, shared a case she was working on where the sales team were instructed "not to be salespeople." Ironically, the company endorsing this policy didn’t see what was, in a sense, a rejection itself: "Don't be who you are."  And the cherry on the sundae—the company promised a foam rubber pink pig as a motivation prize.

Unsurprisingly, overburdened by such a powerful message, the employees had to first overcome the initial rejection (and probably humiliation) by the company they worked for. Then the anticipated rejections of cold-calling. No surprise, they weren’t hitting their quotas.

Getting one’s corporate culture to endorse generating new opportunities from scratch is often a struggle. An atmosphere of safety is needed to support sales teams that are performing emotionally difficult work regularly.

4. Lack of training and support

In 2013, there were still Fortune 500 companies that applied the “sink or swim” approach to new hires despite the fact that much had been written and published across multiple media on the inefficiency of this approach. This methodology continued to be a problem for quite a while.

Employees should remember that a new sales representative:

  • Doesn’t know your product/service, how it helps your customers, and what business problems you solve
  • Doesn’t understand your brand and core values 
  • Doesn’t understand the personas—the people they will be calling regularly

If it’s their first job in sales, they don’t have enough knowledge and skills to do this job right. Furthermore, since few people ever experience much rejection daily as cold callers do, many newcomers don’t have efficient coping strategies to handle the emotional burden. Giving them a list of contacts and a telephone and leaving them on their own without a proper mentorship isn’t the best idea. That is why you should invest in training management for the success of your company.

5. Calling the wrong prospects

Cold calling works if you call the right people. Here’s the simplest example: Our C-levels get a prospecting phone call from other lead generation companies once a week. Would you offer a lead list to the head of a sales team that has over 300 discovery appointments held every month?

Another example: A sales rep working at a corporate video production company calls into a local small business (three employees, $50K in monthly revenue) offering to create a ten-minute video on demand (VOD) for promotion. Most likely the offer will be rejected because such firms can’t afford it.

If sales reps offer a product or service to too many people in a row who don’t have the real need in it, they will most likely be rejected multiple times.

6. List of low-quality leads

Companies often purchase contact lists from third parties. Not all of them provide high-quality leads. And the older the list, the more outdated data entries it contains. As a result, when SDRs make a cold call to a prospect who doesn’t work in a company anymore, they feel additional stress of failure that adds up to and increases the fear of rejection.

Call Reluctance Handling: Best Practices

Depending on your role in the company (employer or employee), there are different ways to handle this fear of rejection. We’ve managed to define fourteen of them in total.

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1. Have greater frequency in cold calling.

The best practice to reduce call reluctance is to practice cold calling frequently. Since the human brain cannot distinguish between types of rejection, and rejection cannot be rationalized, it simply needs to become a managed fear through repetition.

Imagine a story where a corollary is learning to ride a horse. Once they fall off for the first time, the fear of falling off again intensifies. Horse trainers know that the most important thing after falling off a horse is to get back on it. Same with cold calling.

2. Hire people with low rejection sensitivity.

The good news for sales teams and HR departments is that there's a scale that can measure rejection sensitivity. Screening means that you can reduce the amount of repetition required to break through the inhibiting fear of calling.

3. Change your corporate culture.

Examine how your employees treat salespeople who make prospecting calls to your company. Do they respond politely in a calm and pleasant manner? What are people saying about salespeople by the water cooler in your office? Are they referred to as too pushy, too bold, or too salesy? Is there any "sales-shaming?"

Does everyone in the company understand that your revenues and business growth depend on your sales team just as much as marketing, production, accounting, and other departments?

Tip: Talk to your HR department about the problem and come up with a “respect sales” strategy.

4. Train both newbies and veterans.

According to the Sales Management Association, firms with effective onboarding programs have 10% greater sales growth rates and 14% better sales and profit objective achievement. It is suggested to start with your brand and corporate culture then speak about your product.

Make sure that your salespeople know:

Assign mentors for new sales representatives. At CIENCE, we have around 400 SDRs. Many of them expressed gratitude to their team leads on multiple occasions. A good mentor provides guidance and emotional support, which is of ultimate support for healthy working relationships.  

5. Give your SDRs only good leads.

Before handing the list of contacts to your sales team, you need to make sure that they’re “prequalified,” in other words, interested in purchasing your service/product.

For this purpose, you need to first define your ideal customer profile (ICP). Then acquire a list of leads that fit the ICP and are up-to-date. Read more about how to do sales research according to your ICP correctly

BONUS Best Practice: Outsource your telemarketing department.

Hire CIENCE and forget about call reluctance.

Call Reluctance Handling: Tips for Salespeople

If you are an SDR experiencing call reluctance, there are a few ways to help you overcome it:

1. Admit the problem.

Remember, there are 40% of veterans and 80% of newbies who admitted being prone to it. Being among them doesn’t mean you’re a bad salesperson. It means that you’re a human, the same as we all are.

2. Define the reason for your problem.

Is it fear of rejection, corporate culture, lack of training, or maybe all of them together? Find the core of your problem and search for the ways to solve it.

3. Talk to the management about it.

It is in their best interest to tackle this issue, providing you with professional guidance, support, and training to overcome your fear.

4. Remind yourself that you are calling prospects to help their business.

Your product or service can increase ROI, assist companies and individuals in attaining their goals, make the business processes more efficient, etc. They need your product/service. And you can give them what they need!

If you think about it that way, you will perceive yourself as a savior rather than an intruder. It will also make your call valuable.

5. Remember that rejection is inevitable in prospecting.

Rejection is part of your job. It’s normal that many people won’t be able to purchase your product right now. They might be using a similar product offered by your competitors or have some other solution for their business needs. Keep in mind that they are missing out on the great opportunity.

6. Prepare for the calls.

Learn more about your prospect and their company, try to identify their key needs, and think about how your product and service can help them. Make a list of prospecting questions that will help you learn more about the needs and problems.

7. Provide positive feedback.

It’s pretty much like training a child. You can force kids into doing something under the threat of punishment or incentivize them by giving them a “treat.” The former will put them under stress and eventually traumatize them. The latter will help you bring up a happy, healthy individual.

You need to create positive emotions after each call. A good parent will always praise the attempt and reassure that the result will come with time. Here are some lines you can say to yourself after you finish your call:

  • “You did a great job!”
  • “I’m glad that you made this call.”
  • “You talked so confidently.”
  • “I’m so proud of you.”
  • “Keep on like this and you’ll meet your quota!”
  • “You are the best!”

8. Listen to other people’s success stories.

Find several sales bloggers who share inspiring stories about prospecting. Listen to them when you feel negative emotions or when you catch yourself procrastinating (and here’s a good example).

9. Stop procrastinating.

Everyone does it from time to time. However, if you understand that it has become overwhelming and impedes your goal, you need to do something about it. The minute you realize that you're procrastinating, stop what you’re doing and remove the distracting factor.

10. Set time frames.

For example, if you plan to make twenty calls in eight hours, this means you need to call every twenty-four minutes if you are lucky enough to connect every call (this never happens, btw). The best case—your calls will last up to ten minutes (including the time necessary to fill in the data in CRM). You will also need up to ten minutes to prepare for it and five minutes to reload after the call.

Once you finish a conversation, set a five-ten minute countdown. This will be your time to relax after a call. Once the time is over, start searching for a new prospect.

11. Create small rituals before calls.

Many people that have anxiety issues state that they perform certain rituals or take certain objects to reduce emotional burdens. For example, one person shared the story of wearing glasses during public speaking to tackle the fear.

Call reluctance is a problem that hits many sales teams, preventing them from attaining their goals. However, a number of countermeasures can help sales organizations and individuals successfully overcome them.

12. Read CIENCE blogs.

If nothing helps, read our blog post on how to overcome the fear of cold calling.  Here are a few other cold calling-related articles: 

Overcome Call Reluctance Syndrome with CIENCE

Besides the psychological predisposition of people to avoid rejections, cold calling is a complicated procedure, which involves developing a certain mindset and skills. You need to follow sales scripts, learn how to overcome multiple objections, be empathetic to the client, and at the same time, build a normal productive dialogue. Not every person can handle such pressure. 

We at CIENCE hire only those people who have an inherited talent for cold calling, spend lots of time talking over the phone daily, and are naturally resistant to rejections. Besides that, those SDRs involved in cold calling don’t have any other activities besides this one, which is reflected in our final results.

 Explore more on Sales Development Teams with CIENCE.