Be Fearless

Wish you had the confidence to sell to anyone, anytime? Daring salespeople tell how they’ve overcome phobias that stood in the way of their sales success.

August 1, 2002

Linda Rehwalt was scared. After relocating to suburban Phoenix with her husband eight years ago, she took a job as a salesperson with RE/MAX Integrity, REALTORS®. Rehwalt went from earning $80,000 as a systems analyst in the nuclear power industry to earning nothing. Zero. Getting started in sales, she says, turned out to be “scary and humiliating.”

Everyone has a comfort zone, a place where they feel safe and can function with a minimum of anxiety. But what happens when you’re cast out, or want to climb out, of your zone? For many people, change triggers fear; they’re happy to stay right where they are, thank you. But if you want to take your career to the next level—to feel that you can truly sell to anyone, anytime, regardless of the market—you need to face your fears head on.

Staring down your demons

Salespeople who’ve become fearless in their selling say it’s important to first own up to the problem. Sometimes, laziness or simple procrastination gets in the way of reaching your goals. “I see it over and over again,” says Pat Cannizzaro, sales manager for Weichert, REALTORS®, in Fishkill, N.Y. “In real estate, you don’t have a schedule and you don’t have to answer to a boss. Unless you’re very organized, you’re going to procrastinate.”

Other times, ego can keep salespeople from moving forward. “Ego’s a major destroyer,” says veteran speaker and trainer Floyd Wickman, of Boston. “It often affects people who come into real estate from another field where they’ve been fairly successful. They feel they shouldn’t have to do things as basic as cold calling. It feels humiliating.”

But the main thing that holds people back, and often underlies both procrastination and ego, is fear—of rejection, embarrassment, or simply the unknown. “It freezes people,” says David Knox, owner of a motivational seminar company, David Knox Productions in Minneapolis.

Action—any small step in the right direction—can often move you past your fear. After four months of sitting at a desk and not selling a single house, Rehwalt enrolled in a sales seminar—the first of many—that forced her to construct a plan.

“Having a step-by-step plan made all the difference,” she says. “I was forced to cold-call, knock on doors, and go after FSBOs on a regular basis. I memorized scripts and dialogue to use on the phone and in person. I started sending mailers and handing out scratch pads, magnets, and other promotional items. Basically, I did everything you have to do to get started in this business.”

At the end of her first year in business, Rehwalt was named Rookie of the Year by the Glendale-West Maricopa Board of REALTORS®, and within three years she had become a member of the RE/MAX Hall of Fame, having earned more than $1 million in commissions.

If there’s one aspect of the business that seems to cause the greatest anxiety for the greatest number of salespeople, it’s breaking the ice with prospects—whether by telephone or in person.

“I was very afraid of the telephone in my early years,” says Cannizzaro, “very afraid of being rejected, of being told ‘no.’”

“My biggest fear for years was meeting new people,” says Charlotte Scuderi, a salesperson with ERA Andrew Realty in Medford, Mass. “I was also afraid of getting lost when I drove clients around town. When you’re shy, you fear being embarrassed. What could be more embarrassing than getting lost when you’re trying to prove to a customer or client that you’re qualified to be their salesperson?”

Both realized that if they were ever to achieve their goals in real estate, they’d have to change the way they do business.

For Cannizzaro, the process began when she enrolled in a sales training seminar that forced her to cold call on a regular basis. Doing so made her realize, “The worst that can happen is someone will hang up on you. They can’t bite you. They can’t even see you. And if they hang up, so what? You just ring somebody else.”

Or, maybe, call them again. “I got pretty daring by the end of the seminar,” says Cannizzaro. “If someone hung up on me, I’d dial them back and say, ‘I’m sorry. I think I disconnected you.’ It was a way of re-establishing control over the situation. Sometimes they’d respond by hanging up again. But sometimes they’d say, ‘Boy, you really have guts.’ And I’d say, ‘Don’t you want someone with guts working for you?’ I’d take every opportunity to turn it around and make it work for me.”

Cannizzaro took her income from $8,000 to $70,000 in one year by turning prospecting into a game. That’s a critical mindset shift, according to Knox. “Making the calls or getting through your script is what’s important,” he says. “You have to focus on the aspects of the business you can control, not on whether you get the listing. If you don’t get it, let it go.”

Scuderi overcame her fears of meeting new people by taking classes in public speaking and by joining clubs where she was forced to interact with other people. “I put myself in positions where I’d have to think on my feet, and gradually I became more confident,” she says. As for getting lost, she solved that problem by buying first a cell phone and then a global positioning device for her car.

“I doubled my sales volume after that,” Scuderi says.

Break new ground without breaking a sweat

Besides making you a happier person, overcoming your fears can help you break into the niche you’ve been dreaming about.

Say you want to sell new homes. That’s what Christopher Skorseth, a salesperson with Coldwell Banker Burnet in Waite Park, Minn., wanted to do when he started in the business six years ago. He signed on with a builder, but getting started wasn’t easy. “My main fear was that I had no background in construction,” he says. “It was a huge learning curve.”

He overcame his fear one step at a time. “I learned by meeting customers and showing them the product,” he says. “I never lied to people. If someone asked me a question and I didn’t know the answer—which happened a lot in the beginning—I’d say ‘I’ll find out.’ And then I’d call the builder, the lumber salesman, or the plumber to get the answer I needed.”

Maybe it’s not just fear, but lack of access, that’s stopping you from capturing the business you’d like. Both were at play two years ago for Tim and Julie Harris of RE/MAX North in Worthington, Ohio. The Harrises saw a huge opportunity in the upper-end development happening in New Albany, about 45 minutes from their office—but they were nervous about trying to capitalize on it.

“We felt as if we’d be taking a big gamble going into New Albany,” says Tim. “People with million-dollar homes usually don’t want to do business with a salesperson selling $200,000 homes. They want to deal with a specialist in their area.”

Undaunted, the couple decided to take the plunge—but only after they’d established a presence in the new market. They began by moving their residence to New Albany and setting up a home office. The next step was establishing a separate identity for the new business. The new division has “a look and feel that’s totally different from our original business,” says Tim. “Everything on our New Albany Web site relates to New Albany. There are no links to our other business.”

Today, New Albany accounts for about 40 percent of the Harrises’ business. As for the fear they felt about entering an unfamiliar market, it subsided when they grasped a universal truth: “At the end of the day,” says Tim, “upper-end people have the same fears, wants, and desires as everyone else. The prices may be higher, but they’re still worried about the economy, college for the kids, retirement, and paying taxes. It’s no different.”

Perhaps the most important truth to keep in mind is that everyone has fears and those fears are different at different stages in your career, says Barrett.

Cannizzaro, who overcame her fear of the telephone, now worries that her team isn’t functioning at the top of its capabilities. Scuderi is no longer afraid to drive buyers around, but now worries about keeping up her production. “Will I do as well this year as last year? Can I do better?” she says. “But that’s a healthy fear. You need to have a balance. If you’re overly self-assured and confident, I think it’ll come back and kick you in the butt.”

Envision a different you

Many career fears are due to people’s core feelings about their self-worth. “The fundamental thing that keeps people where they are is their expectations,” says David Knox, owner of David Knox Productions in Minneapolis. “It’s why the rich get rich and the poor stay poor. If you expect to make $30,000 a year, you probably will.”

The way to change your perspective, he says, is to observe salespeople who do things differently. “If you want to sell $8 million of real estate every year instead of $2 million, spend a day with an $8 million seller. By being around people who outperform you, you’ll see how it’s done.”

“You change behavior by changing beliefs,” adds Linda Barrett, a speaker and change strategist for salespeople dealing with career slumps. “You need to let the rejection go and stop obsessing about it. Some people take everything to the nth degree. Suddenly one bad call or one bad day means they’re never going to be able to make it as a salesperson.”

Many of the fears that hold you in place are misplaced and irrational, agrees Floyd Wickman, a speaker and trainer based in Boston. “All the facts in the world tell you there’s nothing to worry about, but the fear’s still very real.”

Wickman, who travels an estimated 200 days each year for business, hit a point in the early ’90s when he feared flying. “Who knows what started it?” he says. “The symptoms were frustrating—I couldn’t eat, sleep, or work on planes.”

He got over the fear by continuing to fly. “I’m a firm believer,” he says, “that if you stand up to your fears you’ll conquer them.”

Take 3 steps to overcome your fears

“The longer you stay in your comfort zone and let fear control your life,” says motivational speaker Linda Barrett, “the more unfulfilled you’ll be.” Barrett, who calls herself a change strategist, has devised a three-step process for identifying and dealing with career fears.

  • Evaluate. “Go to the beach, take a hike, write in a journal—do something to quiet your mind so you can be clear about what’s causing the fear,” she says. “Often fear has an important message for us. Ask yourself if the fear is well founded. If it is, heed it. Otherwise, confront it.”
    • Barrett advises against going back too far to find the sources of your fears. “Don’t overanalyze. We all know people who’ve been in therapy for 20 years and still have the problem for which they’re being treated. I don’t think blaming your parents for something they did 20 years ago is all that useful. The point is to get past what’s holding you back now.”

  • Confront. “You need to get past the phase where the fear controls you,” says Barrett. And a good way to start is by admitting the problem.
    • “Talk to salespeople who’ve overcome the same problem,” Barrett says. In sales, luckily, you’re usually not reinventing the wheel. Your fears have been around long enough that solutions to the most common problems—such as fear of cold calling or fear of meeting new people—are well established. Then, visualize overcoming the problem.

  • Conquer. Even if you’ve sought the counsel of trusted peers, change is ultimately up to you. “Others can encourage you, but only you can make it happen,” Barrett says. “Pick a day and a time to begin. Then do it. Make calls, meet people. With the experience, you’ll gain confidence in your abilities and the fears will gradually subside.”
  • Robert Freedman

    Robert Freedman is the former director of multimedia communications at NAR.

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