Scattered among the hundreds of studies, technical reports, and papers that my firm has presented at psychological conventions are two very interesting folders: Very High Producers (VHPs) and Zero Producers (ZPs).

The VHP folder contains multi-industry profiles on some of the most productive salespeople in the world. The other folder contains similar data on producers who have produced absolutely nothing in their current positions. Yep. Zip. Zero. And many have months, even years of tenure.

What’s the difference between the two?

Very high producers prospect without hesitation. They don’t waste time worrying about hypothetical disasters or complaining about market conditions. They exploit opportunities to make themselves visible in the marketplace, and they do it consistently.

Zero Producers don’t. They talk about prospecting, manufacture eloquent excuses and attend gobs of goal-setting seminars. Stalking bookstore aisles and addictively surfing the Web, they love to pick up new tips on selling. What they won’t do on a consistent basis is pick up the phone to call customers.

Which are you?

“If you cannot or will not prospect, you simply are not a candidate for a direct sales position in any profit-driven agency,” says Jacqueline Calder, director of sales at Behavioral Sciences Research Press. “But is prospecting the only thing important to sales success? Personality, aptitude and intelligence are important too. So are goals, values and effective sales training—but they’re not enough.”

When potential top-rung sellers fail to rise above ground level in their career, it’s not simply because they don’t know what to do. Very often it’s because they can’t, don’t or won’t apply what they know by getting in front of clients. Why not? For many, the reason is sales call reluctance. It’s a spirit-crushing condition that constricts prospecting activity to a level far below actual talent, ability and skill.

Wildly successful people like Donald Trump, Tiger Woods and Oprah are always prospecting in search of new audiences and fresh opportunities. They’re natural self-promoters. But most people, including 80% of new agents and 40% of veteran producers, do not prospect naturally. If you’re among them, prospecting may be emotionally difficult for you, so you avoid it if you can and put it off as long as possible if you can’t.

Some agents are better than others at camouflaging prospecting hesitation. Perhaps you (or colleagues you know) have learned to cope with sales call reluctance by invoking professionalism, integrity, rapport and other Teflon-coated buzzwords to dodge the prospecting bullet. But make no mistake. Eventually the problem overpowers emotional defenses and defeats aspirations to financial success. It’s only a matter of time.

How do we know? We conducted studies using SPQ*GOLD, a specialized assessment for detecting and measuring sales call reluctance, and we have demonstrated repeatedly the link between emotional barriers to prospecting and lost income.

Take a look at a few examples from our research:

  • In a study of 56 new insurance agents, those scoring high on call reluctance averaged only half the monthly sales production of less call-reluctant agent peers.
  • A sample of 46 agents with one year of tenure showed a highly significant statistical relationship between call reluctance scores and commissions earned. Agents with certain prospecting score patterns earned 17 times more than their call-reluctant counterparts.
  • Studies with financial services professionals showed that one particular form of sales call reluctance, Social Self-Consciousness—hesitation to contact wealthy or socially powerful buyers—results in an average commission loss of more than $22,500 per salesperson per year.
  • After implementing a program we developed into its hiring process, a company that had fired 53 insurance agents in one year reduced that figure to three the following year.

If sales call reluctance is holding your career hostage, what can you do?

AWARE: Most call-reluctant salespeople are aware they’re not producing to their potential. Many are relieved to discover that what they feared was burnout or rejection is instead a condition that can be diagnosed and for which there are solutions.

ADMIT: It’s easy to blame incompetent management, uncompetitive products and substandard support for lack of production. Admitting the problem is a difficult but necessary step to overcoming it.

ASSESS: Sales call reluctance actually comprises 12 distinct forms of coping with prospecting distress, from avoiding the phone to overdosing on preparation. There are different techniques for managing different types of call reluctance. Accurate diagnosis of your particular form is crucial.

APPLY: Talking about sales call reluctance isn’t the same as doing something about it. Simply understanding it won’t make it go away. That requires a commitment to change and an investment of time and energy to develop new, productive prospecting habits.