Autopilot Disengage is Written on a black tool

The value of taking yourself – and others – off autopilot

The day I talked to Tom Hanks about the hit film Forrest Gump he did 64 back-to-back, five-minute television interviews at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. Although I was fortunate enough to be in the first group of 10, I knew if I was going to have a unique, authentic, memorable interaction with him I would have to be different, get him to put down his script, and take him off “autopilot.”

And it’s nothing against the Oscar winner for being in brain and energy preservation mode. Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert discovered in their research that the average person spends at least 47% of their day following automated behaviors while their thoughts wander from the task at hand. In other words, we’re on autopilot. And many people no doubt have even higher percentages than that.

Put one way, our brains have evolved to be extremely efficient with the way it uses energy. Put another way, our brains are lazy! Our brains want to do the least amount of work possible which is why it creates habits. Getting out of bed in the morning, showering, dressing, eating, brushing our teeth and so on don’t require much conscious thought. We’re saving our brains for more important stuff!

However, these habits obviously carry over into other parts of our lives, and have implications for our communication and interaction(s), with kids, spouses, partners, colleagues, co-workers and certainly in formal sales calls or presentations.

Autopilot, or the default mode network as neuroscientists call it, makes many of our day-to-day activities habitual, masking our thought patterns and emotions, and acting as an impediment to creating unique, authentic, memorable interactions. Those interactions not only feed us, and make the world more interesting, but they also put us on the path to sales success.

The sales script

About three-fourths of sales managers say getting their sales staff to follow their script or talking points is a primary focus, but that only 38% of sales calls that employ actual scripts are successful. So why use them?

They certainly can create consistency in messaging, decrease stress for new staff, and perhaps make it easier to measure success if everyone is on the same proverbial page.

But they also can obviously lead to to robotic conversations that aren’t natural, they can inhibit customization and flexibility, and they can negatively impact listening skills as we wait for a break in the action to deliver a line, rather than being present and in the moment and actively engaged.

In a recent Salesforce study, sales reps reported they often struggle to fully understand their prospects’ needs – in part because they don’t conduct adequate research or hold discovery calls. The result is a generic sales pitch that doesn’t frame their product or service as a unique solution to a customer’s pain.

This is affirmed by another study I read that in one business vertical only 13% of buyers said they believe the sales people in their space truly understand their needs. That’s a pretty sad statistic!

One of my first 3 Second Selling™ sales training clients was a group of sales professionals at a nationally known corporation that sells specialized retirement plans. They had spreadsheets with hundreds of warm, qualified leads, and spent a fair portion of their days working through that list, setting up times to deliver a 20-minute presentation corporate had prepared. They were trying to earn someone’s time and attention with every call they made.

When I asked to sit in the office and listen to some of those calls, I was astonished at how rote and robotic the group sounded. They didn’t vary their scripts much at all, but rather just left voicemail after voicemail wanting to know if they could “share some news” that might impact someone’s retirement planning.

The truth is they weren’t working very hard to pique the curiosity of their prospects, to arouse their brains, to be different, to give a hint that they truly had something of value to offer and deserved to earn someone’s time and attention. People can hear in your voice whether you are genuinely excited about sharing something, or just following a script, literally or figuratively. Especially if you are trying to sell them something.

I worked with this group on ways to immediately pique a prospect’s curiosity, arouse their brain, take them off autopilot, offer something of value that addresses a pain point, and create an emotional connection that earns someone’s time and attention.

And it worked. Within a month, both their callback – and closing – rates more than doubled. It was a simple change but it wasn’t easy. Habit change isn’t easy. Your brain is wired to continue to perform the same habits that have been serving you in one way or another for your lifetime. You will need to be persistent and change won’t happen overnight, but it can happen with repeated effort.

Take back control

Obviously our brain’s autopilot can be a huge asset. Neuroscientists say it’s one reason why we have survived as a species for so many years.

The key isn’t to deny it, but to actively program it so when your unconscious mental processor kicks in, it’s guiding you to the place you want to go.

To cut through today’s buying clutter, you need to have an authentic, unique and memorable interaction, create emotional connections quickly, and lay a solid sales-forward foundation.

Do some research. Fully understand how to position your solutions in terms of how it responds to customer’s needs or solve their problems. Think about your opening line if a prospect picks up the phone. And what you will say in a voicemail to pique someone’s curiosity.

Be deliberate, planful and mindful about your intentions and interactions. Know yourself, know your audience and know what you want. Put down your script. Disengage your autopilot. And more times than not, your audience will do the same.

And what, you might be wondering, did I ask Tom Hanks with my opening question to get him to put down his script during my interview with him for Forrest Gump?

“Trace the line from Bosom Buddies and Bachelor Party and Volunteers and Turner & Hooch and Joe Versus the Volcano to A League of Their Own, Philadelphia and now Forrest Gump.”

His response, which by the way applies to all of us; “It’s all about who you put in with.” He went on to say that while he certainly improved as an actor, he wasn’t as bad as people said he was in some of those early things, and wasn’t as good as they said he was in these later projects.

“Making movies in Hollywood is a collaborative endeavor, and you’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with.”

An original, unique, authentic, unscripted moment between two people who disengaged the autopilot.