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Sleep Debt: The Number One Sales KPI You’re Not Measuring

December 1, 2020

sleepy worker

As a sales leader, you know how critical it is to get your mix of KPIs exactly right, and chances are you’re always on the lookout for new metrics that can best predict and influence the outcomes you care about most.

However, there’s one KPI that you’re almost certainly not tracking, and it also happens to be the single biggest predictor of your team’s success, both in terms of revenue generation and their overall wellbeing.

It might surprise you, but we’re not even talking about something your employees are doing (or not doing) while on the clock. We’re talking about their sleep. In particular, the amount of sleep debt they’re carrying around.

While it may seem like a nebulous concept to the uninitiated, research shows that high sleep debt negatively impacts not only employee wellness – an idea you might already be familiar with, but also employee performance. And this is especially true for knowledge workers, such as sellers.

So what is sleep debt? Why is it so important? And how can you start measuring it, managing it, and orienting your team around it to help meet your goals? We’ve put together a primer for you here.

Most sales leaders are fluent in the language of KPIs, but so we’re all on the same page, let’s briefly review: 

Key performance indicators (KPIs) are crucial barometers of how well your team is performing, and how well they’re likely to perform in the future. KPIs are a way to quantifiably determine whether sales goals are being met, and they also act as a sort of crystal ball, allowing you to glimpse the future and make predictions--and possibly changes. based on past and current trends.

The former, KPIs that measure outcomes, are commonly referred to as lagging or output KPIs. The latter, known as leading or input KPIs, are particularly salient if your objective is sales growth, as these ones forecast future successes by analyzing the ongoing tactical activities of your sellers – which is critical for understanding whether you’re on the right track with your existing sales motion.

Put another way, sales KPIs are most valuable when they’re actionable. Unfortunately, most sales leaders actually fall short when it comes to prioritizing input KPIs. Only 14% of KPIs are something your team can actually act on. All the other KPIs we’re used to measuring are effectively inert – revealing rather than influencing outcomes.

Lastly, when it comes to KPIs, quality rules over quantity. As many sales leaders learn the hard way, too many metrics will often have an adverse effect on your sellers – not only does measurement overload dilute the efficacy of each individual KPI, it can also lead to analysis paralysis among your team.

While advice for selecting the right KPIs abounds, there’s regrettably no secret sauce or formula for finding the best mix of metrics. We know that every sales team and situation is unique, so we’re not here to pile on by arguing the merits of CAC vs. win rate vs. CLV vs. lead velocity rate, etc.

We're here to alert you to the fact that there's a highly-actionable input KPI that both underlies and transcends all of these metrics and is applicable to every sales team in any context, and it’s also one you’ve probably never even heard of. That’s right, it’s sleep debt.

What is sleep debt, and why is it such a big deal?

Before we get granular about why sleep debt should be your number one KPI, it’s important to first make the case for sleep itself. We all know it’s a non-negotiable – our bodies will go so far as to do it against our will if we resist the siren song of sleep for long enough, but what exactly is going on when we sleep that makes it such an essential component of our day-to-day experience?

This question is one that’s kept scientists and researchers up past their bedtimes for decades, but it’s not all for nil: there are some sound theories that have emerged in this time.

For example, in his book Why We Sleep, sleep scientist Matthew Walker describes at length the gradual process of mental and physical deterioration we endure during our waking hours each day, even going so far as to claim that the very act of being awake is a kind of “low-level brain-damage". Walker posits that the brain’s recycle rate – or the amount of time we’re able to be awake before adverse cognitive effects kick in – s approximately 16 hours. And after 19-20 hours of being awake, your mental capacity purportedly becomes as impaired as someone who’s BAC is over the legal limit.

It’s only during sleep that our brains are able to repair the inherent damage caused by wakefulness. Everyone’s exact daily sleep requirement is different, but nearly all adults fall within the seven to nine hour range. This sleep need is essentially the amount of time that your individual brain requires to complete the critical process of repair.

When you routinely sleep less than this, the untended damage accumulates and the negative cognitive, emotional, and social effects become increasingly grave in both the short and the long term. As a side note, it’s not just our brains that use this time for regeneration. There’s also evidence that things like muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release occur primarily while we sleep.

This is where sleep debt figures in: your body keeps a running tally of all the sleep you’ve missed, relative to your individual sleep need, and this tally – calculated over the last two weeks – is what constitutes your sleep debt. In other words, it’s the quantifiable measure of how sleep deprived you are. The higher this number, the more negative impact on sales performance you can expect. 

The margin for error, unfortunately, is narrower than one might think, fitting tidily inside that “one last” episode of Parks and Rec, studies have shown that even just 16 minutes of undersleeping is enough to impair concentration and increase feelings of stress and instances of conflict the next day.

What’s more sobering is that the vast majority of adults suffer from some degree of sleep debt. A whopping 70% of adults self-report as not getting enough sleep. Add to this that one of the things most acutely impaired by high sleep debt is our ability to recognize signs of our own sleep deprivation. Many of us think we’re getting enough sleep even when we’re not, and so in reality this percentage is likely much higher.

All this to say: chances are extremely good that your sellers are carrying around sleep debt that’s hindering their productivity and performance, even if they don’t feel tired. And the more debt they’re accumulating, the worse the outcomes will be.

How sleep debt undermines sales performance

Sleep lays the foundation for everything we do while awake, and its impact on how we function can mean the difference between success and failure at any job. This is especially true in the case of sales, which requires a rare and demanding cocktail of mental, emotional, and social acuity and agility--all things heavily impacted by sleep debt. Here is what you can expect from your sellers when they’re short on sleep:

Inability to think clearly

Sleep debt deals a serious blow to the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that sellers rely on for the bulk of their skillset. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for crucial faculties like memory, planning, focus, and creative problem-solving, among others, and these all take a hit when a seller is short on sleep. So everything from organizing a to-do list, to being able to readily recall deal details, to handling customer objections on the fly become harder for sellers when they’re sleep-deprived.

Emotional reactivity

Skimping on sleep leads to heightened reactivity in the amygdala, which is the emotional control-center of the brain. Strain in this part of the brain inhibits emotional regulation and impulse control, in particular, and under these circumstances your sellers are not only more vulnerable to emotional extremes, like stress – they’re also more likely to act on these feelings without thinking. 

Social impairment

Sleep debt has profound implications for the relational demands of performant selling, as well. It’s been shown to influence factors like the charisma of a seller, as well as their ability to correctly assess the emotion of a prospect's facial expressions. There’s also evidence that lack of sleep damages our ability to empathize with others, our perceived trustworthiness and may even make us inclined to act less ethically in certain situations – any one of which can potentially deal a deathblow to both new and existing client relationships.

Sleep debt can exacerbate pre-existing mood conditions like depression and anxiety, putting your sellers at risk for bouts of ill mental health, and can also eat away at their confidence, positivity, and emotional resilience. So your underslept sellers are less equipped to bounce back from rejection, and more inclined to let day-to-day worries and doubts get the best of them – hang-ups that can become an absolute blight to seller well-being, job satisfaction, and resultant success.

In the fast-paced, make-or-break world of sales, there’s not a lot of room for mistakes. Effective selling requires peak cognitive functioning, emotional fortitude, and mastery of social interaction at all times, so it stands to reason that when your sellers are suffering from sleep deprivation there’s no way they’re going to be performing at their ceiling - in fact, they’ll be lowering the floor.

Consider too that beyond the bottom line, sales leaders often have goals that aren’t directly related to revenue, but rather to the health and happiness of their employees. The relationship between sleep and overall physical health is well-documented, with sleep playing a key role in immunity, and it’s also hugely determinative of other well-being-related objectives like job satisfaction and burnout prevention.

It’s important to keep in mind that high sleep debt will also undermine your performance as a leader. And for leaders the effects can be even more pernicious. Not only does your own productivity suffer, but the trickle-down effects of sleep debt are very real and very dire. When you’re not getting enough sleep you’re less able to reason effectively, less decisive, and your aptitude for coming up with and executing new ideas is diminished. And perhaps the most deleterious of all, you’re significantly less capable of relating to, supporting, and inspiring others.

Sleep debt has a measurable impact on revenue and other outcomes 

If someone told you there's a way to increase team revenue by 14% without adding headcount, we suspect you'd leap at the opportunity. Well we’re here to tell you it’s really, truly as simple as rethinking the role of sleep on your team – and we have proof.

The effects of sleep debt on sellers detailed above are so all-encompassing, we think it’s hard to see how revenue wouldn’t be impacted by sleep. But for those who need more evidence than sleep research alone can provide, we have real-world findings from an 8-month controlled trial with a F200, with results validated by the Kellogg Sales Institute.

In this trial, sellers were invited to begin tracking and prioritizing their sleep in order to reduce sleep debt. Simple enough, but the results were profound: for those sellers who opted in, outbound activity increased by 50%, and, subsequently, average monthly revenue increased by 14%. If those outcomes weren’t enough, at the end of the trial, job satisfaction among participants had skyrocketed: not only did 95% of sellers report feeling more productive at work, but 90% claimed they also felt genuinely valued by the company in a way they hadn’t prior.

For those skeptical about attributing more monthly revenue to sleep, the study used the causal inference technique difference-in-differences (DID). This took into account market seasonality, new training techniques, new sales enablement technology, time effects of improving as a seller, and selection bias into the program. At the conclusion of the trial, it was clear the amount of sleep the sellers were getting was definitively what was making a difference. As Craig Wortmann remarked of the study, “I’m not aware of any other lever as simple and clean as sleep having as big of an impact on sales.”

If sleep is the single biggest predictor for sales success, why am I only hearing about it now?

This is a legitimate question, and one we hear a lot. We see there being several different drivers behind this general lack of awareness. We live in a world ambivalent towards sleep and ignorant of its importance. This is especially apparent in the workplace, and as it relates to productivity and other markers of sales performance.

The “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mentality is still dangerously prevalent in much of corporate culture and most of us have internalized a reversed notion of the connection between sleep and success, i.e. we see sleep as being at odds with productivity instead of understanding it as essential to realizing peak performance.

When the topic of sleep is broached in the workplace, it almost always comes from HR and is lost in a sea of other “wellness” initiatives. While these agendas are certainly well-meaning, they’re notoriously poorly adhered-to and take a backburner to other company priorities and goals. While historically business unit leaders don’t give these initiatives the attention they deserve (a point we’ll address more thoroughly in the next section), the tide is thankfully shifting in this regard as more and more leaders recognize the treasure trove of benefits that accompany a well-rested team.

We have created (perhaps because of our sleep-related ambivalence and ignorance) work and life schedules that often preclude getting enough sleep. And our lives are rife with further obstacles to sleeping fully each night: things like electric lighting, our “24-hour society,” binge-watchable tv, handheld devices we take to bed with us, etc. Taking all this into account, it’s no wonder so many of us are undersleeping regularly – the cards are stacked against sleep at every turn.

We also have “tools” that purport to not only counteract sleepiness, but misguidedly claim to actually reduce our need for sleep. 

Coffee

Caffeine masks sleepiness, it doesn’t get rid of it. While this can be helpful for cutting through morning grogginess, when we use caffeine to keep our underslept selves buoyed throughout the day, it often means we don’t end up feeling sleepy when we’re supposed to--at bedtime--leading to a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation that can be hard for sellers to break out of.

Sleeping aids

Sleep-promoting medications, contrary to popular belief, don’t promote sleep at all. They’re sedatives, and sedation is not the same thing as sleep. Not only that, but the unconscious, sleep-like state you enter with the use of sleeping aids can actually be antithetical to achieving the real thing (i.e. the kind of true, natural sleep that allows your brain to perform essential regenerative processes described earlier). Which means you might still be racking up sleep debt, even if you’re “out” for the requisite seven to nine hours.

And finally, as discussed in the previous section, the subjective nature of self-assessment makes this a particularly squirrely issue. Since we humans are unable to accurately judge our own exhaustion and resulting performance declines, we can’t be trusted to keep our own sleep debt in check.

Not only do we tend to overestimate how much we’ve slept, we’re also evolutionarily designed to acclimate to our own fatigue over time, but this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still affect us. Studies show that, when sleep deprived, we’re oblivious to increases in sleepiness and declines in performance. We think we’re doing fine, but the numbers tell a different story.

How to orient my team around minimizing sleep debt

Like any other KPI, tracking sleep debt is a great start, but measurement is only half the battle-- you need to put the numbers to work if you want to start seeing real business results. So what does this mean in a real-time, on-the-ground sense? Here we’ll walk you through the steps you need to take from convincing your team, to techniques for tracking, to using this potent new knowledge to optimize your sales motion.

Get everyone on the same page

First you’ll need to reframe the concept of sleep for your team: sleep needs to move beyond just a wellness push and be taken seriously for its performance-enhancing benefits. Making this piece mandatory reading for your team is a good place to start.

Get tracking

After all, you can only manage what you can measure. A tool that tracks sleep debt can be invaluable, since it eliminates subjectivity and human error. Using a tracker that also coaches your sellers on how to reduce their sleep debt and keep it low can be doubly helpful.

Start managing sleep debt by making small changes

Eliminating sleep debt ultimately comes down to a few small-but-mighty changes to your day-to-day. These include both environmental changes (i.e. easy sleep-promoting alterations to your bedroom space), as well as behavioral changes (i.e. tweaks to your daytime routine that are proven to improve both the duration and quality of sleep). Keep in mind that like any sales metric, consistency is crucial if you’re going to see ROI. Here are some ideas for getting started:

Environmental changes

  • Keep it cool: Your body temperature drops slightly as it prepares for sleep, and a cooler room helps facilitate this. We recommend setting your thermostat between 65-68 degrees at night for optimal sleepiness.
  • Keep it quiet: Noise not only prevents you from falling asleep, it can also keep you from sleeping deeply enough for it to be fully regenerative. Closed windows, curtains, carpets, and floor coverings can all help insulate against noise, but we recommend ear plugs to completely seal the deal.
  • Keep it dark: Light tricks your brain into thinking it’s still daytime, which impacts your sleep in a big way. Aim for a pitch-black sleeping environment. An eye mask is a good start, but blackout curtains or blinds are ideal since our skin also has photoreceptors.

Behavioral changes

  • Light regulation: In the same way that light precludes you from achieving quality sleep, it’s also the number one way to get your sluggish brain going. Get some sunlight first thing in the morning to let your brain know it’s go-time. Sunlight also works to calibrate your biological clock and begins your brain’s countdown to bedtime. Outside is ideal, but a window will do in a pinch.
  • Establish a sustainable wind-down routine: The evening wind-down is how you ready your body and brain for bed, and a purposeful, relaxing evening routine is essential for sleep health. Avoid excessive light 60-90 minutes before bed, and limit strenuous or stimulating activities. Things like vigorous exercise, stressful conversations, or video games can all raise our cortisol levels and make us feel less tired than we are. Reading, journaling, practicing relaxation techniques, or spending quality time with family are all good options for winding-down.

Fighting back against sleep debt is a team effort

Making moves to shrink sleep debt throughout your team will have an almost-immediate impact on how each individual feels and performs. By prioritizing sleep you’ll be allowing each seller to unlock their full potential – they’ll become more energized, engaged, positive, and more likely to love what they do.

But the real magic happens at the team-level: by reframing seller sleep as a leading KPI and reducing sleep debt team-wide you’ll see the individual gains aggregate to the level of the business unit, enabling you to meet your sales targets and then some.

Another benefit to instilling this new mentality at the level of the team is that it allows sleep to become a shared language, which helps to reinforce the changes each individual needs to make. New habit formation isn’t always easy, but research shows that accountability helps us move closer to our self-improvement goals.

On a final note, keep in mind that if you’re planning to successfully reframe the role of sleep for your team, it’s going to require that you take this KPI to heart yourself. Your visible commitment to your own sleep will go a long way in inspiring and motivating your employees, and as an added bonus, when you’re getting the rest you need, you’ll be a better leader. A true win-win.

Sleep debt is the game-changing KPI you’ve been searching for

Sales success starts and ends with sleep. The crucial role that sleep debt plays in both predicting and determining business outcomes should be abundantly clear by now, but it’s so important that we’re happy to restate it once more:

When your sellers aren’t sleeping enough, their performance suffers in myriad ways that have a measurable impact on the things you care about most as a sales leader. But luckily the coin of sleep debt has two sides and increasing profit and improving team morale is really just as simple as setting the plan in motion to combat sleep debt across your team. The good news is, you’ve already taken the first step by reading this piece.

By making the reduction of sleep debt a common goal – starting with leadership – your employees will not only be healthier and happier, but you’ll be able to collectively raise the ceiling on what your team is capable of revenue-wise.

While sleep debt might seem like an unconventional choice for a KPI, we promise that once your sellers experience the tangible and immediate benefits that come along with moving sleep to the top of their to-do lists, this new addition to the dashboard will sell itself.

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