‘I’m a scientist and sceptic at heart’

Ian Florance talks to Bryan McCrae about his work in the psychology of sales
Apart, possibly, from human resources, sales is the business function most likely to benefit from psychological input, and that’s the area where Bryan McCrae works.

What are you doing now?
I’ve developed an application of cognitive behavioural coaching for sales. If you have mild or moderate depression or anxiety, subject to the NHS postcode lottery, you may be prescribed free access to Beating the Blues, an interactive CBT-based programme which is shown to work as well as face-to-face CBT.

I thought this approach could be applied to developmental as well as therapeutic areas, so I trained in cognitive behavioural coaching and created Sales-Motivations. It helps people who sell to develop their motivation, resilience and ability to cope with pressure, all of which result in higher performance, reduced stress and increased job satisfaction.

I run a business, www.sales-motivations.com, that offers this service, as well as in-person workshops, through a range of partners, which includes occupational psychologists. This development was a collaboration with Dr Judy Proudfoot, who is the author of Beating the Blues, an Associate Professor and Director of the Black Dog Institute. Judy is also an experienced management consultant and this dual perspective was invaluable.

As an integral part of the programme we’ve created three characters: Ben, an entrepreneur; Kate, who works in telesales; and John, a sales professional in his late 40s. We commissioned professional videos and the programme features people and stories, as well as rich interactive multimedia content. Users then apply the techniques to their normal sales activities. People are much more engaged by this approach than a theory-based one.

Do you have personal contact with the people who use the system?
We brief managers on how they can coach, mentor and support their people and then the programme is delivered distantly. People are sometimes sceptical that this new approach works; but it does, and there is a long list of reasons that explain why it is effective.

You also have another stream of business?
Yes. Cognitive Sales (www.cogsales.com) concentrates on sales and marketing performance, mainly with small and medium-sized enterprises that find selling the most difficult area of their work. In fact we’re helping a number of psychologists who have started up on their own.

Tell me about your background
I studied the sciences at school and might have studied science or engineering at university but I was always more fascinated by what made people tick – what made them choose A rather than B. So I studied psychology at Hatfield Poly and was really interested in more scientific areas, such as cognition and neuro-physiology.

Did you think of a career in psychology?
At the time the options seemed to be clinical or psychometric work, neither of which appealed to me. Obviously things have changed since then. I had no firm idea of a career so I decided to try and make as much money as I could while I made up my mind what I wanted to do.

I worked as a programmer on huge IBM mainframes, went into systems analysis and design then got interested in database and systems technology. I was part of a team that worked on a huge integrated project for British Home Stores on their payroll, pensions and personnel systems. It was suddenly cancelled and it struck me as an enormous waste of time, money and energy. I got into sales after working for a software vendor in customer support, followed by pre-sales support. I wasn’t great at it at first but gradually I got the hang of it, became a Sales Manager then a Sales and Marketing Director. I got hands-on experience of managing, coaching and developing teams. We were closing huge deals and I was making big money.

Technology is obviously important to you.
I was always interested in the interaction between people and technology, an area where psychology can offer huge insights. Managing people gave me more experience of this and so did riding motor bikes! I’m a bike rider, and years ago I did an advanced course with the police, which was my first experience of proper coaching. I was impressed with the techniques used and felt that these could be applied to other areas and in my own work.

How did you move into your present role?
Eight years ago I was working for an IT company and I was successfully developing sales into the government sector. There was a change of executive management and they decided to pullout of that area of activity after we’d developed it really well. Once again it struck that I wanted to be the master of my own destiny rather than let someone else control it. I decided to try a portfolio career combining my three big interests: photography, running motor bike tours and sales and marketing consultancy.

As you can see, only one of them actually worked, though I did sell a photograph to a friend!

Psychology seems central to much of what you do.
The foundation of what I do is the scientific application of evidence-based psychology to solve problems. There’s a lot of snake oil around in popular psychology, psychiatry, sales training and business consultancy. I’m a scientist and sceptic at heart, so I demand evidence to back up things I do. That’s part of my differentiation – I’m evidence-based in a field where that quality is in short supply. All of my services are, in effect, scientific experiments. We do something, measure the effects, attempt to   replicate the outcomes, draw conclusions and improve. My education definitely strengthened that preference. It’s why I’ve adapted cognitive behavioural psychology to a novel application area – the evidence base for its effectiveness is so strong.

Are you interested in other techniques?
I’m interested in meditation and mindfulness and plan to learn more about them when I get the time.

Are you a member of the BPS?
Yes, I’ve got GBR membership and was on the committee of the Special Group in Coaching Psychology, but I’m not a committee sort of person. I think the Society could usefully re-invent itself, looking at basic questions about what its aims and goals actually are, who it seeks to address and what it offers them, given the changes in the regulatory environment.

We can’t overestimate the potential usefulness of psychology in areas like sales and marketing nor the need for more evidence-based services. I think we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg in how useful psychology can really be in most fields of life.

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