Can You Tell the Truth About Being Self Interested?

The other day I was teaching a seminar, and someone phrased the following question:

I understand your point that, in sales, we should pay attention to the other person, focus on their needs, subordinate our own ego, and so on. But I have a hard time squaring that with honesty. After all, I’m in business to make money. They know that as well as I do. Isn’t it disingenuous—even dishonest—for me to pretend I’m totally focused on them, and not on myself?

That’s a very relevant issue to lots of people, and very well stated.

The answer in many ways boils down to one word—timeframe.

If I’m in a romantic relationship for sex, I’d better plan on some dinners, flowers, conversations and companionship on the way there. (And vice versa, by the way).

If I’m going to rely on friendships, then I’d better be prepared to invest in them over time.

If I want to have high energy and good health, then I’d better be prepared to forego the chocolate cake cravings from time to time, and to exercise sometimes when I don’t feel like it.

In other words, the desire for immediate gratification is often the enemy of longer-term happiness. Sad but true. In one study (maybe a reader can help me remember where/when), five year-olds were analyzed according to their ability to defer gratification (“one cookie now, or two in an hour”). Their subsequent lives were then traced over decades. Those kids who chose more later were notably happier, more successful, more stable later in life.

So it is in sales.

If I insist on closing every deal; if I insist on metricizing every little aspect of my sales process and tying rewards to each part; if I am constantly evaluating the discounted present value of the next ten minutes of conversation so as to decide whether to qualify or flush the prospect—then I am not a deferred-gratification salesperson, I am that greedy kid saying “me want cookie now!”

And people react to us accordingly. People who expect sex too early in relationships tend not to get it. People who never invest in their friends lose them. People who can’t resist the extra piece of cake get fat.

Back to my student.

The apparent conflict between self-interest and customer orientation evaporates if we look at the right timeframe. If all I can see at any point in a sales conversation is the likelihood of closing, then I am a “me want cookie now” kind of salesperson.

But if I’m willing to invest in the relationship—to let go the incessant attachment to outcome, to enjoy the ride as well as the destination, to qualify leads occasionally as opposed to constantly, to drive my reward from the total package rather than the quarterly pieces, to live in the relationship not the transaction—then things get better.  In fact, all things get a lot better.

It’s a bit of a paradox: the best short-term results do NOT come from trying to manage the short-term, but from managing in the long term. Your own best sales results come not from trying to sell the other guy, but from helping him get what he wants.

Your own self-interest is truly served by serving the other. And that’s the honest truth–about which you can be honest.

The contradiction is only in how you phrase the problem. Phrase it in the longer term.


5 replies
  1. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    Charlie:  Seems to me, I also recall at least one in a seminar also bringing up  the  type of product and/or service that is trying to be sold as an apparent conflict. " This only works for high end services and /or products, right?  Why should one care when  being paid by the number of transactional sales, ie, a suit, car or watch."  Why care …its called customer service !!!!!!! You don’t win customer respect, loyalty, repeat business or referrals  if you try to jam something down their throats that they either don’t want or need.  Isn’t that the point? The client /customer knows you’re in business to make money. By helping them get what they want & need, even if it means you don’t offer it, is a major differentiator! I may not buy from you today but I will come back.  That said, in our instant gratification society, how sad that many aren’t willing to invest the time & effort for the long-term.

  2. Mark Slatin
    Mark Slatin says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more.  For independents and non-public organizations, this is good news.  Why?  So many large corporations suffer from "quarteritis"; their quest to satisfy the insatiable hunger of financial analysts on Wall Street drive decisions into a moment by moment pattern.  That trickles down to the "feet on the street".  As a former sales manager in that environment, I carried out the marching orders and they are very real.  

    Your point is well taken; it only makes sense to think beyond this sale if we’re interested in a long-term relationship.


  3. Tom "Bald Dog" Varjan
    Tom "Bald Dog" Varjan says:

    I think the other problem is the dreaded commission compensation that inherently encourages hard-selling and making money right now.

    Commissioned salespeople need money right now to buy food and pay the mortgage. Everyone else is on salary, so we have an instant conflict.

    The other point is that nowadays complex sales are made by teams of people, so individual compensation is no longer suitable.

  4. Phil McGee
    Phil McGee says:


    I enjoyed your post about delaying gratification as a means to advance relationships whether in the case of a child and cookies or a sales person and her/his eventual target of more business. 

    I know that you know that I have an extreme tendency to find fear at the root of all deficits of character.  And, no surprise here, the flashing strobes, screaming fear started immediately. 

    I can peer inside the head of the child and read the bold print saying there will be no cookies later and in the sales person saying I must take what I can get now because my competition is right outside and they’re probably better than I am.

    As usual, I believe this fear always says I’m not good enough and they’re going to find out. 


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