Sales Training: By Good, or by Bad, Example?

I was recently chatting with Mahan Khalsa, as part of an upcoming Trust Quotes Series interview I’m doing with him. I’m excited about it, because his Let’s Get Real Or Let’s Not Play was one of the three Great Sales Books I considered when writing my own. Stay tuned for that interview sometime this winter.

While we were talking, he asked me an interesting question.

“Why,” he said, “did you place the S factor in the trust equation into the denominator as a negative item?”

Here’s what he meant. We could have defined the trust equation as:

(Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy + Other-Orientation)

Instead, we chose:

(Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy)


I had to think about that, including after our phone call. Here’s what I came up with.

I thought a+b+c+d was inherently boring. It raises the question, “why not e, and f, and g?” That kind of model just looks to me like one long string of positive attributes.

But by changing other-orientation—a positive attribute—into self-orientation (a negative one), and flipping it into the denominator, I think we made it far more human. And by human, I mean—we do dumb things. We screw up. In fact, that’s what makes us human, one could argue. (Man is the only animal who blushes. Or has cause to.  Mark Twain.)

So by enshrining that little negative component and very clearly making it a limiting factor on our potential for being trusted, I felt we mirrored something human. There are the good things we have to do—and then there’s the bad things we have to watch out for.

What a Contrarian View Means for Sales Training

I don’t know if Mahan thinks this way, but the natural instinct of a great many trainers is to focus on the positive: to show the model of how things should be done. 

You describe the model; you show how it makes sense; you demonstrate it, you practice it, you focus on refining the essence of it, and you gradually get better and better at it.

I have always felt a little squirmy about that. I just have a predilection to want to know how things fall off the rails, how they go wrong. I’m interested in the psychology behind how we are our own worst enemies, how we sabotage ourselves. This comes, I’m quite clear, from my own inner struggles at how to think and feel about selling.

My first major sales article, Selling Professional Services, was written this way. I just felt that if I couldn’t come to grips with the fears in my own head, I would never be at ease with selling, nor would or should any client be at ease with me. So I wrote about my own fears, assuming others felt them as well.

Enough people clearly did, and that article was the beginning of what became, with much more material, the book Trust-based Selling four years later.

In the sales training work I do, I still reflect this bias. I prefer role-play examples that tend toward the train wreck, because I believe we can all nod knowingly down that path—and when we see how we went wrong, we can conquer that fear.

I prefer sales discussions that focus not on great elevator pitches, but on why elevator pitches make us feel smarmy; that focus not on great objection-handling, but rather on shared objectives. Years ago Thomas Harris wrote “I’m OK, You’re OK.” One of these days I intend to write I’m an Idiot, You’re an Idiot: Let’s Just Get On With It. 

I believe this parallels William James’ views in Varieties of Religious Experience. He described the “once-born” and the “twice-born.” The once-born come into the world religiously, live religious lives of peace and happiness, and die at peace with their god and their religion. 

The twice-born, by contrast, have been to hell and back—and know the difference. Their religion is constantly informed by a sense of grace, because they know how thin is the line that separates sanity and insanity, rich and poor, lucky and unlucky. In case you didn’t gather, I identify more with these guys.

And how about you? How do you like to learn, or teach, sales?  Does it work better for you to focus on the good, the right way to do things, the model of success? Or do you like shining the light under the bed to scare away the sales monsters?  

5 replies
  1. Paul Hebert
    Paul Hebert says:

    Charles – you hit upon a very important psychological principle – we are more influenced by our fears of loss than we are of our potential gains.  In most cases – you can show folks how it is done to "gain" a sale (as you mention in the sales training) and we all can see that intellectually.  However, there is a big part of our brain that is going "what if I don’t do that right, I will fail and lose that sale."  We are all victims of the negativity bias.

    The fear of loss overcomes our desire for the gain.  Therefore we don’t do anything – avoiding the gain and ensuring the failure.  

    I have learned more and done more good stuff because I’ve done the bad stuff in the beginning.  We learn quicker when we fail.

    I think it was the book "How We Decide" that had a bunch of great info on how the brain actually works better when making mistakes.  The book talks about the computer programmed to play chess and it was programmed to measure what it got "wrong" – and ended up beating the then champion chess master.

    Great post and have a safe and happy holiday this week!

  2. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

     Negative learning, especially in sales training, can be a very powerful tool. Initially making mistakes in sales (for most folks) is a key positive element in the learning process because most do gain insight from it. All of us that have sold services know things never go as planned, no matter how hard you work to orchestrate it. Experiencing & making mistakes can be a  great way to learn the craft, aka the apprentice scenario. Role plays in training are a good opportunity to try things out w/a safety net (someone is observing you) but it can only take one so far. Its an artificial situation without the pressure of failure. Having things go "south" and then being able to analyze why it happened, is a valuable process that sticks with you as one moves on.

  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi Charlie,


    Joseph Campbell writes of “the Hero’s Journey” in Hero with a Thousand Face – where he describes 12 stages that a hero(ine) experiences in a type of “birth-death-rebirth” life experience. Many psychotherapeutic approaches use this “journey” as a self-discovery process.

    I was thinking of this as I read your blog this morning and became curious if the sales training experience you point to would be an apt model that incorporates the hero(ine)’s journey experience. For example, here are the 12 steps followed by the sales person’s experience

    1. The Ordinary World of the hero with its suffering, boredom and neurotic anguish. – initial world of sales as it exists now

    2. A Call to Adventure when the ordinary world is no longer endurable and the hero is ripe for change – what would my sales experiences/life be like if I took this training?

    3. Refusal of the Call when the hero is scared, even terrified at first, and avoids the challenge. – uh oh; oh no, role play?; too scary

    4. Meeting a Mentor who acknowledges, supports and spurs the hero onward.  – You, Charlie

    5. Crossing the First Threshold when the hero begins to feel really weird, and gets very scared. – initial experience of watching a role play and imagining what it would be like to participate in one; UGH; waaay to threatening

    6. Tests, Allies and Enemies when the hero feels greater stress and anxiety than ever before, is tempted to pack the whole thing in but finds people who can help, and often a few dangerous ones who can hurt. – initial reactivity after first difficult, challenging, frustrating, maybe embarrassing, role play experience; I’m outta here; but wait, Charlie and his support staff can make this experience safe and do-able!

    7. Approach to the Inmost Cave where the hero glimpses the dark side of his true, hidden self, the side he’s always denied for most of his life. – hmmm, what’s going on “in me?;  what’s my resistance, fear, terror, panic, etc., all about? I’m curious

    8. The Supreme Ordeal in which the hero attempts to use those parts of his true self that terrified and shamed him before. – I’ll do it in spite of what I’m feeling emotionally; somehow admitting of my terror and fear also brings up a deeper strength and courage

    9. Reward for Seizing the Sword when the hero slowly discovers new passion and begins to feel a steady, daily glow from harnessing the power of his true self. – hey, it’s really not all that bad. I’m kinda getting used to it and even liking it! go figure; good for me!

    10. The Road Back when the hero must adjust his new-found passion to the demands of the ordinary world, a trying time for imaginative heroes impatient with bureaucracies and the tedious people who inhabit them. – now on to my  real world; thinking about what will happen there and how I’ll be is a bit daunting.

    11. Resurrection when the hero glimpses his impending death, takes his "What have I done with my life?" exam and grades himself – so, how am I doing with my new found skills, abilities and self-awareness; I’ll give myself a “B in the course of sales life” and I know I’ll survive

    12. Return with the Elixir when the hero shares what he’s learned with younger heroes and heroines in the ordinary world. – becomes a coach, mentor to other sales folks; perhaps even sales manager.

    Just some noodling.

    Gobble. gobble


  4. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Wow!  What great comments!

    Paul, makes total sense, and I had never quite made that connection before.  Thanks!

    Peter, I love the mythic overlay, and the enoblement of sales you offer.  I think it’s very right!



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