Half of What You’ve Learned About Sales is Wrong

Maybe you’ve heard the old line, “Half of advertising dollars are wasted – you just don’t know which half.” Something like that is true in sales – except that you’ve got a much better chance of telling which part to keep.

(Many thanks to Chris Downing and Anthony Iannarino for helping develop this thought).

The Challenge

Take this quiz, based on your own business:

1. I think closing is:

  1. obviously critical to selling
  2. one of the more harmful concepts in sales

2. I think cold-calling is:

  1. a tough, but necessary, and improvable process
  2. to be avoided like the plague

3. I think the customer wants:

  1. a clear value proposition
  2. a relationship
  3. a fast, cheap transaction

4. The critical job of sales management is:

  1. motivation
  2. training
  3. supervision

5. Price should be:

  1. mentioned up front
  2. not mentioned until value is established
  3. not talked about between sophisticated people

Now total your scores: Give 1 point for each a), 2 points for b) and 3 points for c). Now add them up. What does it all mean?

Pretty much nothing, I’m afraid.

It. Simply. Depends.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

We all know this, of course.  B2B is not like B2C. Internal customers are not like external customers. Inside sales is not like external sales. High-ticket items are sold differently than low-price point items. Intangible services are not the same as tangible goods.

We know that.  And yet – an enormous amount of sales advice out there doesn’t make the distinctions.  Here are some examples from page 1 results of Google searches on some terms:

15 Ways to Improve your Closing Ratios.  Probably great advice. For someone. Is it great advice for you? Darned if you can tell by reading the article, because it’s addressed universally.

How to Write a Value Proposition. An excellent article, by an excellent organization. But where does it rank in the scale of importance to your business?

When to Quote Price: Useful information in dealing with “be-backs” (i.e. “We’re just not sure, we’ll be back”). But how important are be-backs if you’re selling systems integration projects?

How to Turn a Relationship Into a Sale. Great advice for an industrial paper business; but do I want the counter guy at Dunkin’ Donuts establishing a relationship with me?

And I could go on; and so could you. I didn’t pick bad articles – those are pretty good ones, some of them excellent. But – they don’t explicitly deal with the relevance of the advice to you.

Fitting Your Size

How, then, to figure out what advice to take?  You might start by characterizing your business across several continuums (continua, if you prefer):

For example, draw five lines (one for each characteristic), connecting the two endpoints:

     a. from frequent to infrequent purchases

     b. from high to low price point

     c. from tangible to intangible goods

     d. from high margins to low margins

     e. from transactional to continuing revenue relationships

Then mark the midpoint for each continuum.

Now – for each issue – on which side of the middle does your business fall?

Now ask yourself – what’s the right answer for the other side of the spectrum? And what’s the right answer for my side? How and why do they differ?


A little reflection can go a long way.  If you’re a law firm, and you’ve figured out you need sales training (which you probably do), don’t go hiring sales experts from retail B2C businesses. If you’re selling web-hosting services, you may not need the world’s best advice on building deep relationships.

Another way to put this might be: if something doesn’t feel right to you – your gut may be telling you something valid. Have enough courage to at least ask questions about it.

Don’t just do what someone who wrote about selling tells you. Their advice might be in the “other half” of sales advice – the wrong half for you.

It depends. On you.

Warning: Don’t Read This Blogpost

Well, well. You saw the title, right?  And yet here you are, reading this blogpost.

Worse yet – you’re probably here reading this blogpost because you saw the title warning you not to. What does that say about you?

We Are All Teenagers

You’re hardly alone. People don’t really ever grow out of our rebellious teenage phase.  You know, the phase where whatever someone tells you to do just drives you in the other direction?

Partly that’s about finding our wings. But mostly, I suspect, it’s about wanting respect from the Others – in teen-hood that’s parents; in adulthood, it’s Everyone Else.

Whatever the reason, I suggest to you: we are all teenagers.  We all do not like being told what to do. In fact, we are sorely tempted to do the opposite of what we are told to do.

Teenage Buying

The implications for sales are profound. Permanent teen-hood means a continual state of resisting being told what to do. It would seem obvious that the worst way to sell someone, the worst way to get your advice taken, the worst way to persuade another to your worldview, is to tell them what they should do/think/believe/buy.

And yet – salespeople everywhere insist on trying to sell us.

The best way to persuade someone turns out to be paradoxical – you mainly listen to them.

That’s right – to best persuade, first stop trying to persuade.  In fact, stop talking. Listen. The natural reaction of our species is then to return tit for tat, listen for listening.

As proof, here are some time-tested samples of folk-wisdom that express the same point more eloquently than I can.

You might even try it on a teenager. It worked for me, and on me.

Why People Take Your Advice – Or Don’t: Webinar

Your client asks you for advice. You know the answer.

Further – let’s assume you’re absolutely right.

You give your client the answer.  And then – your client doesn’t take your advice.

What’s Up with That?

How is it that people come to take your advice? Or don’t?  How is that you take other people’s advice; or don’t?

Variations on the theme:

  • Why don’t my customers buy from me?
  • Why won’t my teenager do what I tell them to do?
  • Why doesn’t my spouse appreciate my well-intended suggestions?

If this interests you, join my webinar TODAY on

Why People Take Your Advice – Or Don’t

It is  TODAY, Wednesday August 8, at 11AM US East Coast Time

Major corporate clients pay me quite nicely to hear what I’ll share in this targeted webinar: you can get it for under $50, and I promise you it’ll be fun and entertaining as well.

The event is today, Wednesday August 8, at 11AM US EST.

I’ll talk about the drivers of trust, and how they relate to reciprocity and soft skills. I’ll tell you which gender and which profession is the most trustworthy, and why – and how that reason drives the influence triggers.

I’d love to see you there. Sign up quickly, the event is

TODAY, Wednesday August 8, at 11AM US EST.

Thank you.

Still Afraid of the Sales Monster Under the Bed?

I was still afraid of the Sales Monster Under the Bed when I was 32.

I was 6 years into my career in management consulting.  It was becoming clear that the road to advancement no longer lay in more expertise. Instead, it lay in what was euphemistically called “business development.”

I was no dummy. I knew what “business development” meant: the dreaded Sales Monster.

Business Development, the Euphemism

You know something’s wrong when people cloak a supposedly reputable activity in the passive voice. If they couldn’t even look you in the face when they said “business development,” it proved they really meant “sales.”  Blech.

I knew I had to do business development.  But what was it?  And what was the least horrific way to go about it?

You know the list:

  • Write white papers
  • Write articles
  • Network
  • Go to industry association meetings
  • Make cold calls
  • Explore existing client relationships
  • Do mailings
  • Send holiday cards.

Holiday cards felt a little intrusive. At least white papers relied on expertise. The other steps were too horrible to contemplate.

The Sales Monster

In retrospect, my fear of sales was self-fear, aided by the intangible nature of professional services.  Lawyers, accountants and actuaries, I later found, all suffered from the same malaise.

It just all felt so personal. I had joined consulting because it seemed a meritocratic society of the intellect. The implied promise was I’d get rewarded for being smart.

That promise was being broken. Suddenly it was personal. Clients weren’t just buying expertise, they were buying me. Or not. That wasn’t just unfair, it violated my belief that content mattered.

Worst of all, of course, was if they didn’t buy. It was hard to rationalize a loss; it meant, ineluctably that They Didn’t Like Me. I understood Sally Fields’ Oscar acceptance speech very well.

Vanquishing the Sales Monster

It took me 15 more years to realize that every thought I’d had about sales was wrong. And it was more a process than an epiphany.  There were a few books along the way that helped:

But it was more life experiences than books that changed my view.  If you come right down to it—I had to grow up.  I had to develop and change as a person in order to understand the keys to sales.

I had to recognize the ultimately paradoxical nature of sales: the best way to sell is to stop trying to sell, and to focus instead on helping others get what they wanted.

Learning the Truth

You cannot learn this truth by reading this blog. Or by reading any book or article. You probably won’t learn it from anyone telling you.  It seems to me that we all learn things the hard way—from our own experience.  And my experience is that hard lessons, negative examples, bad experiences, are better teachers than good ones. Sad but true.

But sometimes, someone can say something in a way that makes it click for you.  It can pull together your own learnings and make a light bulb a little brighter. And that can help a lot.

So, here’s my own Top Twelve list of ways that I found to say something that I found meaningful. I hope one of them can turn on a little light bulb for you.

12 Insights on Trust-Based Selling
    1. Closing the Book on Closing
    2. Handling Sales Rejection Without Becoming a Narcissist
    3. How Sales Contests Kill Sales
    4. I Can’t Make You Love Me If You Don’t
    5. Sales, Narcissism and Therapists
    6. Selling Professional Services
    7. 10 Myths About Selling Professional Services [pdf]
    8. What Clients Really Want
    9. What to Say When the Client Says Your Price is Too High [pdf]
    10. When to Ditch the Elevator Speech and Take the Escalator or the Stairs
    11. Why Nobody Cares About You (and You Should be Glad They Don’t!)
    12. Why Should We Buy From You?  Good Question! [pdf]

If you’d like more help in vanquishing your own sales monster, you can also consult my book Trust-Based Selling (as the Trust-Based Selling print edition or the  Trust-Based Selling ebook for Kindle).

If the Sales Monster still lives under your bed, remember: it doesn’t have to be that way.

Trust, Sales and Getting Real: Interview with Author Mahan Khalsa

Mahan Khalsa is one of the more respected names in the field of complex sales. When I set out to write Trust-based Selling, there were three books foremost in my mind; Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play, Khalsa’s 1999 book, was one of them.

FranklinCovey bought his business, and he went on to head their Sales Performance Group. More recently, he has become the head of Ninety Five 5, which combines sales techniques with change management and the science of expert performance.

A Harvard MBA, he splits his time these days between Colorado and Hawaii.

CHG: First of all, Mahan, thank you very much for speaking with us here today. I have long admired your work from afar, and I’m personally delighted to make the connection.

I want to focus mainly on trust as it relates to sales and business change, but let’s start more broadly. I did not start off in sales, and neither did you, if I’m correct? How did you come to be involved in the field of selling?

MK: My first encounters with selling were painful. I was working my way through college and needed a job, and took a position as a door-to-door salesman. I’ve written about it at greater length but I’ll summarize it by saying one of the happiest days of my life was when I got a job in a factory. I promised myself that I’d never be involved in sales again.

What I had experienced was abusive to both buyer and seller. Both were sullied. I don’t project my personal history on others who have had great experience in sales right from the beginning – or overcame early negative experiences in route to great success. That was just my experience.

I actually made it through college, and found myself the director of a residential yoga and meditation community. We arose at 3:30 a.m. each day, took a cold shower, and did two-and-a-half hours of yoga and meditation. I would have been happy doing yoga and meditating all day long.

However, part of the lifestyle was to take what you gained from your morning discipline and apply it in the everyday world. We had a lot of energy and motivation but lacked knowledge of how to run businesses. To remedy that, I was fortunate enough to get accepted at Harvard Business School, which was nearby.

Following my MBA, I founded a computer systems company. When it came to the moment when we actually had to sell something, that was a crisis and a conundrum. On one hand, it was my company, I felt it was up to me to bring revenue in. On the other hand, my experience in sales had led me to believe that you could be either a salesperson or a spiritual person but not both.

The combination was tricky. There were times I felt very honorable—and failed miserably. There were times I was successful in getting immediate revenue—and compromised my values and probably my long-term relationship with the customer. There were times I thought I had it all together—and still fell flat on my face. Yet eventually, everything started to come together. Not only was I successful at that which I once feared and hated, it became what I most enjoyed.

I thought others might benefit from what I had learned. I designed and taught a course for Arthur Andersen partners, which was successful and over time became the firm’s worldwide model for face-to-face selling.

Luckily, one of my later clients was FranklinCovey. They valued what I brought to the table enough to purchase my company in 1999. It has been an excellent relationship for all concerned. My Sales Performance Group colleagues and I have worked with tens of thousands of salespeople and consultants from some of the world’s most successful companies. The Helping Clients Succeed coursework has been taught in over forty countries in nine different languages. We have coached and consulted on initiatives involving many billions of dollars of sales.

Despite our success something important was missing. Companies weren’t getting as much of the sustained improvement we all hoped for. As it turns out, training, by itself, no matter how good it is, starts fading the moment the trainer leaves. Several of us formed Ninety Five 5 LLC. Ninety Five 5 concentrates on execution and measurable results, using training as only one part of a systemic improvement initiative. We’ve been able to build on the well received content developed with FranklinCovey and produce impressive results with companies willing to move beyond sales training to get serious about real world sales transformation.

CHG: The subtitle of your book originally was, “The Demise of Dysfunctional Selling, and the Advent of Helping Clients Succeed.” What did you mean by ‘dysfunctional selling?’

MK:. I count as dysfunctional those actions and behaviors that ultimately serve neither seller nor buyer. Since most people are both sellers and buyers in their lives, most can fill in their stories of what this means. Put in all the things you hate when sellers try to manipulate rather than serve your interests. Put in all the things you hate when buyers ask you to do things that don’t seem to make sense to either party or that aren’t likely to result in them deciding in your favor or even deciding at all. Put in all the things that detract from rather than aid in producing both the results and relationships to which both parties aspire. Unfortunately, the lists can be long.

Most professional sellers have good intent. They know manipulation and deceit hurt rather than build long-term sales success. They know that building trust is essential to both creating and capturing value. So they eliminate a lot of what would otherwise be dysfunctional—no surprise there. Yet most also consistently engage in actions that are not value adding–for them or for their customers. Even when great intent is present, there is a lot of room for improvement in eliminating dysfunctional behaviors.

CHG: I notice your recent editions changed the subtitle to “Transforming the Buyer/Seller Relationship.” Anything noteworthy behind that change?

MK: The new title goes to the essence of what we are about – creating a substantial improvement in the mutual success and satisfaction of both buyers and sellers. We feel there are ways of interacting that better benefit both parties and that doing so is a good contribution to the kind of world we want to live in.

CHG: I asked Neil Rackham if there was one, over-arching biggest single problem in the field of selling, and he said yes—for him it was the tendency to jump to solutions before having completed the questioning process. Do you yourself find an over-arching ‘missing link’ in the field of sales?

MK: I would certainly rank “pre-mature solutions” at or near the top of my missing links list. Almost all of us have room for big improvements in our ability to “seek first to understand” before we “seek to be understood.” And the challenge is being able to gain access to and skillfully develop that understanding with the key decision makers and influencers, many of whom seem to be hidden away from those who are trying to understand them.

Looking a little more holistically we could say the missing link is the ability to successfully blend excellent inquiry with excellent advocacy – to do a superb job of matching our story to the client’s story. Good inquiry is essential and most often the more undeveloped portion of the balance – and it is still only part of the equation. I’ve seen people get good at inquiry and still not be able to convert on advocacy.

I’ve also changed my view a little bit on what the true missing link is. I now feel the biggest over-arching problem is that 80% or so of all salespeople fail to get substantially better, year after year. They may get more comfortable; they may make the minor improvements they need to make just to stay even. However, as Geoff Colvin states in Talent is Overrated,

“Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started.”

The need for growth in most companies never stops; unfortunately, the growth of sales people does. That creates a “growth gap” that most companies try to fill with quantity (more salespeople) rather than quality (better salespeople). The missing link is not more good stuff, it is getting good at good stuff.

CHG: A fascinating insight. To that point, you have talked about how you integrated sales with change management and the science of expert performance. How did you come to make that connection? And what is the link with sales and change management?

MK: We hold two beliefs that happen to be backed by considerable data, research, and direct experience:

1. Deliberate practice is the key to improvement.

2. A supportive environment is the key to deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice, while not a particularly sexy phrase, is the term commonly used in the science of expert performance to describe the single most common and powerful attribute of top-flight performance in almost any field. It contends that the quality and quantity of mindful practice and application is what separates star performers from the decent, average, and poor performers. (Geoff Colvin’s aforementioned Talent is Overrated is a good read on this topic).

Deliberate practice is not ordinary practice. As Edward Deming once said, “It is not enough to do your best. You need to know what to do and then do your best.” So the quality of the practice and application is as important as the quantity of practice – and the quantity is essential.

What I find liberating and motivating about the research is that everything, repeat everything, we need to do in order to get really good at sales is learnable – if we are willing to practice. It doesn’t have to do with our DNA, our native IQ, our personality type or social style, our years of experience. If we are willing to engage in a high number of repetitions of quality practice we can become as great as we want to be. That’s powerful.

CHG: That really is powerful. I’ve always felt that people’s capacity for change is grossly under-estimated, but I confess I like hearing your scientific tone in expressing that truth. Reminds me of Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule. How can companies encourage it?

MK: If an organization feels a strong need for its salespeople to keep growing their performance, and they see deliberate practice as a key lever to realizing that growth, the next issue is how to align the organization to make deliberate practice a way of life that is encouraged, expected, and rewarded.

That’s where the field of change management or “systemic alignment” comes into play. Leaders in organizations have many levers they can pull that will influence what behaviors their people adopt and apply. Coordinating how and when those levers are pulled is a key to moving a sales force rather than just the top 10 – 20% who will make sure they will grow no matter what is happening around them.

CHG: I like the idea that you focus heavily on beliefs: you highlight five (my favorites: ‘move off the solution,’ and ‘world-class inquiry precedes world-class advocacy’). This focus on beliefs, and on relationships—your subtitle is “Transforming the Buyer/Seller Relationship”—seems to me to have, for lack of a better term, a spiritual bent to it. Am I right?

MK: I would say the focus on beliefs is practical, powerful, sometimes transformational, and for most people, under developed. I might go as far to say that sales is the process of understanding and influencing beliefs, our own and those of others. I’ve not thought of it as spiritual per se, though depending on how someone defined “spiritual” it may have a fit.

Most of us have heard the phrase, ‘people buy based on emotion and justify with facts (or rationale).’ Various neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have given scientific support for this conventional wisdom.

I would modify the statement a bit and say people decide based on beliefs – what they believe to be good or bad, right or wrong, useful or not, meaningful or not important, high ROI or low, and so on. How they see the world through their beliefs determines what they do–which in turn determines the results they get. Those beliefs could be emotional, or based on what a person believes to be fact – whether those beliefs are corroborated by empirical data or not.

For many people, the beliefs that underlie their actions and decisions are unconscious or at least not clearly articulated. And when selling to multiple people, the beliefs may be conflicting as well as unclear. So the better job we do of understanding, articulating the key beliefs the client needs to resolve, both intellectually and emotionally, the better job we are likely to do demonstrating how we and our solution can address those beliefs. Understanding and clarifying beliefs goes to the heart of inquiry and addressing them goes to the heart of advocacy.

Too often both our inquiry and advocacy deal with the so-called ‘facts.’ However, as a University of Michigan study claims, “facts often do not determine our beliefs, but rather our beliefs (usually non-rational beliefs) determine the facts that we accept.”

Or as Annette Simmons claims in The Story Factor, “People make their decisions based on what the facts mean to them–not on the facts themselves. The meaning they add to facts depends on their current story [their beliefs]. Facts don’t have the power to change someone’s story. Your goal is to introduce a new story that will let your facts in.”

So yes; I believe the focus on understanding and addressing key beliefs is critical to helping clients succeed.

CHG: Stephen MR Covey, Jr., author of The Speed of Trust, is a colleague of yours. What do you think is the most powerful point he makes about trust?

MK: I think his most powerful point is that trust can be built on purpose. It doesn’t have to be an accident of circumstance or personality mesh. Trust with others – and in ourselves, for that matter–can be exercised like a muscle. When you apply Deliberate Practice to consciously build trust, trust becomes a reality with more and more people in more and more situations – to the benefit of all concerned.

CHG: Let’s focus on trust. It’s easy to get lost in various permutations of trust, but how do you see trust’s role in selling? In change?

MK: It’s hard to come up with something more original than the obvious – when you have trust everything goes faster, costs less, and produces superior results (usually). Typically, we find that three things flow together, up or down: trust, value, and the flow of meaningful information. If you have two you can usually get the third. Trust is hard to measure, and value is a lagging indicator. However, the flow of meaningful information (beliefs and facts) from the right people (decision makers and influencers) is a good leading indicator of whether trust exists and value will follow.

CHG: Let me just interrupt there, sorry. In my jargon, what I hear you saying is that transparency is a driver for increasing the odds that a would-be trustor will perceive a would-be trustee as trustworthy—thus creating trust. Yes?

MK: A little complex, but yes. As you say, there are many definitions, permutations, elements to trust – it has multiple and complex equivalents. Your trustworthiness equation is certainly a good, well-tested definition. People have to trust that what you will do will really get them the results and relationships they want, they have to trust that you will actually do what you say you will do, and trust that what you do will be performed in their best interests – or that your best interests are best served by helping them get their best interest met, which indeed certainly seems to be the case. Blinding flash of the obvious – to gain trust, you have to be trustworthy.

I think that in inquiry, a key skill is to consciously, with our words and behavior, create a container of safety where people can freely express what they think, feel, believe to be true. And if the container is really strong and expansive, they will allow us to question, examine, and offer alternatives to those beliefs. Most only are willing to do that if they feel the information they share will be used for them rather than against them – they have to trust our intent, our purpose in asking questions.

I sometimes say intent is more important than technique – perhaps another way to express the old axiom that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. The good news is that you can get crystal clear on your intent and how it is mutually beneficial, and you can practice becoming completely congruent with that intent before picking up the phone or walking into a room.

CHG: I find people first want to know the ‘magic phrases’ to use, and it’s really not a matter of words only.

MK: You can communicate your intent without even saying a word. When people can sense that your intent serves their best interests, they are willing to open the trust valve at least a little. If that little bit is rewarded, they can risk a little more, and so on. If the risk is continually rewarded, trust grows. Of course, as you well know, all the hard earned work can vanish suddenly if the bond is broken. So constant attention to language and behaviors is critical – and learnable, and improvable.

As far as the role of trust in change, I feel the key is that if everyone in the organization feels the best way of improving our numbers is to focus first on improving our client’s numbers, the basis of trust will be institutionalized. Jack Welch once said,

One thing we’ve discovered with certainty is that anything we do that makes the customer more successful inevitably results in a financial return for us.”

To create a trust based organization everyone has to believe that our self-interests are served by helping our customers reach their self-interests. When that belief permeates an organization and is backed by action, process, and rewards–not just value statements–trust can become a competitive advantage.

Often, in large organizations, the further away executives are from the customers, the more they focus on salesperson activity or quantity based leading indicators (numbers of calls, number of proposals) versus quality based leading indicators (flow of meaningful information). Perhaps they don’t trust the quality can be improved and that pulling the quantity lever is their best choice. They concentrate on improving the seller’s numbers (high self-orientation) rather than the buyer’s numbers (high other-orientation) and they put into place reward and reinforcement systems to reflect that emphasis. As buyers we can feel where that focus is placed, and ironically, when it is on the seller’s numbers rather than our own, we are less likely to take action to improve their numbers.

Customer focus is not just a tag line. It is a passionate, all consuming orientation that can guide everything we do. Importantly, it helps us stay away from what I called “dysfunctional” selling and push back with both courage and consideration when customers ask us to do–or to not do–things which would help the client succeed.

CHG: You have the ear of a lot of people—some of whom even read this blog! What would you suggest are the top few things people can do as individuals to increase trust in the workplace?

MK: Well, of course before I’d want to give someone any advice, I’d want to make sure they wanted it and would want to understand their specific situation. And I’d want to make sure I was following my own advice before I’d advance it to others. So here are three things I tell myself – and we at Ninety Five 5 tell each other.

1. No Guessing. If people are going to trust you to help them get what they want, need, and value, you have the obligation and right to understand their beliefs as to what that really means. Remember, beliefs are often unclear or not well articulated. If you guess about what they want, don’t have mutual clarity on the outcomes and rewards, don’t understand what has or will stop them, don’t know how they will make a decision, or what resources they will apply to getting a solution that meets their needs, you will likely miss the (undefined) target and trust will suffer.

2. Say it, Do it. Build the power of your word. You don’t have to say, “I promise.” If you say it, it is your Word, and your Word is your bond. If you say it, do it. Period. If you find it is going to be a challenge to meet your word, communicate the difficulty to the other person. Let them agree to a change or say they need you to meet your word. If you need to meet your word, meet it. Period.

3. Be Clear. Be crystal clear on your intent and how it serves the interests of the other person(s)–even as it serves your own. Before any interaction, clear out any internal or external pressures that might cause you to be incongruent with that intent. Let your intent manifest with clarity and congruency through what you say, how you say it, what you look like, and what you do. Be so clear that it becomes easy and natural to be fearless, be flexible, and have fun.

Or maybe just be the kind of seller you would love to have if you were the buyer. One you could really trust.

CHG: A perfect note to end on. Thanks so much, Mahan, it’s been very enlightening.

Handling Sales Rejection Without Becoming a Narcissist

It’s one of the hardest parts of selling—that knife edge space where company revenue stream meets interior personal psychology. It is business, and it is personal.

Most solutions share one problem; they are narcissistic, leading the salesperson to believe it’s all about them.

But it’s not all about you. And the sooner you build that insight into your selling, the better.

This is a topic I wish I had written more about in Trust-based Selling, so I’m glad to amplify it here.

Why Dealing with Rejection Messes You Up

Let’s start with the obvious. If you’re not getting some rejections, you’re probably not taking enough risks. So if you avoid rejection, you’re avoiding risk; which means you’re losing sales.

But that’s not all. If you’re avoiding rejection, on some level you know it. If you know you’re avoiding something, you know you’re not doing what you know you could do; you’re not living up to your own self-image. That soaks up a whole lot of energy; it makes you inward focused and unhappy. None of which helps you as a salesperson.

So avoiding rejection hurts your business, and it makes you feel unhappy. Inability to handle rejection hurts you everywhere it counts.

The Three Usual Solutions to Rejection—and Their Weaknesses

There are three common approaches to dealing with rejection. I’ve given them each distinctive names. They are:

1. Endure it. This approach suggests there is some natural relationship between the numbers of rejections you have to endure to get to the good stuff. If you spin the wheel long enough, your number will come up. Get out there and dial for dollars.

The problem: it’s hard to treat prospects as people if you’re just counting their no’s.

2. Shrink it. This approach says. “It’s not about you, it’s not personal, you shouldn’t feel hurt.” Bring in the shrinks; think your way into not feeling.

The problem: it really is personal, it’s about as personal as it gets–and you know it.

3. Motivate through it. This approach relies on getting you ‘motivated,’ which usually means pumped up, psyched, and able to just play through the pain.

The problem: prospects don’t appreciate being bulldozed.

Why “Handling Rejection” is Narcissistic

All those solutions have one defect: they’re all about managing your psychological response to an issue called “rejection.” But rejection is an imaginary concept—a fiction, a figment of your imagination.

“Rejection” is a belief that if something happened that affected you, then it must have happened to you—that it was about you, concerning you, because of you, etc. And that’s what I’ll refer to as narcissism—a tendency to view everything as being about you.

(Not-so-ancient societies used to believe that the sun and the planets revolved around the earth. There’s a very natural human tendency to believe that we are at the center of our own anthropomorphic universe, our own private Idaho. Much of growing up is getting over this idea, and most of us are only partially successful at it).

Instead of “dealing with rejection” let’s focus on what’s really going on in the real world—the world outside your head.

Curiosity is the Real Antidote to Rejection

Think of selling as a scavenger hunt. On a scavenger hunt, you go off into a relatively unstructured environment, looking for pre-defined items to collect. Of course, you’re interested in winning; but the game itself is fun as well.

In the game, you decide how and where to spend your time. You set priorities, and notice how and what your competitors are doing. There is skill involved in collecting the items. And you often end up in blind alleys when a particular path didn’t pan out for you.

What you don’t feel on a scavenger hunt is rejection. There simply is no such thing. It is not about you; it is just a process involving many people, of whom you are one.

All you need on a scavenger hunt is curiosity. And curiosity is a perfect emotion to bring to sales. Curiosity means you don’t have to ignore your emotions, or play through them, or convince yourself you’re immune to them. Instead, you’re just paying attention to a different set of issues. Let’s call those issues ‘reality.’

In the real world, nothing is being rejected; there are simply solutions and fits, or no-solutions and no-fits. It’s not a struggle–it’s a puzzle. If you’re a good solution to that puzzle and are curious enough, you might solve it. If you’re not a good solution for it, and/or aren’t curious, then you probably won’t.

So where’s ‘rejection’ in all this? In your head. So just stop it.

Three Steps You Can Take to Reject Rejection

1. Make a list of questions you’d like to know about each of your key prospects. Real questions, things you’d really like to learn.

2. Just as you would in a scavenger hunt, keep track of what you’ve learned at each blind alley. You don’t win scavenger hunts sitting back at the office; you learn it going out and finding blind ends.

3. Be alive. Have fun. Keep your ears open. There’s no point in blinding your senses in a scavenger hunt; why blind your emotions in the sales hunt? Just use them to figure out the puzzle.

Did the post-Copernican western world feel “rejected” by the sun when they found out it didn’t revolve around the earth? Of course not–though they probably did feel deflated. But that was just because they were cosmologically narcissistic. You don’t have to be that dumb or that narcissistic.

Nobody can reject you without your complicity in defining ‘rejection.’ Any time you hear ‘handling rejection,’ learn to laugh at yourself for thinking it’s about you–and go back to being curious.

Sex, Lies and Sales

Most salespeople have a complicated relationship with the truth. It’s not hard to understand why, but most of us shy away from truth-telling. Too bad for us. It’s not only misguided—it actually doesn’t work. (And don’t worry, we’ll get to the sex part later).

Take James—a smart, personable man in his 40s. He approached me after a talk I gave and said:

I like all your stuff about how truth-telling increases trust and how that helps sales. But I just can’t do that. I changed industries just over a year ago and I’m competing against guys who have several decades in the business. If that gets out there, I’m dead meat. I just can’t afford to be that truthful.

I’m sympathetic to James. First of all, he’s far from wrong; many buyers place a premium on experience and he’ll lose at least some of those customers. Second, it’s very real. Salespeople operate in the ultimate meritocracy—you can run but you can’t hide from performance.

And yet: James is a liar.

Don’t get me wrong: he feels bad about it. He’s not proud of it. He wishes there were another way and he’ll wiggle quite a bit to avoid having to tell an overt lie.

But see, that wiggling is the lie itself. You’re kidding yourself if you think letting others mislead themselves is materially different from lying.

Lying Destroys Customer Centricity

Think about why James would lie. Think about why you lie. Almost always it’s to get something you don’t have, or to keep something you’ve got. Both of which, let’s face it, are entirely about you. It’s usually fear that leads us to lie—fear that we won’t get what we want if we don’t step in and give the scales a little help.

Companies and their salespeople love to say they are “customer-centric.” But you cannot claim to be customer-centric, and at the same time tell lies to enhance your own interests. And that’s not a question of logic, it’s a question of human behavior—people profoundly distrust those who mislead them.

Why Truth Is More Practical Than Lying

There’s one version of the truth and an infinite number of non-true versions of the same facts. Life is a lot simpler if you only have to remember one version of truth. No more keeping track of various stories, managing selective access to information, and keeping track of white lie cover stories. It all gets very simple when you make friends with the truth.

More importantly, people—including customers—are drawn to those who value truth-telling over snagging the sale. You can trust those people. You do not have to evaluate every statement they make. The natural human response, when we meet people like this, is to trust them. And trust is a powerful driver of buying behavior.

Forget ethics and morals—look at your own numbers. Do you make more sales, gain longer-term customers and more repeat business by:

a. Tweaking the facts to improve the odds in every sale, or by

b. Always telling the truth, believing that honesty will be more persuasive and will attract more future business.

There’s no question in my mind. The paradox of Trust-based Selling is that you best achieve your ends by helping others achieve theirs. Success is not a goal; it’s a byproduct.

To those who say:

“But Charlie, you don’t understand, the vast majority of salespeople out there don’t do that; they bend the truth and work for every transaction and would never give up an edge.”

I say:

You are right. I suspect the majority of salespeople have made themselves into fear-driven liars and have compromised their own success. But the majority is tragically mistaken. You have a chance to benefit comparatively by being a truth-teller. Have faith that customers vastly prefer honest salespeople and will vote with their wallets.

The really great salespeople—the minority—already know this. It’s the average and under-performing majority who don’t.

If you’re still wondering what this has to do with sex, think one-night stands vs. relationships. Lies work better with the first but they’re unsatisfying, more expensive and require endless new lead streams. You choose.

Tell Your Customers Why They Don’t Need You

You probably want your customers to trust you. And you probably tell them the truth about why they should buy from you.

You might think that’s enough for them to trust you, but of course it’s not. Oddly, what’s missing is telling them something about why they might not need you. Here’s why.

Consider these two sentences:

1. If you’re serious about wealth management, then you should consider whole life insurance as part of your portfolio.

2. If you distinctly need insurance coverage in addition to an investment product, then you should consider whole life insurance as part of your portfolio.

The first paragraph is a form of manipulative selling–like the assumptive close (“OK, shall we start on Monday or on Wednesday?”), or inducing a series of ‘yes’ answers (“Now, I assume you want your children to be taken care of, right?”).

Most people get annoyed when asked a question to which there’s only one reasonable answer. And most of us consider being asked that question a reason not to buy from the asker. So–don’t do that.

Instead, ask a question that allows reasonable people to answer differently.

Ask Questions that Allow Buyers to Self-Select

The second sentence is different. It provides information by distinguishing between people who might find value in the product and those who might not. Phrased that way, it not only educates the customer, it allows the customer to make a decision to opt-in or opt-out.

Most salespeople get nervous about questions that allow customers to opt out. Not, however, salespeople who understand the power of trust.

By giving a customer knowledge that permits opting out, a salesperson is putting him—or herself at risk. But without risk, there can be no trust—only control and the illusion of choice.

The reason trust works in sales is because human beings reciprocate when they are trusted. They appreciate being treated as adults, they appreciate not being manipulated and they appreciate being given choices that help them make intelligent decisions.

And they show their appreciation by buying, disproportionately, from those who treat them that way.

Let your customers know why they might not need you.

Closing the Book on Closing

Let’s pull out all the stops on this.

Aggressive, constant closing is just about the worst thing most salespeople can do. Closing kills more sales than it gets, and ruins future sales by squelching relationships. If you still have those old “50 Closing Strategies” books gathering dust, get rid of them. If you still believe in ABC—Always Be Closing—I want to convince you once and for all to stop it.

And sales managers, please read on: because at every quarter’s end, when you exhort the troops to bring the numbers in, all you’re doing is telling them to close. And you are constructing a circular firing squad when you do it.

I’ve had a few things to say about this in the past, not just about closing  but about the paradox of selling,  and about why so much in sales these days works to defeat trust, hence defeat sales.  As Yogi Berra said, you could look it up.

Don’t Take My Word that Closing is Bad: Take Konrath and Rackham’s

Jill Konrath  is a highly-respected author,  sales consultant, and blogger.  She’s even less ambiguous than I am: “I will never, ever train people on closing techniques if they sell to the corporate marketplace.

In Neil Rackham’s perennial best-seller SPIN Selling  , he describes results of research on closing for both low-priced and high-priced goods.

• For low-priced goods, training sellers in closing techniques resulted in slightly shorter sale times, and a slightly increased rate of sale (76% vs. 72%). Meaning—a slight improvement by increasing closing techniques.

• For higher-priced goods, training sellers in closing techniques also resulted in shorter sales transaction times—but it also resulted in less sales—33% vs. 42% before being trained in closing.  

In other words: closing may increase efficiency and slightly improve your results if you’re selling copy paper, and low cost add-on products (“you want fries with that” is actually a good use of closing: take note, McD’s countermen).

But if you’re selling any kind of professional services, or most anything over a few hundred dollars–the better you get at closing, the less you sell!  Oh well, at least you get shot down faster!

Rackham’s data was from a few decades ago.  Do you think closing techniques have gotten more effective, or less effective, in today’s times?  Yup, that’s right.

The Real Culprits: Sales Management and the Training Industry

Salespersons have their own battles to fight. But their job is made immeasurably harder by those who design the sales environments.

Ask yourself, which business strategy works better: one that is executed consistently over a long time period, or one that is given a new endpoint every few months? It’s the same with relationships—business or personal.

In personal relationships, we talk about people who are commitment-phobic, or about players—those looking only for one-night stands. In effect, those are what the quarterly insistence on cleaning up the numbers makes your salespeople.

Following is a quote from a sales training newsletter I received a week ago:

Charles, with only three days to go until the end of the month (and end of the first quarter), it is time to push hard to exceed budgets.

This month we focused on planning and preparation, but it is now tome [sic] for all your hard work to pay off. As it is time to close, we have put up a small selection of articles on our homepage to help you.

Members can log in and search for thousands more articles and resources, including over 40 more articles all on sales closing.

Presumably somebody buys this stuff. But let’s be clear about what it is: the intellectual version of crack. It urges you to give up on long-term plans and relationships, and subordinate them to the siren call of the “here-now.” Worse, it is entirely self-centered—urging the seller to bend the client, and particularly the client’s wallet, to the will of the seller.

Here’s how Neil Rackham puts it: “When salespeople are under pressure to produce short-term results and are being told to get the business this month by whatever means necessary, they pressure customers and this creates suspicion and mistrust.” 

Exactly. So if you’re a sales manager in a business that isn’t small-dollar and ancillary, and if you’re pushing your people to step up the closing at quarter’s end, then you are creating suspicion and mistrust. Which ruins sales in the medium and long term.

Who cuts off their nose to spite their face that way? Besides crack addicts, I mean?

Never mind. Just stop closing. In its place, substitute constant striving to improve results and relationships for your clients. If that feels too vague, then use Jill Konrath’s suggestion: focus on the Next Logical Step.

You’ll sell more. And sleep better too.

Does Closing Kill Sales?

Jill Konrath has a great little podcast titled Closing Can Kill Sales, at  

Right there, you may be tempted to say, ‘oh come on, that’s old hat.  Nobody does that anymore; it’s totally schlocky and manipulative and in (B2B, consulting, telecom—pick your choice) no one does that anymore.’

Well, just last week I came across a sophisticated B2B software/communications company, and guess what they wanted to know: how to close more sales.

They may not be thinking old-school “assumptive closes, constant closing,” or “you want more fries with that?”  But they are still focused, as a critical operational goal, on how to “close more sales.”  Plus ça change…

Jill is refreshingly direct.  Pure Midwest, corn-fed charm, you betcha; and she’s the real deal in person.  She came up the classic way, selling Xerox copiers.  She cut her teeth on the “ABC” rule—Always Be Closing.  But, like Huck Finn, she always felt badly about not being able to do it.

About closing, she is direct: “I hate it.  It always felt like a violation of the way people normally behave.  It’s about manipulative strategies to get people to say yes, and I just hated it.”

She sold a lot of copiers, though.  “One thing Xerox did teach us was to ask a lot of questions, and I was good at that.  I was really trying to find out the business case, and I didn’t know if it was there or not.  So I kept asking so I could find out, for myself.”

What does Jill say to people about closing?  “I say to them, never close; never be closing.  But always advance the sales process.  They need to know the next step, whatever it is, that’s true.  And eventually, you’ll hear a magic word—they start to say ‘we.’ Then, after a while, it’s ‘how do we buy this?”

There are others—Phil McGee is one, I hope we hear from him—who I think might say that’s exactly what ‘closing’ is supposed to mean—not manipulation, just relentlessly exploring questions. 

But Jill is no dummy either, and she’s quite insistent about ‘never close.’  Why the passion?

I think it’s because the word ‘closing’ is encrusted with nearly a century of subtext of control and manipulation.  It is too baked in for the niceties of alternate definitions to have an effect.

Take my B2B software example.  They don’t want old-school scripted trick lines; they think they’re too sophisticated for that.  But they’re kidding themselves.  Just as much as an old door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, they’re looking for a way to get a customer to do what they want them to do—namely buy their product.  They just want it done in a hip, 2009, Sales 2.0, CRM, modern kind of way.

Control and manipulation by any other name is still the same.

The real meaning of Jill’s dictum is deeper, I think.  It means, stop, stop stop trying to force your will on others.  Allow yourself to believe that if you really treat customers well and help them to make the best decision, you’ll get your fair share of that opportunity—and way, way more than that in the opportunities that follow.

For most of us, closing does kill sales.  Paradoxically the best way to sell is to Stop Trying to Sell, and Stop Trying to Close.  Just help your customer.