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?