The Shortest Route to Sales is Not the Direct Route

I’m told that the old tale of the frog in boiling water is false.  Supposedly, a frog placed in a pot of cold water will stay put, even when the water is gradually heated—all the way up to the point that the frog itself boils along with the water.

Even if it isn’t true, it ought to be.  Because it’s a wonderful metaphor for the biggest single thing wrong with sales.

The Single Biggest Mistake Made in Selling

Business in general, but particularly sales, has fallen into the trip of “more is more.”  More detail is better.  Greater frequency is better.  More measurement is better.  But gradually, like the mythical frog, the system can produce the opposite of what was intended.

The implicit assumption—increasingly explicit in large systems, projects and sales management tools like—is that if you can break things down into constituent parts, then you can manage the whole just by micro-managing all the parts. 

This is not a dumb idea.  It’s the concept of division of labor; it’s what makes massive projects possible.  There’s a lot to like about it.

But there’s one huge thing wrong with it—the belief that the goal of the process is the sale itself.

Suppose you’re a customer.  Suppose the person selling to you is entirely driven by a system, process, and mindset that their goal is to get you to buy.  Now, if that is their over-riding goal, then by definition, your goals must take second place if there is ever a conflict. 

And oh, yes, there will be conflicts.  With sellers managing zillions of bytes, items, events, meetings, decisions, calls, qualifications, they frequently have to decide–shall we do what the customer wants?  Or what we want?  It’s a no-brainer for the system; make the decision that objectively maximizes the chance of us getting the sale.

By this view—the dominant view of selling—you the customer are an object, a poker chip in a competitive game.  No matter how good sellers are at interpersonal skills or consultative selling, the inescapable point of this approach is that the customer is a means to the seller’s ends. 

You may be thinking, ‘well, duh, that’s the nature of selling!”  Well, no, it isn’t.  It isn’t even the most effective approach to selling. Breaking down the process into innumerable smaller pieces doesn’t fool the customer–but, froglike, it allows the seller to believe he is effectively selling.

The Goal of Great Sellers is Not to Get the Sale

The whole problem arises from the beginning assumption that the goal of sales is to sell.   The really successful salespeople—whether in professional services or jet engines or new cars—realize the paradox at the heart of sales:

The true goal of sales is to help the customer.  The sale is a byproduct of helping the customer—not the goal itself.

The distinction is not trivial; it makes all the difference in the world.  If I as a customer learn that you are willing to put my needs ahead of your own, then—paradoxically—I trust you. 

And if I trust you, I will buy from you. 

That simple logic–you put my needs before yours, I trust you, I buy from you–turns out to yield more powerful sales results than the most elaborate of methodologies all aimed at achieving my needs first. 

The best sales systems/processes in the world are based on breaking down the process of getting a sale.  But in so doing, they break down the one critical element—trust—that drives the most, and the biggest, and the most profitable sales. 

It’s truly a paradox.  The best sales come from consciously not trying to get the sale, but in being willing to subordinate your interests to the customer’s. 

You get the most by trying not to get the most.  The best sales come from not trying to sell. 

Buddhism?   A Beatle song?  Maybe, but also a powerful business model.  And every great salesman knows the truth of it.

The problem is, all those pretty good salespeople are slowly boiling–and not noticing.

13 replies
  1. Michael Holt
    Michael Holt says:

    I am in complete agreement with your words and feelings on this, and have long recognised that an empathic engagement with clients necessarily put their needs at the heart of the transaction.  However, as I reflected on your words married with my own experiences, I couldn’t help but recall some experiences that differ.

    I believe that all you say is valid IF everyone involved in this discourse is rational and methodical. In my experience I’ve had clients that I really did need to push, in their own best interests.  The key to doing this successfully (ie to not piss them off) is to gain their permission, however it may (or may not) be expressed. In other words, they recognise that its in their best interests.

    Sometimes clients in our service area (design) cannot see their own best course, an we flatter ourselves that we can.  In those cases, while avoiding ‘battle’ as such, we certainly believe that we’re seving the client by holding forth on our views and pressing for active engagement, and this will involve our working for fees.  This is never more likely than in times like now, when many firms try to avoid spending on design, but where we might see this as a critical mistake.  However, right now we need the work more than ever and how can that NOT be strongly in mind? Interesting huh? It certainly requires finding that precarious middle path.

  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    Great to hear from you again, wonderful comment, and I also couldn’t agree more.  Having the client’s interests at heart should not be confused at all with being non-confrontational or passive.

    As one natural born salesperson I met years ago said, "there’s nothing wrong with hard-sell.  What’s wrong is wrong-sell.  If I get a customer who doesn’t really need me, I do what they ask, then let them go without much fuss, asking them only to mention me to other clients.  But if they really need, deeply, what I know I can do for them, then I don’t let them out the door until they come to see what I do.  I owe it to them to sell them."

    You’re right, it involves a certain amount of confidence to assert that we know better than the client.  But, often we do.  And in those cases especially we need to watch our motives. That "precarious middle," as you put it, is a critical zone.

  3. Ford Harding
    Ford Harding says:


    If you haven’t seen it, I recommend the new book by Dev Patnaik, Wired to Care, which supports your message with extensive examples.  It’s a good read, too.

    Building on Michael’s comment, one of the biggest issues in sales management is how hard to push the sellers.  Most of us need some pushing to perform at our peak, but push too hard and you may drive undesirable outcomes.  You focus on short-term thinking.  When coaching professionals (lawyers, management consultants, accountants and the like), you can also end up with the rejection of all effort to sell.  This is a tricky matter, because a nudge to one person is a push to another and a shove to yet a third.  Any thoughts about how a salesforce should be pushed in a way that avoids the undesirable consequences your describe?

    Ford Harding

  4. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    I’m sure somebody is going to comment as to how potentially arrogant (as opposed to confident) it sounds to state, "we know better than the client." Be it as it may, the fact is – sometimes we do!


  5. James Boyd
    James Boyd says:

    I could not agree more.  I have been selling – successfully – for more than 30 years.  My simple mantra has been, "Selling is helping people get what they want.  Efective selling is helping a lot of people".  I can’t remember where I was first introduce to this concept, but it has always proven true.



  6. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    I agree with you, Barbara.

    For one thing, IMHO, we professionals don’t have own own answers 100% of the time..or at least I’ll speak for myself…I often don’t have my own answers. And as I become older and, hopefully, wiser, I realize that my answers are sometimes just flat-out wrong. Listening to other wise folks, I can arrive at better answers.

    Too, given that sooo many clients are experiencing frustration, dead-ends, wrong turns, backfiring strategies and the like, their thinking they know the answers and just need a little handholding to "make it work" approach is in jeopardy. My experience tells me that a client’s agenda is often off-purpose but still wants to go down a certain path so they can stay in their comfort zone, i.e., the "unconscious incompetence" first step in the learning experience: they don’t know what they don’t know…sometimes, we do.

    So, for me, the challenge is how to make this relationship with the client personal, mutually supportive, respectful, and not an "I know best so shut up and listen"-type subtle or even overt dynamic so, as you suggest, Charlie, the sale is a "by the way" product of the supporting relationship.

  7. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    Ford: You bring up a good point.

    If a mgr is dealing w/ an organization that only focuses on short-term gain, they have to push hard. They have to separate the weak from the strong to survive. But, that’s commodity selling, not value-selling of professional services. I hate to sound so simplistic and basic but doesn’t it boil down to pragmatic stretch goals, a solid business plan to map out how to get there, ongoing coaching, and the organizational culture to support the appropriate sales mentality & client focused approach.

    You know better than I, but over the years I was amazed at how many professional services firms din’t have the above in place, and certainly don’t have the appropriate coaching/mentoring available. The strategy firms seemed to get it only because they didn’t think of themselves as a short-term commodity business. Thoughts?

  8. Ford Harding
    Ford Harding says:


    At some point it gets down to how hard does the firm push.  At a strategy firm we are working with a client wants additional work.  The managing partner thinks it is an added service for which they should charge.  The client partner thinks it should be done under the current contract.  As a reasonably well informed outsider, I tend to agree with t he managing partner in this case, but it is clearly a  judgement call.  Is working with the client partner on this staff development/mentoring/coaching or pushing sales? 

    Perhaps there are some simple questions we could ask ourselves to decide how hard we should push.   They might start with:

    1>  At the same time as I push my people to sell more, am I making it clear that  the clients’ interests come first and that high integrity is expected?  (I don’t think this  should be assumed.)

    2>  Do the people being pushed know what ways are appropriate to push and what is appropriate to push and what not?  (Again, don’t assume.)

    3>  Are controls in place to catch overexuberant sales efforts?

    Are these the right questions?  Are ther others or better ones?

    Ford Harding

  9. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    Ford: I think they’re about right.  While reading, a thought came to mind about a yardstick and question Ed Pringle (Former Vice Chair at C&L & other firms) always suggested the wannabe partners use whenever they weren’t sure what was the appropriate thing to do . He told them that they would always be faced w/these dilemmas in consulting, and each person had to find their own moral compass. That said, his suggestion to them was always the same, "…before making a decision, think about this – 6 or 12 months from now if you’re asked to appear on "60 Minutes" to respond to questions by Mike Wallace, about the appropriateness of your business decision,  how comfortable would you be telling the world about that decision." That’s the way he always ended the Experienced Manager Program at C&L…the participant response was always similar, they’d be a vary pregnant pause and then a standing ovation. I think its still good advice.

  10. Ford Harding
    Ford Harding says:


    Wise words from a good man.  I am not so much thinking of the ethical issue, as important as it is, as I am of the sales management issue of when pushing  the sellers, whether they are full-time or seller-doers, is counter productive because is encourages ethical but short-term focus on pushing up sales, instead of helping the client/customer, as Charlie described.  I think this is sometimes a  hard and subtle issue.  Barbara, Charlie, any thoughts?

    Ford Harding

  11. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    I agree w/ you on that Ford, it is a hard & subtle issue. That said, as simplistic as it may sound, couldn’t one also use a similar type of approach w/ sellers/seller-doers?  "…Are we pushing that client for this project because its the right thing to do for them & their business, or because they’re willing to try anything, like your "pitch" and it will help you meet your quota?"

    Anyone who has sold "services" knows a push is always needed at times, however what kind of "push" is the question? Sales Mgmt is no different than any form of people mgmt. Which means, sales mgmt isn’t a one size fits all proposition. Everyone needs to be "handled" as an individual. The days of "Glen Gary Glen Ross" are over (thank God).  I may know that John needs a boot in the ass every quarter to get his competitive juices flowing but Mary may need a softer, more mentoring approach, etc. Its the mgr’s job to know her/his people and what makes them tick, what gets the juices flowing and what paralyzes them. The tough part is finding out the levers that make people tick. Thoughts?

  12. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi, Barbara, you say, "Its the mgr’s job to know her/his people and what makes them tick, what gets the juices flowing and what paralyzes them. The tough part is finding out the levers that make people tick."

    My experience says: ask them.

    Mutually explore what their values and motives are. If they are in alignment and sync up with the oranization’s mission, purpose and values, support them to stretch. Where there is mis-alignment, coach them to move towards alignment and together create strategies and action steps that will move them in that direction..

    Ask them, "what’s working for you, any why?" and "what’s not working for you, and why not?" Their answers can tutor a mutually-agreed on process to move forward…like a personal/professional develpment plan.


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