Working Too Hard to Make the Sale

Let’s talk about working hard.

Maybe you think you’re not working hard enough; maybe someone else is guilt-tripping you into thinking so.  On the other hand, maybe you’re worried about work-life balance; or maybe you’re looking for that magic 2-day work week.

These thoughts rest on one definition of working hard: hours spent. I’d like to suggest another definition: mental effort.

If you’re in sales or business development, you’re bombarded with athletic metaphors. Here are two extremes:

  • No pain, no gain
  • When you do it right, it’s effortless.

So – which metaphor is right for sales?

Many respected sales authors will tell you that an essential ingredient in selling – perhaps the essential ingredient– is effort. They call it gumption, attitude, grit, hustle, sweat, get up and go – whatever the word, the message is that success is tough. That’s the “no pain, no gain” message.

By this view, selling is a lot like football: the team that exerts the most effort wins. And there is a lot of truth in that viewpoint.

But consider another truth. Think about hitting a golf ball. As any golfer can attest, the quality of your golf shot is in inverse proportion to your effort. That pleasing “click” of a well-struck iron almost never comes from trying hard.

Instead, the “trick” in golf is not how hard you swing – it’s how smooth, relaxed, and “at ease” your swing is. If you’re swinging too hard, you’re almost certainly doing it wrong. And there’s a lot of truth in that viewpoint as well.

Most dichotomies like this, I’ve learned, are false. Selling isn’t only like football or like golf. It’s both, in different aspects. This article is about just one side – the golf side, if you will, where if you’re working too hard at selling, you’re doing it wrong.

Adam Smith, Competition, and Selling

Blame it on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. The Scottish moral philosopher and economist famously claimed that by the self-oriented struggling of the butcher and the baker, the “invisible hand” of the market makes itself known by balancing out all for the greater good. Out of individual selfishness grows the maximum collective good.

While Smith has been unfairly characterized as arguing against regulation and in favor of unfettered free markets, there’s no question that his powerful formulation rhymes with competition – individuals seeking their own betterment. Ever since, business has been full of metaphors from war and sports – and nowhere more than in sales.

Consider this list for one sport alone: pitch, curve ball, hitting cleanup, bottom of the ninth, pinch hit, get our signals lined up, strike out, bases loaded, don’t swing at the first pitch, home field advantage, double play, we’re on the scoreboard, leaving men on base, pop-up, foul ball, home run hitter, shut-out, and so on.

Here’s the thing about sports metaphors: they’re all about competition. Real Madrid vs. Barca. Yankees vs. Red Sox. All Blacks vs. Wallabies. Seller vs. competitor.

But most of all – seller vs. buyer.

Selling without Competition

It’s hard for most people to even conceive of selling without that competitive aspect between buyer and seller. Isn’t the whole point to get the sale? Isn’t closing the end of the sales process? If a competitor got the job, wouldn’t that be a loss? And why would you spend time on a “prospect” if the odds looked too low for a sale?

When we think this way, we spend an awful lot of energy. It’s hard work – most of it spent trying to persuade customers to do what we (sellers) want them to do. This is never easy (if you have a teenager and/or a spouse, you know this well).

The competitive approach is the traditional, competitive, zero-sum-thinking, buyer vs. seller – the age-old dance that  gives selling a faint (or not-so-faint) bad name. It is one-sided, seller-driven, selfish. This is the football approach – no pain no gain.

Social media, CRM systems, and AI have empowered this approach, even weaponized it. Just look at your inbox, spam filters, LinkedIn requests, and Twitter come-ons.

You have to work hard to sell that way.

The Other Approach

The second approach is different. The fundamental distinction is that you’re working with the buyer, not against the buyer. Your interests are 100% aligned, not 59%. If you do business by relentlessly helping your customers do what’s right for them, selling gets remarkably easier.

All you have to do is just change the whole approach to selling. You’re not in the competition game: you’re strictly in the helping game, with a partner called your customer/client.

You don’t have to think about what to share and what not to. You don’t have to control others. You don’t have to white-knuckle meetings and phone calls, because there are no bad outcomes. You don’t have to relentlessly screen out unqualified leads. You don’t have to practice “handling objections,” because objections are just invitations to further dialogue.

The “trick” is simple: just do the best you can to help the client. Period. Detach from the outcome. Go where the client conversation takes you. Your goal is not to get the sale. Your perspective is long-term success, not this transaction. Don’t focus on monthly quotas, just go where your help is most needed. Just help the client.

If you do that, two results become clear:

  1. You will not get every sale; you may not get this sale; sometimes you don’t deserve to get it, or the goal changes, or it gets postponed – sometimes you may even recommend a competitor;
  2. In the medium-to-long run, however, you will get more sales.

Selling this way works very well for one fundamental reason: all people (including buyers) prefer to deal with sellers they can trust – those who are honest, forthright, long-term driven, and client-focused. All people (including buyers) prefer not to deal with sellers who are in it for themselves, and constantly in denial about it.

If you give them a choice, they will gladly act on those preferences.

This is the golf part of selling: the part where if you lighten up, relax the muscles, let it flow, you end up with superior results. There’s a whole lot of truth to that view. And by that view, if you’re working too hard, you’re not doing it right.