You Can Lead a Horse to Water, but You Can’t Make Him Buy

The biggest problem in sales? Violating the laws of human nature.

Exhibit A: one of those timeless folk-wisdom sayings, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Not many of us have equine interactions these days, but we still get the metaphor: you can’t make people do what they don’t want to do.

Cue Bonnie Raitt’s achingly beautiful “I Can’t Make You Love Me – If You Don’t,” for a Top-40 version of the same wisdom.

Or, if you prefer, try telling a teenager what to do. The same law will present itself.

Seller vs. Human Nature

When you try to sell a client – or, if you prefer, to “persuade” them (or to get them to take your most excellent advice, it’s all the same) – what’s your attitude?

Probably you’re trying your best to add value, to listen, to come up with great ideas. You’re trying to frame issues sensibly, to identify pain points and to clarify objectives and outcomes. All great stuff, of course.

And all the while, inside, not very deep down, your inner voice is screaming:

     “Drink, you damn horse – drink!”

Detach from the Outcome

The problem is, all those linear sales models lied to you. Not the first part – it’s all good, the leading the horse to water part.  The problem comes in making the horse drink.  Because people don’t do what you want them to do.

No need to get all psychoanalytic here, you can test it on yourself. When someone tells you to do something, what’s your instinct? And if they try to dress it up, pretty please with candy, pretending they don’t actually care if you do the thing they want you to do – what’s your instinct?


The trick is simple, really.  Give it up.  Detach from the outcome. Stop being wedded to the horse drinking. Stop obsessing about the sale.

Seriously – let it go. The client will buy, or the client won’t buy.  If you’ve done everything you can to bring the horse to water, then stop at the water’s edge. Let the horse drink.

The amazing thing is, if you do that, the odds of getting the sale go up. Not down, up. To get results, give up control. If that sounds more like a Buddhist mantra than a app, ask yourself which model has been around longer.

Try selling instead from the serenity prayer: change what you can, accept what you can’t, and be attuned to the difference.

9 replies
  1. Bob Whipple
    Bob Whipple says:

    I agree with your article, Charlie. Trying to force a sale is the kiss of death, but you really do have to ask for the sale. You have to ask the horse to drink. If not, the stupid horse may not recognize the connection between your intentions and his well being.

  2. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    The strange truth is that if you ask anybody whether they like to be sold to, they will say no – if fact they hate it. Everyone wants to buy for their own reasons, their own desire – not any sort of sales pitch. Trouble is wee have a whole tranche of marketeers, managers, and trainers who don’t really understand that and want to see the sales team going at it like an aggressive lawyer trying to win the case.

    The best sales guys look more like they are only asking questions and trying to help the client solve problems. To the amateur observer, the big sale seems to be bought by the client, not sold by the sales person.

  3. John Williamson
    John Williamson says:

    I have worked in sales all my life and this was a lesson hard learned. I was often stressed and worried whether I would get the “sale” or not. I often felt like I was saying what I thought the customer wanted to hear. Once I gained confidence in my product and myself, I no longer worried about the “sale”, but about my interaction with the customer. I totally agree with your article and love the analogy that you can lead a horse to water, but you can not make him drink. I know work for RPM Revenue Drivers and their business concepts are aligned with this concept. We are completely transparent with our customers (leading them to the water) and they choose to implement and change their strategies to become better companies.

  4. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    Charlie, A few days late on this one, but my experience is that the fault here is usually with sales managers and VPs of sales. They seek projections to put in powerpoints they can provide to upper management and then put pressure on their salespeople to “go out and get it done” and “be a closer” and “let’s make our numbers for the quarter”, none of which have anything to do with creating trust, relationships or meeting customer needs. Many good salespeople have had potentially great careers damaged by sales management more concerned with managing up than supporting their sales teams in creating relationships.

  5. Ed Drozda
    Ed Drozda says:

    Or perhaps you can do as my blog The Water Trough says: We
    Can’t Make You Drink But We Will Make You Think. Seriously Charlie, your point
    is well taken. In my ideal world a sales person should work as a facilitator-
    helping me when I need it and recognizing my need to be the decision maker.

  6. jb
    jb says:

    I saw a quote once that said that “the purpose of true salesman(woman) is not to lead a horse to water and make them drink but to lead them to water and make them thirsty!!

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