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Sales Self-Sabotage
The cause and the cure.
Posted May 12, 2008
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No sales professional in his right mind would sabotage his own sales intentionally. Nevertheless, self-sabotage -- the act of undermining one's own credibility and alienating the very customers and prospects we count on for our livelihoods -- occurs with dismaying frequency.

The many ways in which salespeople sabotage their own efforts range from obvious mistakes -- such as blaming customers when it's the products or services that are failing to deliver as promised -- to very subtle insults hidden in the things that we say to customers. On the self-sabotage spectrum, it's easy to recognize the obvious "I should have known better" mistakes that damage relationships with customers. The far more common and harmful situations occur when our words and actions insidiously erode the customer's trust and personal credibility that we work so hard to establish.

There are two sources of self-sabotage that cause salespeople to shoot themselves in the foot: dangling insults and the old brain.

The Dangling Insult
We would never insult a customer by suggesting he is incompetent or imply to an executive that she is negligent. The very idea is inconceivable, yet it's a common occurrence and salespeople unknowingly insult prospects and customers every day.

Here's a typical example: A salesperson introduces a solution by saying, "We save companies like yours from wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost..." It sounds innocuous on the surface. Statements like this are standard sales-speak and are often true, but they also contain dangling insults. After all, if you tell a customer that she is wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars, aren't you also suggesting that she hasn't been doing her job very well?

Dangling insults are unintentional. Salespeople are unaware of the negative impact because the insults are built into their mindsets and the conventional sales training they may have received. The salesperson thinks he is delivering a compelling message and connecting to the customer's pain. But, to the customer, it can sound like the salesperson is ending sentences with, "...you idiot, sir."

The Old Brain
The manner in which salespeople react to customers' responses can clear the path to open and honest communication -- or become a primary instrument of self-sabotage. The old brain is not big on interpretation and analysis. It reacts to situations with lightning speed in six ways:

  • attack;
  • submit;
  • flee;
  • reproduce;
  • nurture; or
  • be nurtured.

So how does the old brain affect sales conversations? Continuing the example above, imagine a customer who says, "We're not losing anywhere near that much money." A salesperson might counter with, "I'm sorry, but I think you misunderstood..." This implies it is the customer who just doesn't get it -- a suggestion that often triggers an even more irritated retort. The salesperson is unconsciously engaged in self-protection at the expense of the customer, who will often protect her self-esteem and strike back in turn.

Stopping Self-Sabotage
How can we stop sabotaging our efforts? The first step is awareness. We cannot solve a problem until we recognize it. The second step is to stop behaving like a salesperson -- and begin to behave more like someone keeping our customer's best interest in mind.

A good example would be that of a doctor diagnosing a patient's health. During a diagnostic conversation, the full extent of the patient's problem is explored, measured, evaluated, and communicated. Likewise, if you examine your customer's situation, the focus should be on the physical symptoms of the problems -- that's the customer's reality. The goal is to raise your customer's awareness and understanding of the current situation -- and to make sure the customer grasps the cost of continuing to manage the services you might otherwise provide.

When we are in the diagnostic mode, we are dealing directly with our customers' reality. That is, we are working with situations they have experienced in the past, ones they are currently experiencing, or those they believe they will be exposed to in the future. In fact, our customers may not be aware that these elements or symptoms could represent significant problems that should be addressed. Through diagnosis we can help bring clarity to problems and a way to make quality business decisions.

The challenge for businesses today is to equip sales professionals to be more diagnostic in their conversations. There are three primary objectives to keep in mind during diagnostic conversations:

  1. Uncover the reality of the customer's situation (Do these symptoms exist?)
  2. Quantify the impact of the problem (How bad is it?)
  3. Create the "incentive to change" (Is it serious enough to take action?)

A quality medical diagnosis builds exceptional levels of trust and credibility -- and results in a patient who is ready to take action. In business it means greater differentiation and clarity, customers that respect and trust us, and more sales with profitable results.


About the Author
Jeff Thull is a leading-edge strategist and valued advisor for executive teams of major companies worldwide. As president and chief executive officer of Prime Resource Group, he has designed and implemented business transformation and professional development programs for companies such as 3M, Siemens, Citicorp, and Georgia-Pacific. The author of several best-selling books, including Mastering the Complex Sale: How to Compete and Win When the Stakes are High and The Prime Solution: Close the Value Gap, Increase Margins, and Win the Complex Sale, Thull is also a columnist with Inc.com.


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