Stop Repeating and Start Reading – How to Practice Selling Like a Pro

Can you sink a put like Brooks Koepka or Tiger Woods? Why not? Many salespeople play golf multiple times a week. In some sales jobs, it’s a crucial way to connect with customers. Why then, aren’t more salespeople graduating to the PGA Tour? Surely, if time was an issue, retired people, golfing everyday, would make the Senior Circuit. Perhaps there’s something in the way pros practice that sets them apart? If so, how can we in sales benefit?

Can Salespeople Truly Practice?

Seriously, is there a driving range equivalent to what we do? Is there a place where we can work on specific parts of our approach? The best we’ve come up with is sales training, sales meetings, and actual sales calls. Given the brevity of the first two, salespeople typically have to practice in real sales calls, with real business at risk. And often, in the moment, developing a skill is the last thing on our minds; we want to make the sale.

According to Dan Coyle, author the bestselling book, The Talent Code, expert performers in a variety of fields, grow into greatness with focused-practice, not talent. Sure, we’ll likely focus on skill development at our next meeting (when our manager is looking), but not in the regular practice of our job. For the busy salesperson, the drive for results supersedes the need for growth.

For salespeople, what does growth even mean?

One might suggest the abilities to listen, speak, make decisions, and read non-verbal cues as crucial to sales. These, however, are only manifestations of our skill. If we dug deeper we’d find one skill driving all the others: the ability to think. Grow this skill, and all the others benefit.

It’s been said there are 70-90 variables one can change in a golf swing – a grip change here, a stance change there. A salesperson’s variables, (their skills), are internal. What we say or do in front of customers is a mere byproduct of the beliefs we hold and decisions we make. For people like us, thought hopefully precedes all communication.

How on Earth does one practice the mental skills needed to sell?

One important practice method is what you’re doing right now. Reading is one of the best workouts for the mind. At its base level, reading forces us to make a choice; think about the information presented or go away. The minute we focus on the words and their meaning, the workout starts. In doing so, we build the mental strength to understand, analyze, and solve our customer’s problems. And in sales, the bigger the problem we solve, the more we and our customer stand to gain!

Do hard-working salespeople have the time to read?

Absolutely not, most have administrative work and activity metrics to worry about. Sadly, our bosses may be right, we may have more free time than we realize. For example, many of us fill the gaps between sales calls with things like talk radio, social media, or idle phone chatter. Why not forego ONE conversation or radio program a day and listen to an audiobook in the car? Some of us, while stuck waiting for our next appointment or flight, can read books or articles instead of vegging on People Magazine or cable news. The time is there if we truly want it.

Good news! You’ve already started!

You’ve made it this far. Why not read another article or pick up a book on sales? Then read another. Read until you have opinions on your profession you’ve never had before. Heck, you may even find yourself inspired to write!

The real challenge of our jobs is not how much we can sell, but how much we can learn about selling with the limited time we have. Therefore, the endless loop of call after call is not enough to sharpen our skills.

Agree or disagree you’ve made the right step in reading this. Why not continuing growing your mental muscle by reading more? Who knows? Your competition may be doing that right now.


Being Realistic About Sales Success: A Lesson From Gamblers

One step up to the roulette table and we can imagine our winnings. Who doesn’t want extra cash when on vacation?  Still, do we expect to win?  Do we decide that nothing less than a fistful of cash?  Of course not.  That’s not realistic.  Nobody likes losing but, instead of raging at its unfairness, we accept it. Otherwise, casinos couldn’t stay in business. We knew walking in the casino door that we could, and probably would, lose money.

We’re Not Factory Workers

As salespeople, our mind is often on where we deserve to be, not on where we are.  We see the hard labor we put into selling, and therefore, think we deserve success. We imagine we work an assembly line where one’s work translates into tangible pieces.  We forget that, in sales, there’s no guarantee that anything comes out the other end of our effort.  Therefore, if it’s not us at the top of the year-end rankings, we think a crime has been committed.  Someone has cheated.  These results can’t be true!

We’re All Playing the Odds

Consider a random salesperson, (we’ll call her Mary), and put her in a company that compensates its top 10% of performers highly, and the rest modestly. Not knowing anything about her, what realistic chance should we give Mary to make it into the uppermost group? A statistician would tell us 10%. Still, would knowing her skills, experience, and work ethic change her chances? Based on this information alone, no.  After all, we know nothing about her co-workers!

If that’s the case, why do we expect our own chances to be any different? There are many moving parts to a sales organization: each rep and their motivations, each manager, and hundreds or thousands of customers. Even so, having observed our own work and no one else’s, we expect to top the rankings. Why else are we angry when someone, other than us, achieves success?  That success should be ours!

It’s Time to Get Realistic

Humility is important, but so are realistic expectations.  Unfortunately, the term realism is often looked upon as an excuse for negative people. Ironically, in the place of stress, realism gives us practical ways to move forward and avoid further losses. No, it’s not giving up or admitting defeat. Instead, when we’re realistic about success, we finally open ourselves up to finding it.

All that we can do is hope for the best possible return in exchange for our finest work. Lamenting the luck of others only closes us off to how lucky we are. Many of us leave casinos feeling unhappy about losing. Few of us leave feeling cheated or wronged in some way.

Why?  We walked in the door with a realistic outlook;  we wanted to win, but were willing to lose.


Your Worst Sales Manager – A Survival Guide

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Think about the worst sales manager you’ve ever had.  What about them irked you the most? Did he compare you unfairly with others?  Was no accomplishment ever good enough?  Did she monitor your every move, never allowing you to ever feel in control?

Relax. Put that person out of your mind. You’ve had worse.  

Our worst manager is probably still with us.

Indeed, that jerk that we slaved under years ago may be gone.  But someone more ruthless may have stepped in to take her place.  It’s the one person with the ability to always slip past our defenses – ourselves. 

Our problem is not in handling poor managers, but in being one.

Think about it.  Managers grow frustrated with employees who can’t take criticism. And, we employees despise being crticized unfairly. Yet, as evil as this atrocity is, we freely commit it on ourselves. We search far and wide for managers who don’t micromanage but ironically expect our days to go perfectly to plan.  We hate when the boss plays favorites while, at the same time, we put others on a pedestal as somehow better than we could ever achieve.

Doesn’t criticism make us better?  

No, improvement does. That doesn’t mean all criticism is bad.  When it originates from and is delivered with respect and care, criticism can be life-saving. The problem is in the packaging. When used correctly, criticism is a fire that can forge us like steel. Shame, on the other hand, is a gas can to be thrown on that fire, only more dangerous.  If we allow it, shame triggers our internal tyrant to take over and magnify any criticism to harmful and unproductive levels.

Self-criticism: we don’t wear it well.

Your worst managers (the external ones) may have also been critical of themselves.  Does that make their actions any easier to take?  Humility and self-acceptance, can free our minds to focus on others. Conversley, what good are we doing anyone else when we down ourselves? We may even risk becoming someone else’s worst boss.  

Don’t criticize, Accept.

Upon admitting we have a problem with negative self-talk, we can start the challenging process of accepting ourselves and others. Psychologiy pioneers like Albert Ellis and David Burns have done some life-changing work in this area.  Anyone who lacks the patience to read their books should subscribe to this blog where I often summarize their findings.

Accepting yourself, regardless of faults and mistakes, will make you both a happier and better person.  And yes, this will help you be a better salesperson as well. We may indeed still be our own worst sales manager.  Now, at last, we can do something about it.


Sales Incentives: Love The Game, Not The Trophy

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Many parents, including yours truly, have made the same mistake.  Let’s call it the Ice Cream Effect.  “Score a goal junior, and we buy you an ice cream cone!”, we might say.  Score two and you get a hot-fudges sundae!  Sooner or later, we find our child needs an ever-increasing supply of ice cream (or trophies, or other incentives) just to play the sport.

Why does this happen? Isn’t generous pay for a hard day’s work, an effective tradition? In the short term, yes. When our sales numbers are good and we’re getting praised, we love sales. Can we blame our leaders for dangling trips, bonuses, and other rewards in front of us?

But, hurry and enjoy your sales incentives quick, before they melt away!  Soon, a new fiscal year arrives and we’re back to square one. Impossible objections, indecisive customers, and service issues, they’re all part of life in sales.  All of a sudden, we not in love anymore. Instead, we’re the kid who hates baseball until he hits a home run.  Here’s the problem: to our employers, our job is to sell.  To our customers (you know, the people who pay for everything), it’s to solve problems.  They don’t care how many rewards we rack up.

And, it’s solving problems that gets us the sales we want.  We need to take the leap of faith required to focus on the job itself, not sales incentives, or even job security. Soldiers, who risk much more than a pink slip, want to see live battle.  ER doctors, who can easily handle patients with sinus infections, want to treat traumatic injuries.  These people want to do the hardest parts of their job.

Perhaps we in sales can learn from them.  


Non-Selling Activities: Let the Salespeople Sell!

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Why do we hire salespeople, at great effort and expense, and ask them to do non-selling work like completing reports?

“Because, aside from selling, that’s what we pay them to do,” is the response I’d expect from many a manager.  Still, would you hire a plumber for your sink and ask him to fix a ceiling fan? Even if he agreed, wouldn’t you expect him to get the plumbing work done first?

Just as your Spring lawn looks it’s best when your landscaper isn’t also doing your taxes, salespeople sell more when they’re focused on selling.

If we want salespeople to give us marketing or decision support data, we should pay them for it.  In lieu of money, this can mean lowered sales expectations or increased time off.

Seriously, don’t we have to pay for most goods and services of value?  Non-selling activities take away from what salespeople are hired to do, sell. 


Big Rewards: Why They Make Us Less Happy

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Bigger salaries?  Better commissions?  Bring ‘em on! Whoever coined the phrase “less is more”, was clearly not in sales where rewards reign supreme.

A few years ago, I interviewed for a sales job with a prominent IT company. The realistic pay expectations offered were multiples higher than my current salary.

You can imagine my elation after both learning this AND being put into the company interview process. What would this new lifestyle mean?  A better house, car, or schooling for my kids?  “Be realistic!  The job’s not yours yet!” I would tell myself.  However, a couple of interviews later, I had myself fooled. The job was mine to lose.

Weeks went by with no answer.  Then, BAM!  Hearing the regretful words from the elusive hiring manager felt like a botched skydive. And, on came the guilt.  How could I have gambled away such a bright future?  It was past 9pm with a cold, pouring rain outside.  I went for a run.

On a smaller scale, big sales rewards can have the same debilitating effect.  Managers often want 100% of the sales force to believe they can win a prize given to only the top 5%.  And, who can blame them?  Inevitably, some us take the bait and chase the dream.

Salespeople need to remember that luck is, and may always be, part of our results.  It’s nice to have the opportunity to win big.  We just need to remember the money isn’t ours until the check has cleared.


Outsiders Change Companies, the Rest of Us do What We’re Told

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 “When I’m in charge, things will be different.”

We’ve all thought it at some point. Either we forget or ignore the truth: it takes a hefty dose of conformity to obtain power within most sales organizations.  This diminishes anyone’s ability to enact change, unless they get to the top of the pyramid.  By then, few understand the challenges of the front line.  In your last sales meeting, did the sales managers question policy or promote it?  Yes, there are people paid to offer innovative ideas. They’re called consultants.

Even the noblest among us, when setting out to cure a company’s ills, can become infected.  The status quo is the conscious choice of your current leadership.  Chances are, they’re not inviting you to question it.

Instead, try changing what’s in your power to change:  yourself.  Want your boss to be less critical?  Be less critical of yourself.  Want to have more money? Spend less of it. Want to help others?  

You get the idea.


Want to Enjoy Sales? Think Creativity Before Closing

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Seth Godin (referring to human nature):

“If it’s work, they try to figure out how to do less, and if it’s Art they try to figure out how to do more.” – from his TED Youth Conference talk, “Stop Stealing Dreams

So, by Seth’s definition, what is sales, merely a job or an art? For most of my career, it’s been the latter. Obviously, our quotas and deadlines don’t allow for such silliness. Only recently did I learn that I approached sales non-creatively by choice. Following Mr. Godin’s logic, throughout my career, I naturally did the least amount of selling required. Fortunately, this was not always true. There were times, albeit few, when I liked the job itself, not just the reward.

Surely salespeople can’t be artists? Consider for a moment, that artists, essentially use creativity and skill to express unique ideas. Contrast this with sales, where we find solutions for now and seek to repeat them for other customers. This process works – until it doesn’t.

When a sales solution stops working, tradition is to wait for management to acknowledge the problem and tell us how to revise our approach. As we grow, we learn to use our creativity and communication skills to overcome challenges ourselves. Creativity and skill. Sound familiar? This approach, when effective, can be more enjoyable than copying someone else. Not to mention, it also results in more business and resume-building experience.

Still, it’s easier to grab someone else’s answer to an objection than to formulate one. If being “artistic” in our sales approach is so great, wouldn’t everyone do it all the time? Unfortunately, the following barriers block us from doing so:

Ambitious Insecurity*

Salespeople are often capable of delivering tremendous value, provided they don’t act like box-checking robots. Without knowing it, we can fall victim to the assembly-line mindset. Yes, many of us sell tangible products, but what we work ON, is people. We can’t simply repeat what we say or do expecting the same result from them. Still, we insist on explaining lost sales in terms of adherence to set procedures. As a result, salespeople win promotions based on their deference to current processes instead of their ability to improve them. Even worse, this mentality pervades up the chain of command making creativity a privilege of a high-ranking, ill-informed few.

Learned Greed

The culture of sales overtly uses tangible wealth as a measure of success. The more we sell, the more we make, and the better we are. Therefore, we learn that the act of selling has no value, unless accompanied by money. Again, it’s just a job. To make things worse, American culture pressures parents to have high incomes. We acknowledge the need for family time and communication, and answer it with expensive youth sports and vacations. Ironically, these require us to work more and be away from our families. If we simply raise our tolerance for mediocrity, we may find we’re Ok with not having the best of everything. We may even gain more freedom in the process.


Years spent focusing on survival can change us, if we allow it. Quid pro quo is at the heart of the traditional sales mentality. And, more and more of what we do in sales is measured. It’s no wonder salespeople become calculating in their customer, work, and personal relationships! Ironically, this incessant need for fairness robs us of finding it. It’s a problem of mental real estate. The less time we spend measuring ourselves and others, the more time we have to be creative in our jobs.

Outcome Hyper-focus and Irrational Fear

Are you like most others in believing that earning a lot of money automatically makes you a good parent, spouse, or person? In contrast, some of the most popular historical figures (ie. Gandhi, MLK, Rosa Parks), are known for their bravery in doing something new, for the betterment of others, and not for wealth. If you lost your job today, would you instantly become a loser? If you don’t believe you’re worth more than the wealth you generate, why should anyone else? When we’re free from fear, we’re free to create. It’s that simple.

For better or worse, the purpose of salespeople will continue to be revenue generation. We can’t change how others will measure us. Still, it’s impossible to lose a game we refuse to play. We can let others judge us while we continue to work creatively. Jobs, like salespeople, are replaceable. Artists are unique. Therefore, we can ask more of our current employers and the ones we chose to join. This may mean seeking flexibility and freedom over money.

In order to change the current, perform or die culture of sales we must first loosen its grip on our minds. Let’s release ourselves from factory work and embrace creativity. Sales will be nothing more than a job until we do.


*This an adaptation of the term “Insecure Overachievers” used by author, Laura Empson in her Harvard Business Review article entitled “If You’re So Successful, Why Are You Working 70 Hours a Week?”.

Winners Beware! Why Losing is Better Medicine

“Son, if you ain’t first, yer last!

– Reese Bobby (Father of Ricky Bobby) in Talledega Nights

It’s easy to love winning and envy winners.  That is, until it’s us on the podium.  In the meantime, we like to play the victims of circumstance.  Do we ever consider how much we, as losers, have to gain? 

Consider the following pitfalls of winning:

Winning never lasts

The one thing in common with all wins – in sales, in sports, in career pursuits – is brevity. The victory party may last for days, but it always ends. The money gets spent. The trips get taken.

If winning was measured solely by what is kept for the long term, everyone’s true prize would be expectations. “Nice job! Let’s see it again – only this time faster, better, or more,” is what we eventually hear from others and ourselves.

The immediate aftermath of winning feels a bit like throwing your own birthday party. We seek reassurance from others that our accomplishment is worth celebrating. Many salespeople will attest, the lower the value delivered by a product, the harder one must work to sell it. As I write this, I just finished the third quarter at over 114% goal attainment. High value products, like the one I currently represent, are easy to sell. But, besides being able to pay more bills, what did I accomplish?

Winning helps us deceive ourselves

The most valuable reward I’ve ever received in sales was the permission to think of myself differently. My first good year gave me a clue that perhaps I wasn’t an impostor after all. Maybe I actually had learned how to do this job? Maybe I was even…an expert?

Unfortunately, just as thinking I was an impostor was ironically false, so was the value in being an “expert”. Dr. Carol Dweck, has gotten much well-deserved attention for her research into mindsets. A fixed mindset entails believing that one’s abilities are static. We’re all novices until, one day, we magically become experts. Therefore, the entire game of life is pass/fail. Conversely, a growth mindset comes with the belief that there’s always something new and interesting to learn. Happiness is about remaining a hopeful student and not becoming a disillusioned master.

Winning distorts reality

“There are no moral victories!”, is a common slogan recited by coaches and athletes alike. Eliminating failure as an outcome sounds good in TV interviews and on Investor conference calls. In truth, they might as well say, “I want success so badly that I will use magical powers to get it!” In reality, all the begging and manipulation of 1000 salespeople can’t force a customer to act. Therefore, in sales, failure IS always an option.

Yet, we persist in thinking we have control over others. As a result, we sweat and stress in the name of winning. This hyper-focus closes us off to our own empathy for the customer and problem-solving creativity. While we are busy go-getting, our customers are for-getting both who we are and what we sell.

It’s time to re-visit losing

Winning gets us noticed. It might even earn you a promotion. If you like, it’s the ultimate validation of whatever you did before. So why change? Just keep being an expert! This is the downfall of many salespeople. We can’t look beyond our wins. Instead of improving, we stagnate.

In response to the traditional, closed-minded lust for winning, we can develop a secret crush on losing. This means admitting that the number next to our name on the sales report is an outcome, not an identity. Remove self-judgement, and losing becomes an opportunity to truly learn and become better.


Pharma Rep Confessions – What the Job’s Really Like

Dear Pharma Sales Reps,

Here are my observations from 14 years in the business.  Do you agree?

Six confessions of a long-time pharmaceutical sales rep:

  1. Achievement is highly overrated. I’ve been both in the bottom 15% of rankings and at the top.  I’ve earned bonuses as high as $47k and as low as zero. Every success felt like a lucky break.   I was almost never present when a prescription was being written.  Plenty of doctors told me they were excited to prescribe but never followed through. Others, who I thought hated my product (or even me) became my biggest supporters.  The money is nice, but quickly spent.
  2. Doctors don’t care nearly as much as we want them to.  I’ve sold lifestyle medicines, chronic medicines, and life-saving rescue medicines and it’s been mostly the same.  Doctors typically DO care about their patients.  The drugs they use, however, are like tools in a carpenters hand.  Unless they cause trouble or fail to work, they’re largely an afterthought.
  3. Out of sight, Out of mind.  For many physicians and their staff, their responsibility is to TELL the patient the right thing to do – not to ensure it gets done.  They may prescribe the medicine you sell but give little care to whether or not the patient fills the script.
  4. For the patient and the office, money trumps all.  We reps know this.  Our managers know it too but are sometimes too afraid to say it. Patients don’t see medication as being a matter of life and death until they are in pain or are dying.  Medicines that make them prettier, better in bed, or (sadly) give them a buzz, are worth cold, hard cash.
  5. The only thing that makes you an expert, to management, is your numbers.   Therefore, never get too full of yourself.  We’re all a couple bad quarters from some kind of probationary status.
  6. If you judge yourself using sales acheivement, you will never fully like your job, or yourself.  Whether or not you’ve finally become an expert is a question only you can answer!

Congratulations!  You win the Ritalin award for reading the whole article!  

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