Bias as Usual: Illusion of Control

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There I stood, spandex clad and heart pounding, at the start line of a bike race.  BAM!  The gun went off and I was going. Call it the ultimate test, me vs. the other riders vs. the muddy trail. Despite all my preparation, I got to the start line late and had to start in the back of the pack.  To make up ground, I put my head down and focused on passing other riders until I was – in the front?  

That NEVER happened before!  I was in CONTROL!  I no longer heard the other riders, just the rush of the air through my helmet and the pounding of my pulse.  That day, I finished a respectable 3rd out of 20 racers.   Despite leading most of the way, victory was snatched from me at the last minute. 

It didn’t matter, from there on, I was hooked! I spent 2 years training and racing to replicate that result.  It never happened.  Later, I learned that another big race took place that fateful day and many of the skilled riders attended it. Sadly, my ability to control a race was a mere illusion.  

Psychologist Ellen Langer named this fallacy the Illusion of Control.  It’s the belief that we control things in our lives that we don’t.  Imagine a gambler thinking she’s “on a roll” and can’t lose or a day trader thinking he can make a stock price rise just by buying shares.  It’s not hard to see their folly.

However, are we able to spot this illusion in our own jobs?  Do we in sales control what our competitors do?  Do we set the purchasing budgets of our customers?  We know these and other factors heavily influence customer behavior but ignore them after we’ve had a good year.  THAT accomplishment came from us alone!  At the same time, when our numbers are sub-par, we point to a multitude of factors out of our control.  And, leadership often suffers from the same bias, no one wants to tell their team a dose of luck may be essential to achievement.

Therefore, we need to acknowledge that control of anything requires time and effort – two resources we MUST use wisely. When we stop straining for things out of our reach we free ourselves to be accountable for the things we DO control – our thoughts, actions, and skills.

Chris Pawar

Bias as Usual: Mistaking Luck for Skill

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As I ascended to the stage for my sales award, I glanced over to my sales manager.  It was hard not to crack a smile. There I was, six months at the company, with the skill to outperform people who were years my senior.

It went to my head. For the rest of that year, I didn’t hesitate to offer my opinion at sales meetings. I was all too happy to help others improve and, you know, be a bit more like me.

Little did I know, I was a text book example of someone with Illusory Superiority.  Otherwise known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, it’s the tendency for unskilled people to overestimate their abilities.  In the years to come, I was to learn what I mistook for skill was a merely dose of good luck and timing. 

Oddly enough, this illusion of internal assessment can take place in reverse. Skilled people often underestimate their abilities compared to others.  Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger demonstrated both sides of the phenomenon and published it in a study. They surmised that experienced people, knowing better their own limits, often take for granted the skills they use every day, ones that others may not possess.

So, how good are you? If your answer is relation to others, it pays to reconsider. You may be exaggerating due to the Dunning Kruger effect. Instead, why not make the unbiased choice to compare yesterday’s you to today’s?

Chris Pawar

The Stoic Salesperson: Want to Feel Invincible? First, Make Peace With Pain

Boxers make peace with pain photo
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The closest thing I’ve ever felt to a knockout punch is a well-timed, customer objection. Like an unseen blow to the temple, it only takes one of them to bring a sale down. While I suspect the pain from an uppercut can linger for months or years, I know the regret from an objection can seem unforgettable.  Just as the only way a boxer can truly avoid a hit is to never step in the ring, the only way a salesperson can avoid objections is to never attempt a sale.

Sure, we don’t like the discomfort and nervousness objections produce, but don’t we feel the same when we watch a scary movie or our favorite team in the playoffs?  Why then do we avoid, or agonize over, the difficult situations that can make us succeed?

There has to be more to it.  A boxer walks into the ring knowing she will get hit hundreds of times and probably feel serious pain.  “I was surprised how much it hurt to get punched,” said no fighter ever.  Obviously, they’ve made piece with the pain well in advance.

What do we really fear?

The key problem to address is not the hit or the objection itself, it’s the pain.  Conquer your fear of it and the punch no longer needs to be avoided.  Similarly, when we can handle or dismiss the sting of objections, we can stop dancing around them.   

I suggest the reason objections can hurt so much is the meaning we give them. Consider the following thoughts:

  • If I can’t answer an objection I risk losing the sale.  
  • If I lose the sale I may not make my sales goal or lose a contest.
  • If I don’t make my sales goal (or lose) I’m a bad employee, parent, person, etc.

Do they sound familiar? Of course, these worries may not be at the top of our mind, but peel back the layers and they’re usually there.

How can we handle the pain?

Stoic’s, like Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, believed all we control is our own choices, actions, and beliefs.  Customers make buying decisions; we do not.  Managers make the only official judgements of sales performance. Again, we do not.  However, feeling ashamed as a result of our job performance, that’s our choice.  Therein lies a true opportunity to change ourselves for the better. 

How can we change?  We can choose no longer to feel anger or shame over events out of our control, like the choices customers and bosses make.  In 25 years of selling, I’ve been layed-off three times.  None of them were pleasant.  Fortunately, I’ve learned to no longer live in fear of failure. I begin every sales call knowing, despite my best efforts, the customer may choose against my product.    

No, I don’t win every sale these days but I win much more now that I don’t fear losing.  I can take the punches, fall down, and get back up.  No one has ever died from an objection. You can be imperfect and still be unwavering or almost invincible.  First, you must make peace with the pain.


Ps. I’ve taken sales questions from over a hundred people. Check out my responses on my profile page on!

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.  


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?”.

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!  

Feel free to comment below or send me a note at with your thoughts.  And, don’t forget to subscribe if you want to hear more!


You’ll Find Me in Cell Block C4 – Spreadsheets and Sales

Yes, they’re an excellent tool for analyzing data. Yes, they give individuals and companies the ability to store large amounts of information, perform calculations, and even spot trends. Yes, our employers probabaly wouldn’t be able to pay our paychecks without them. I am, of course, referring to spreadsheets.

No, spreadsheets don’t hurt people. People do. At some point, we went from using them as tools to inform decision making, to tools that actually make decisions. “I’ll spend the majority of my time with my top 20% of customers”, we might say. “We’ll fire the bottom 10% of the salesforce,” management might say. Like a sophisticated Magic 8 Ball toy, a formula plugged into a spreadsheet spits out a course of action for us and we dutily follow it.

Like all computer programs, spreadsheets cannot function without input. That’s where you and I come in. We take one of the outputs of our work, (ie. net sales, market share, etc.) and feed to the spreadsheet so it can work it’s magic. Unfortunately, magic has yet to be proven to be anything more than artistic, entertaining, trickery. Here are some problems with the way we use spreadsheets in sales. Feel free to add more in the comments section of this post.

Spreadsheets Can De-humanize Sales people and Customers

We humans want to be treated as individuals. Considering only a few data points takes away any unique or relevant details regarding the individual. Intellectually, we all know this but, in practice, we forget it very quickly. According to Cal Newport in his book “Deep Work”, it is scientifically impossible for the human brain to truly multitask. Instead, our focus switches quickly between two or more tasks giving us the illusion of doing more than one thing at once. Therefore, when analyzing a sales report, it is impossible to scrutinize the data and consider the person attached to it at the same time.

To this day, I have my personal breakthroughs quickly reduced to rubble at the hands of a spreadsheet. In response to a record week of sales, I am rewarded with a report sharing how many reps around the country had the same or more sales than I did. Customers don’t fare much better either. We don’t throw reports in their faces. Instead, we treat them only as well as their business potential dictiates. Why? That’s what a formula on our spreadsheet tell us to do.

Spreadsheets Facilitate False Assumptions

Where does data come from? The past. According to Nicholas Nassim Taleb in his book, “Fooled By Randomness”, one of the biggest mistakes humans make when looking at history is assuming everything is due to cause and effect and not randomness. He skillfully points out that even major historical events are the result of random factors. For example, what if Adolph Hitler was born a girl? Given the restrictions on women in Germany at the time, is there any way she could have risen to power, let alone attempted to take over the world? In a more practical sense, managers often assume reps are either unskilled or lazy when sales are low.

Don’t get me started on charts either! I like the visual representation they provide in describing the past. It’s what lies beyond the trend line the spreadsheet never tells you. As someone who has won and lost on the stock market, I can tell you that no trendline EVER guarantees what will happen in the future. When your personal sales trend line is pointing down, you are looking at a picture of the past. You and I only have influence on the future.

Spreadsheets Can Hide Information

Anyone who has used Excel can show you how easy it is to hide rows or columns of data. Once the information is out of sight, it’s much easier to ignore. Often its the data that’s NOT recorded in the first place that is relevant. Try developing a list of key customers without looking at geography and you may miss many smaller targets who have high potential because of some geographic factor.

I had a friend who was a judge tell me once that he did not like video-taped testimony. He felt something could be happening off camera that could be influencing the witness. Spreadsheets, have the same effect. They shout, “Hey look at this information here!” All the while, our focus is potentially taken away from something else that could be more relevant.

Spreadsheets Often Oversimplify the Real World

As sophisticated as we think we are when we use them, spreadsheets force us to limit the way we see the world. Why? Our brains are not wired to take in massive amounts of information at once. Therefore we use spreadsheets to help find that one crucial piece of data or trend. Again, it’s the ‘Hey, look over here’ effect. The dumbing down of our approach makes us susceptible to confirmation bias. This is when we only notice data that confirms what we already think. Daniel Kahneman explores this and many other cognitive biases in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”.

One mostly uh-helpful excercise I’ve had to perform many times in my career is the “Hot, Warm, and Cold” list. “Hot” customers are those we think are close to buying. “Warm” need a little more work and “Cold” are not interested at all in my product. These designations fit nicely into a spreadsheet where they can be sorted. Other than for time management, this information provides little value in advancing sales cycles. Calling someone a “Hot” prospect does not tell me what I need to do next to insure the sale gets closed. Calling someone a “Cold” prospect doesn’t guarantee that I’m not losing business by ignoring them either.

Spreadsheets are no more to blame for these problems than a baby is for a dirty diaper. The real problem is the power we give them – the power to make decisions for us and make us less accountable. Stop confining yourself, your employees, and your customers to numbers in a cell and you just may see your world open up!

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9.13.18 Update:
To date, this my-most viewed post. If you have a second, please leave a quick comment below and tell me just what drew you to read it. Was it the title? What did you think of the content? All opinions are welcome!

Ps. I’d like to put a plug in for Seth Godin’s “Akimbo” podcast. I love his thoughtful and straightforward tone. His thoughts often inspire mine. To check it out on iTunes click here or search for “Akimbo” in your podcast player.
To check out Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Fooled By Randomness” on Amazon, click here.
To check out Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” on Amazon, click here.
To check out Daniel Kaheneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” on Amazon, click here.

Think BACk: Did You Really Just Ask That Question?

BACk is short for “Be A Customer”. Thinking BACk entails thinking like your customer would.
“Telling is not selling! You need to ask questions!”
Sound familiar? The above statement summarizes about 90% of the sales training I’ve ever experienced. Situation questions, problem questions, implication questions, and of course, the elusive need-payoff questions. Thank you Neil Rackham and your fabled “Spin Selling” for transforming me from a glorified product presenter to a would-be problem solver! No sarcasm here. Neil’s approach has probably saved customers countless hours of sitting through unfocused and ineffective sales presentations.
It’s unfortunate that the undying impatience and goal fixation we have in sales causes us to oversimplify and overplay every new idea. If asking questions results in more sales, shouldn’t asking more questions result in even more sales? And out we go to our sales calls armed with questions, questions, and more questions!
Stop what you’re doing!
It’s time to question the concept of asking questions. I propose that every question we ask precipitates at least one question in our customer’s mind. Most likely, that question is, “Why do you want to know this information?”. When the grocery clerk asks you paper or plastic, you probably don’t even think. You just answer. That’s because you know why he’s asking. Now imagine if, while you’re rummaging through your wallet, the clerk asks, “Boxers or briefs?” Failing to address the importance of why they asking is one mistake sales people make with questions. Additionally, we ask too many irrelevant and selfish-minded questions and fail to consider their impact value as statements.
Why are you asking me this question?
Think of the struggle you undertake every day just to get your customer’s attention. When you finally connect, don’t make the mistake of taking their time for granted. You may have won the appointment, but you still have to prove why your conversation is important. Understand that, as your questions get more complex, more effort is required from your listener to respond. If your customer seems confused or unhappy in response to a question, you may want to explain why the answer is relevant to matching your product to their needs.
Of course, this approach requires you to know what information is needed and how to ask for it. If you know that, in order to be a good candidate for your product, your customer needs to provide details, A through D, ask for exactly that information. And, be prepared to explain why you need it. The last thing you need is for your customer to assume you want the information for selfish reasons.
Have a conversation not an interrogation.
Early in my sales career, I used to fear having personal conversations with customers. What if we never get to talk about my product? What will I do? In response, I forced myself to ask sales questions, even when I didn’t really need the answer. What I lacked was a deeper knowledge of my product and my customer. This insight allows you to make your personal conversations more productive and your product conversations more personal. Ideally they are one in the same. Achieving this oneness between the personal and business conversation allows you to have an actual conversation. You know, one in which your attention is in the moment and focused on your prospect, not on what you’re going to say next.
This is precisely why asking clients about their “top five initiatives for the year” or “three biggest challenges” go over well in sales training but not in real life. Sure, if someone honestly answered, you would get good information. If your the customer, you gain virtually nothing from answering it. Sorry high level account managers, the CEO of the hospital system probably doesn’t think the bed pans you sell warrant an explanation of his five year growth plan. Feeling interrogated tells your customer they are wasting precious time for your benefit.
Your Question Makes A Statement.
If you don’t think so, try asking your spouse, “When are you going to lose weight?” It’s great that you know the problems your product can solve. Just be aware, the executive you’re about to call on may not be keen on admitting that they even have a problem. Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, in their book, “The Challenger Sale”, advocate an approach using new information to shock customers into acknowledging new problems. While a wake up call may be in order for some of your customers, keep in mind that the book has been out since 2011. Customers may be getting wise to it’s tactics. If you can take control of the conversation in a respectful way and it serves their interests as well as yours, go for it! Just keep in mind you will never control your customer.
The problem with sales techniques is they are, by definition, techniques. They’re an artificial way to manipulate a conversation. In order to execute any sales tactic in a conversation, you must devote extra energy. Try being real instead. If you need to know something in order to assist your customer, by all means, ask. When you honestly want to help them it will show through in your demeanor. Conversely, acting in the role of sales person forces the customer to act in the role of customer. Neither actor gets as much done as two real people talking.