The Mind Plays Tricks on Salespeople

Bill Rosenthal

The sales prospect is really friendly. He always comes to the phone when you call and when you visit, he gives you a warm welcome and listens attentively to what you’re saying. You're thinking you'll make a sale. But don't count your commission dollars yet. You might be overestimating the likelihood of getting the business because of what behavioral experts call thehalo effect – the tendency when you like one thing about someone or something to like everything about that someone or something. The halo effect makes you think, mistakenly, that a great guy = great sales prospect.

Salespeople often fall into the halo effect trap. They keep making sales calls on a prospect because they're getting good vibes but they disregard signs that she lacks buying authority, the company's committed to another vendor, the company can't afford what's being offered or a host of other reasons why the prospect should be disqualified.
We all fall victim to the halo effect to some degree. Many people assume, for example, that attractive people are smarter, more successful and more sociable than others. More to the point here, a good seller doesn’t always make a good sales manager but management often promotes stellar salespeople to sales managers, sometimes with ruinous results. Experienced salespeople avoid succumbing to the halo effect by not overvaluing the prospect’s friendliness when evaluating a sales opportunity. But the halo effect is only one of the tricks the mind can play when we’re selling.

‘I Can’t Quit Now’

The salesperson prides herself on never giving up. She’s spent countless hours pursuing the prospect’s business but something always gets in the way of making the sale. I’ve invested so much time on this prospect so I can’t just stop now, she feels. Should she let go and move on to another prospect? To make a sound judgment she has to disregard the investment she’s made thus far.

That’s hard to do because people, especially highly motivated salespeople, don’t like to give up. Behavioral experts call the feeling loss aversion. When it results in continuing investment in a project despite all the evidence showing it should close down it’s called escalation of commitment. To the rest of us it’s known as throwing good money after bad. Lesson: Don’t be afraid to let go and move on.
‘Of Course I’m Right’

The seller is absolutely confident the client’s demands can be met.  But he might have skewed the evidence to support his belief, unconsciously. He focused on information that supports what he thinks and discounted all the other data. He also interpreted ambiguous evidence in his favor. This is called confirmation bias. It affects many decisions in business, in government and in life.

It’s common for us to give more credibility to evidence that’s personally observed than what’s offered by others. We also tend give weight to evidence gathered early than what comes in later. Then there’s the belief that something must be true because everyone believes it. Call it groupthink or the bandwagon effect, it can send the entire sales force in a wildly wrong direction – pursing a declining market segment, promoting product features customers don’t care about or dropping valued services to cut price, for example.
Lessons: Examine why you believe what you do before taking action on it. Beware of making reflexive decisions.

The Lake Wobegon Effect

Like other people, sellers often are convinced their abilities are above average. This can make them overestimate what they can do: I’ll push the order through production. I can crunch the numbers myself. I can fix the problem. But the task is often harder than imagined. People remember their successes better than their goofs.  I’ll be there on time, the salesperson assures the buying committee despite evidence that shows people habitually underestimate the time any task takes.  

‘There’s Only One Last Hurdle’

The salesperson may think there’s only one thing holding back the sale – perhaps approval from senior management. But like any event, stalled sales usually have multiple causes. They might include a competitor’s lower bid, questions about quality or service, or previous dissatisfaction with the company, for example. Experienced salespeople examine every aspect of a sales situation. They probe to identify everybody who will be affected by it – and they recognize that the least powerful person in the most inconsequential department can kibosh it.

Sometimes a seller thinks the offer makes such good sense that only a dope would turn it down. But it’s dangerous to believe the customer uses the seller’s system of logic or frame of reference. Thinking this way is even worse when there’s a culture gap between the two. Lesson: Beware of what seems simple because it usually isn’t.
The tricks of the mind can easily make you lose a sale. We tend to disregard the danger of these tricks because we feel we’re totally rational beings. We’re not.

BillRosenthal heads Communispond, which has taught more than 600,000 people to communicate effectively in any situation. He is the creator of the company’s online, on-demand learning system, LearnTO, that includes modems on meeting a wide range of management challenges.