Is Anyone Really Buying? Playing Poker and Sales Tells

Salest Tells

Learning how to read people by playing poker can help increase your skills to get better at selling.

I may be one of the world’s worst poker players, which is probably why I get invited to a lot of poker games. I am not a very good player because I cannot keep a passive expression that hides my feelings regardless of the hands I am dealt. I am easy to read visually – gamblers call these “tells,” or inadvertent behavior that may reveal deceptions, intentions, thoughts or emotions. For some people, it could be as simple as involuntarily scratching an itch or even a long stare.

When I have a poor card hand, I am visually disappointed and usually fold my cards early, rarely bluffing – because whenever I do, I lose a lot of money. When I am dealt a good hand, such as a pair, or three of a kind, I am happy, sit up, pay more attention, and stay in the bidding longer. I am not surprised when the other guys fold their hands and leave when I stay in.

My actions give away the strength of my hand and make it easier for my opponents. I know that what I am doing is giving away valuable information to an opponent, but I cannot help it. I do not have what is referred to as a “poker face.” On the contrary, I am very expressive.

Six Selling Tells

Here are six tells that you may encounter when selling and what you can expect from them:

  1. The procurement or strategic sourcing person enters the sales cycle. You have been working with the prospect’s evaluation team for months and suddenly a procurement professional has joined the meetings. This person has also started asking difficult questions, such as pricing, warranties, delivery availability and contractual conditions. Guess what? This is a tell that the prospect has decided on your solution – or at least you are one of the finalists. The bad news is that the procurement person is usually “holding the aces.” The good news is that you are closer to a sale.
  2. The prospect begins planning implementation steps and asking about post-contract issues such as “when can we have the training?” “How can we introduce the product or service into the company with the least amount of disruption?” “When will your resources be available to us?” and so on. This is also a good tell and informs you that you are winning – or may have already won the decision.
  3. The decision has already been made and you lost. The person or persons that you have been calling on and have always been accessible are no longer so. They start ghosting you or avoiding your calls and emails. If you do reach them, they keep the conversations brief – but do not inform you that you have lost. But you have and they are just delaying telling you. Perhaps they have not informed the winner yet and they want to keep you as a second or third option. Or, like many people, they are avoiding unpleasant conversations.  Silence may be golden to some, but to salespeople, we would rather hear the truth. You can ask them what they can share with you and what you need to do better.
  4. “You did a great job for us.” Sometimes your contact starts a conversation by complimenting you on what a good job you did with them. This is a tell that you lost. They are trying to make you feel better by letting you know that they liked you and how you handled them – but you still lost. This is what I call the “but” conversation.
  5. The use of a personal nickname by the prospect. Warren Weiss is a friend who is the managing partner of a venture capital firm and is highly respected in the technology investment community. Warren has an unusual nickname, “Bunny,” that originated in childhood as a term of endearment and is used by many of his friends and family to this day. When he was out on sales calls, he always introduced himself as Warren. But at points throughout the sales cycle, his team referred to him as Bunny. He told me that when the prospect started calling him by his nickname, he knew he had won the deal. Why? Because at that point the invisible barrier that exists that separates the buyer and seller has been lowered and by using his nickname the buyer has indicated that she trusts him and is comfortable with referring to him by his nickname.
  6. Hands on the hips. Standing with one hand on a hip is body language that indicates confidence. This stance is linked with authority and power. The person is telling you that they are in charge, not you, and you need to understand that. On the other hand, if the prospect stands with his or her hand in her pocket, that indicates a casual and nonchalant attitude. That could mean they are very comfortable with you – or that they do not take you seriously.

Reading the Room

Tells can happen with groups, not just individuals. For example, you are presenting to a group of people at a prospect’s office, and you are receiving little or no feedback. They are expressionless, not agreeing or disagreeing with you during the meeting.  I call it the “zombie look.” What does this mean and what should you do about it?

It may be indicative of any of the following:

  1. You lost them. They are not interested and not paying attention. But they want to be polite and not just stand up and walk out. Perhaps they took their cellphones out and are checking messages.
  2. They have already made their decision. But they thought it would be helpful to see what else is out in the marketplace. Unless you come up with something that shakes them up or changes the status quo they will send you a nice “thank you” after the meeting.
  3. hey do not comprehend the material you are presenting. That happens more often than we realize. Sometimes this is due to an agenda that does not meet their needs or through the usage of jargon or acronyms that they do not understand.
  4. They are not a qualified prospect. If so, you’re wasting your time.
  5. They don’t like you or your product or service and are there because somebody insisted on it.

When this happens, it is on you to try to get the audience reengaged with you. I suggest that you stop the meeting and ask them why they seem to be disinterested. Then you can either correct the problem on your end, which can be as simple as adjusting the agenda “on the fly,” or give up and go home.

A good poker player plays bad hands well, not just the good ones. It is the same with exceptional sales professionals.


  • Steve Weinberg

    Steve Weinberg has spent his life selling and helping others sell better, sell faster and sell more. He is an expert at building, guiding, and sustaining high-caliber sales teams, and creating exemplary standards in account management. He is the author of “Above Quota Performance. Learn more at

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