Sales Self-Sabotage: The Causes and the Cure

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

No sales professional would intentionally sabotage his or her own sales. 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 in the sales world with alarming frequency.

The many ways in which salespeople sabotage their own efforts range from obvious mistakes, such as blaming customers when products and services are not delivered 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.

Two examples of self sabotage are “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 salespeople unwittingly insult prospects and customers every day.

Here is 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?

Salespeople are unaware of the negative impact of dangling insults because they are built into their mindsets during the conventional sales training. 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 interjecting or ending sentences with "you idiot, sir.”

The Old Brain
The manner in which salespeople react to their customers’ responses can open 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, when a customer 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 and 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 his self-esteem and strike back in turn.

Stopping Self-Sabotage
How can we stop sabotaging our efforts? The first step is awareness, since we cannot solve a problem until we recognize it. The second step is to stop behaving like a salesperson and start behaving more like someone who has the 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 doctor explores, measures, evaluates, and communicates the full extent of the patient’s problem. Likewise, if you examine your customer’s situation, the focus should be on his reality, the actual problems he is experiencing. The goal is to raise your customers’ awareness and understanding of the problems they are experiencing and what it is costing them to currently manage the services you would 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, 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 with the tools they need to become 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?)

Like a doctor, a quality diagnosis builds exceptional levels of trust and credibility and 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.

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