Woman listening skeptically to the profile of a person looking at her. Title image for Psychology and Sales: Rules of the Road, Potholes, and the Fast Lane

Rules of the Road in Sales Psychology

1. It’s not about you.

Most sales techniques are geared to the needs of the company selling: Overcoming objections, following up, making the ask, implementing scarcity, and getting small “yeses” to get to bigger ones.

These timeless tactics have nothing to do with the needs of a person who is a prospect. People can feel it. Successful salespeople, even when they really want to make a sale, remember that it’s not about them.

2. Do not emotionally rape people.

No means no in sexual interactions, but archaic sales scripts teach that it is a mechanism to keep going.

Sometimes, a person says no to a particular aspect of a sales exchange, and this gives information about what needs to change in the deal to make it appealing to the person who is a prospect.

However, when someone sends verbal and non-verbal signals of “no,” and they are harassed, they feel disrespected and violated. It’s not a great way to build a reputation, let alone make a sale.

3. Prospects are People

Calling potential customers “Prospects” concisely communicates what is happening in the sales pipeline. However, using the word can also divorce people from remembering that they are dealing with humans, not money machines.

In other arenas, language has changed to help people prioritize humans over characteristics. We may say “a person with physical limitations” instead of “a cripple.”..or “a person with mental illness” instead of “a schizophrenic.”

Some people find person-centered language to be overly sensitive or perceive it as a political action. The psychology behind the shift is that when we talk about people as categories or objects, we tend to treat them as such instead of individual humans.

By remembering that “Prospects” are humans, one automatically begins customizing the conversation and process for the human complexity at hand, which increases the likelihood of a successful sale.

How to Avoid Potholes in Sales Psychology

1. Sales Scripts must allow tailoring for individual salespersons.

“I KNOW this script works. If everyone would follow it, they would have better results.”

This common statement reflects the frustration and the assumption that salespeople can get the same results with the same script. The problem is that the person making the statements does not account for personality and emotional intelligence variables that impact the delivery of the script. What sounds organic and genuine to one person will sound fake and strained to another.

Ultimately, getting everyone to follow the same script and assuming it will work is like taking a dress or shirt that looks fantastic on one person and thinking it will look great on another if they are approximately the same size.

What DOES work is training and guardrails that focus on helping sales people understand the customer and the basic psychological tenants related to sales. When people are given frameworks OR scripts with permission to “make it your own,” they will be able to adjust the exchange in a way that feels like a natural conversation versus a script.


2. Commission Structures need to reward the objectives and change when necessary.

In some cases, the wrong customer costs the company money. (SEE THE COST OF THE CUSTOMER) In this case, there is a direct conflict of interest between what is in the best interest of the salesperson versus what is in the best interest of the company if the commission is a simple structure based on the price of the contract.


The Fast Lane in Sales Psychology

1. Define your expectations of “Sales” for both the internal team and future candidates. Use alternate terms where necessary.

A business owner was speaking in a peer group. He mentioned that he had difficulty convincing competent internal employees to assist with sales. They were attuned to the needs of the customers, aware of gaps in the customer journey, and full of ideas that increased customer retention and revenue. The problem is that they viewed “sales” as a dirty word.

Most people have had sales experiences, and from these experiences, they’ve conceptualized what sales means. Yet, the way to sell will vary greatly depending on each customer, regardless of whether it is business-to-consumer or business-to-business sales.

Further, sales strategy will shift according to whether it is a service business, a product business or the mix of the two. In addition, does the business model rely mostly on one-time transactions or repeat sales? All of these factors impact the sales process. When the factors are not well-delineated, it will be difficult to attract, retain and optimize the type of sales talent that is the right fit for your company.

2. Define when you are selling pillows and when you are selling comfort.

People often think they know what they are selling, but sometimes, that is not the actual value proposition for the customer. A sales team was presenting a software product to a healthcare company. They thought they were selling the reasons why their products outperformed their competitors. The harried medical director in the room clearly expressed feeling lost in decision-making. He had a clear idea of his problems at hand, but he did not have the time or bandwidth to become a tech expert in order to make a decision. What the team should have focused on selling, instead of the software, was that they grasped his problem and his overwhelm and that they could clearly connect the dots on how the software would sell his problem. This approach would have given him peace of mind and taken away the overwhelm of decision-making. In return, he would have bought the software.

It is important to note that whether people are selling pillows or comfort may shift according to the potential customer involved in the exchange. However, if the sales team is aware that one product or service may represent different things to different consumers, they can adjust the sales conversation to meet the consumers need rather than what they think they are selling.

3. Ensure that the team has role-play experience with psychological fundamentals, including psychological reactance and advanced empathy.

Advanced Empathy is the ability to take multiple factors of another person’s experience and perceive how they might be feeling. It is a subcomponent of emotional intelligence. It is more complex than sympathy and more nuanced than simply putting oneself in another’s shoes.

The only way to execute the first rule of the road, “It’s Not About You” is to understand and utilize the skillset.

Advanced Empathy can be understood intellectually, but people often flounder in real-life situations. Thus, they overestimate their skillset in using empathy in sales. Role-play is a fast way to gauge the ability to put intellectual knowledge of empathy into a sales approach.

While role-play is annoying and awkward for most people, when dosed with humor, it can be a fun and fast way for team members can see how it “feels” to be on the receiving end of a bad sales conversation as well as how to adjust their own style. 

Psychological Reactance is the most universal phenomenon that occurs in sales situations. Most sales conversations do not account for it, yet understanding and implementing ways to reduce it is a secret weapon for all permission. Like all principles in psychology, it can be used for manipulation or for influence.

Psychological Reactance is basically an emotional response to being told what to do. People hate being told what to do and having their freedom constrained. Everyone understands this at a common sense level, but most mainstream sales approaches violate it repeatedly.

On the other hand, when the phenomenon of Psychological Reactance is accounted for and avoided, consumers are not only more likely to buy, they also will feel more buy-in about their decision, and hence, more excited about the deal.