3 Instincts that Sabotage Selling

In 1999, one of our most beloved Americans, JFK Jr., tragically died in an airplane crash. What was most disturbing to me was how easily it could have been avoided. He had what pilots refer to as vertigo. Due to thick cloud cover, pilots can get disoriented, believing up is down and down is up. While trying to gain altitude, he flew his plane into the ocean 7.5 miles west of Martha’s Vineyard. 

He was betrayed by his instincts.

I remember being shaken by his death. How could this happen? I realized that we all have the potential of being sabotaged by our instinct – the convincing, gravitational pull that can lead us in the wrong direction. 

Putting ourselves first ultimately keeps us from getting what we need.

Following our heart’s desire often leads to a broken heart.

Tightening our grip on the relationship we care about the most can drive that person away.

I’ve often thought about this as it relates to selling. What instincts sabotage our ability to hit our number? After being on the front lines and working with sellers for over 40 years, I’ve recognized the three most common destructive instincts — ones that convince us we are “gaining altitude” but in fact, are sabotaging our ability to reach our destination.


Instinct #1Message > Receptivity to The Message

Maybe an opportunity is stalled, you need to win more deals, or maybe you’re struggling to expand your footprint within existing accounts. The natural response: tell a better story, pump up our value proposition, or differentiate your solution. Our instincts lead to crafting a better message. Make a better argument and we will “win the case.” 

Our intuition tells us that anytime we need to change beliefs, the best logic wins. As if the same rules apply on the street as they do in court. They don’t, and here’s why:

  • Behavioral psychologists have proven, when someone is emotionally closed, trying to persuade or change their point of view not only doesn’t work, it increases the resistance to change. The more you try to persuade, the more closed the listener becomes.
  • While a better message will work on those who are open to a new way of thinking, it will backfire on the rapidly growing percentage of unreceptive customers.

The solution is to think like a farmer. Hear me out.

There are two dimensions to growing a successful crop: fertile soil and a quality seed. Where does the farmer start? The soil. Because, as one orange farmer from California told me, “If the soil ain’t fertile, the seed don’t matter.”

The same truth applies when selling. If the customer is unreceptive, your message, the “seed,” doesn’t matter. And with customers’ receptivity plummeting, declining 120% in the last 3 years, we need to hit the brakes as sellers and move against the flow of conventional thinking. Until the “soil is fertile,” we need to stop selling and focus on cultivating receptivity.  


It starts with asking some sobering questions:

  • Do we provide a better understanding of the customer’s specific challenges and offer better intelligence on how to solve their problem than our greatest competitor – Google? 
  • Do we offer only one option – our solution? 
  • Is our goal to make a commission from this sale or genuinely serve this customer?
  • Is the plan to leverage technology to increase efficiency without assessing why more effort is required to hit your number? 

Answering these questions opens the door to thinking about influence in a new way. When we shift our focus from our ability to communicate to the customer’s willingness to listen, we have the opportunity to develop a new mindset and skill set. This is necessary if we want to win over the majority of customers who aren’t open to being sold. 


Instinct #2 – Take Control

When attempting to sell our influence, we can’t take anything. The opportunity to influence another human being, especially when they have an opposing point of view, must be freely given to us by them.

Instead, proactively lead the customer to the best solution. When it comes to influence, control is just an illusion. Whether talking to a loved one struggling with substance abuse about rehab, or talking to a customer about changing their biases about your solution, you are trying to push an elephant up a hill. The choice to listen and follow is theirs. You may feel better when you take a strong stance or feel successful when you strong-arm the customer into a “yes,” but it’s only temporary. The only control we have is over our own behavior.

So stop playing tug of war with your customers, friends, spouse, or significant other. When there is tension, whether perceived or real, the focus is on the tension and not the truth. The attempt to control not only damages the relationship, it diminishes your message. Therefore, eliminate the tension by “dropping the rope.”

Think of influence like driving someone else’s car to a destination that is familiar to you but unknown to them. Two choices will be made that you can influence but not control: should they go on the trip, and if so, who should drive? 

You may be successful by demanding they go and stating you will drive, but what are the odds of that going over well? The more you communicate all of their options, explore what’s best for them, casually discuss the benefits of allowing you to drive (while communicating that you are comfortable if they drive), the more you enhance your chances that the listener will be open to consider the truth. 

On the contrary, if you try to “grab the wheel,” the argument begins. And when an argument starts, influence ends.

  • If you make it easier for them to leave, they will more likely stay.
  • If you tell them it may not be a fit, they will look for ways to see that it is.
  • If you show them the less expensive option, they will more likely consider why paying more is a good idea.

Drop the rope and stop trying to control. The more the listener is free to choose, the more likely they will choose the right path. To learn more about “dropping the rope,” check out this blog

If you avoid tough conversations because you don’t want to be perceived as a pushy sales rep, “dropping the rope” allows you a risk-free way to have conversations where tensions exist. You don’t fight or flee. You serve by helping them see better ways to solve their problems. You can embrace your role as the dispenser of truth, not a sales rep at the mall pushing products on strangers walking by. 


Instinct #3 – People Make Logical Decisions

The greatest benefit we offer is not tangible or financial — it’s emotional.

Customers aren’t buying a solution. They are buying the emotion the solution offers.

We all want to feel good (pride, identity, peace, freedom) or avoid feeling bad (stress, pain, fear). It’s why we drink, eat, go on vacation, take risks in relationships, or work late at night. Even if you think about the most financially conservative person you know, their motive is not the money itself… it’s about feeling secure. It’s why we all make dumb decisions at times. The emotion was stronger than our will to resist.

The truth is, people make logical decisions and support them with intellectual alibis. We buy the $90 shoes we don’t need because they’re made out of recycled material, and it will help the environment. Or maybe it’s because we just wanted the new shoes… 

Is this always true? No, we probably aren’t buying marinara sauce at the grocery stores because it makes us feel Italian, but when it comes to  significant decisions, emotions drive decision making.

Therefore, look for the clues that tell you what the decision maker really cares about. Look beyond the financial benefit of your solution and identify the emotional payoff,  then find creative ways to ensure the customer experiences those benefits


Summing It Up

Ultimately, what the unreceptive customer is rejecting is a sales call and/or the sales person. If you learn to focus more on serving them, helping them make a better decision, and tune into the underlying payoff for investing in a solution, you will sell more.


What Next?

If you want to learn more about developing new instincts to get more meetings and convert unreceptive customers, check out unreceptivebook.com.



As Co-founder and CEO, Tom’s primary role is to create content that helps people live, sell, and serve more effectively. Find him on LinkedIn

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