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How to be a great salesperson in tough times

Published:Sunday | September 14, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Francis Wade, Sunday Business COLUMNIST

Francis Wade, Sunday Business COLUMNIST

Being a salesperson in a recessionary economy is tough.

It takes a certain kind of perseverance to keep going when all the news seems to be bad, and tactics that used to work fail to produce results.

New strategies are needed to survive.

Obviously, merely sitting and waiting for things to get better isn't an option. The mal-effects of this downturn will, according to economists, be around for more than a year or two.

Jamaica is not likely to make an instant turnaround, even if oil or gold were to be discovered tomorrow.

While it's true that economies operate on cycles, if you are a salesperson you must continue to take inspired action. The fact is, your commissions depend on it and, by extension, so does your family.

You know that it's important to stay out of a depressed rut in which each 'today' seems gloomier than yesterday. But how is it done? How do you break the seemingly solid connection between consistently bad news and your everyday state of mind? Is it possible to keep your head straight, making the best decisions possible from one moment to the next, even when you seem to have lost the knack of closing the simplest of sales?


Unfortunately, you may have found that the old approaches no longer work - telling yourself to stay positive, or affirm only good things.

They fail because your mind is quite stubborn; it subconsciously rejects statements it suspects aren't true, even if you are the one saying them.

This is not to say that self-talk doesn't work. It does. It's just that pounding out statements your mind can argue with, due to lack of evidence, is hardly a sustainable approach.

Thanks to research cited by Daniel Pink in his book To Sell is Human, there is another way. It came to my attention because it's similar to a technique I stumbled upon about 10 years ago which works far better than trying to force my mind to focus on positive thoughts.


The study was conducted in 2010 by Ibrahim Senay and Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois, along with Kenji Noguchi of the University of Southern Mississippi.

In their experiment on puzzle-solving, one group was instructed to ask whether they would solve the puzzles. They performed better than another group who was instructed to tell themselves they would solve the same puzzles.

The first group solved nearly 50 per cent more puzzles than the second.

The reason is simple: questions elicit answers, while statements invite rebuttals, doubts, and proof to the contrary. The first method leads to further options, while the second leads to inner conflict.

In the technique I learned from author Byron Katie, the focus is on stressful thoughts; the kind which plague everyone who has to close deals to put bread on the table.

'I'm just not a good


'People don't like me'.

'No one has any money'.

These are a mere sample of what goes through my head on a weekly basis. Others may advise you to simply ignore these thoughts, just get on with it, or to motivate yourself, but these rebuttals hardly work after a while, if at all.


It's more efficient, in my experience, to confront these thoughts directly. When they arise, write each one down then answer the question: Is it true?

In Katie's method, it's quickly followed by another question: Can I absolutely know that it's true?

I have learned to pause after each question in order to get past the initial, superficial answers.

Then: How do I feel when I believe that thought? Once the answer is written, the next question is: What would I feel like if I never had the thought to begin with?

Finally: What's the opposite of that thought? Is it also true? For example, the original thought, 'people have no money' would have an opposite, 'people have money'. While these thoughts are opposed, we still have them at different times.

I have found it far better to actually type or write the answers. Looking back at my notes over the years, the reality is that I cannot stop unwanted thoughts. I can only manage whether I believe them or not, and that is something I am able to influence using the questions shared above.

The magic, according to the researchers, isn't in the questions I happen to use, but it lies in the 'interrogative self-talk' that summons the resources and strategies to accomplish difficult tasks.

In this particular case, it appears that it is important to tackle stressful thoughts directly, on their own terms. That is much easier than trying to toughen up and muscle them away, which is exhausting. The truth is we need all the energy we can muster to do the prospecting, proposing, and closing required to be a successful salesperson.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: