How Positive Thinking Can Ruin Your Sales

October 19, 2012


I’m a big believer in positive thinking—except when it comes to sales. This idea can be a bit tough to swallow, as it was for Kyle, a web developer who went out on his own a few years back after saying adios to his full-time bank gig. He rocked it for the first couple of years, but after he wrapped up a few big projects and a couple of top clients went out of business, he had to start finding new clients, which meant selling, which meant months and months of struggle, which meant canceling his big trip to Amsterdam.

After Kyle called me for help, we got together and I asked him to give me a rundown of a recent sales meeting that didn’t work out. He told me about his appointment with Sheila, the owner of a decorating firm. For a half hour prior to the meeting, he sat in his car and concentrated all his positive thoughts on making the sale, even visualizing Sheila saying yes and the high-fives he’d get from his colleagues after closing the deal.

Positive thinking turns a sales meeting sour

During the meeting, Kyle worked hard to wow Sheila with his positive energy and all the ideas he had for making her website sing. At the end of the meeting, he stressed to her how much he would value their relationship if she became a client.

I said to Kyle, “It sounds to me like you went into your meeting very focused on the outcome.”

He agreed and said he was a big believer in positive thinking and having goals.

“But did you notice,” I asked, “how all your positive thinking affected your behavior during your meeting with Sheila?”

When he shrugged I said, “Sometimes positive thinking makes us feel pressure. In your case, all the pressure you put on yourself to nail the sale made you focus on what you wanted rather than on Sheila and her needs. That’s a killer in sales.”

What the dating world can teach us about sales

I told Kyle that we can learn a lot about sales from what works and doesn’t work in the dating world. Everybody knows that a date will turn out badly if you go in hoping to find Mr. or Miss Right. When you do that, the other person is going to feel you’re coming on too strong, or you’re needy, or worse, desperate. Those are turnoffs. It’s best to leave your big hopes behind and just see the date as an opportunity for both of you to get to know each other better. Think of it as a process of discovery and exploration. Maybe it will work out, maybe it won’t. But the pressure’s all off. When you take this approach, you come across as cool and relaxed and you naturally pay more attention to the other person, and that’s a turn-on.

Dating and selling should be about the process, not the outcome

Just like dating, selling shouldn’t be about the outcome. It should be about the process of trying to find out whether you and your prospect make a good match. Take that approach and your prospect will feel you’re genuinely interested in them, rather than trying to meet your own sales targets. I told Kyle, “When your prospects have that experience, you’ll find more of them interested in becoming clients.”

That seemed to make sense to Kyle. But he still struggled with the idea that being positive could be a bad thing.

The difference between positive thinking and positive attitude

Being positive isn’t bad, I clarified. The problem is that positive thinking involves goals, which are vital for planning, but can wreak havoc if you take them with you into a sales meeting. Visualizing like Kyle did in the car is fine, but you have to be careful to turn your attention from the future to the present before you see your prospect. What does work during the meeting is having a positive attitude. The difference? Positive thinking makes you think about the future, whereas a positive attitude focuses you on the present. And that’s where you need to be in a sales meeting—living in the moment, focused on your prospect.

After this talk, whenever Kyle had a sales meeting, he ditched the positive thinking and donned a positive attitude. One of the first things he noticed was how relaxed he was in his appointments. That surprised him because he hadn’t realized he’d been tense before. As Kyle put it, “It was liberating—getting to know my prospects, without caring at all whether they said yes or no. The irony—they started saying yes.” So often that he was able to finally get away to Amsterdam. Now that deserves a high-five.

The big takeaway: Before you go into your next sales meeting, drop your positive thinking and all thoughts of the outcome. Instead, adopt a positive attitude and focus on the process of getting to know your prospect better.

Author’s note: this post is based on a web developer I’ve coached. I’ve called him Kyle, but that’s not his real name.


about the author

Former Staff Contributor Donald Cowper is a best-selling author and head of content at ClearFit.