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the best sales people have no shame

April 22, 2014

“The best way to avoid punch, is no be there!”
– Mr Miyagi, The Karate Kid (1984)

Why is it that some people seem to ignore that advice and are able to keep coming back for more?

Most of us don’t. We avoid the punches and for good reason. It makes sense to get out of the way of a fist. But having learned how, we apply the principle unthinkingly to other parts of our lives.

  • We stay in our current job because if we don’t apply for that interesting new role then we can’t be told no.
  • We remain single because if we never ask that interesting other they cannot decline.
  • We don’t call because if we never make a sales call then there is no opportunity for the person on the other end to indicate their level of interest by hanging up on us.
  • We don’t write that story, paint that picture, create anything that scares us ….

Corporate woman with boxing gloves striking a man in a tieWe find apparently valid reasons for not applying, not asking, not creating or not calling to protect ourselves from a future in which our request might be declined – avoiding a punch that may only possibly come our way. We anticipate the punishing bad feelings associated with hearing someone say “no” to us and, understandably, we take (in)action to avoid it.

That is the best way right? I mean Mr Miyagi said so…


There are huge costs associated with avoiding the experience of being told no. I was recently presented with the following numbers in a sales context:

  • half of all sales people NEVER follow-up with a prospect;
  • around a quarter of all sales people make a 2nd contact and stop; and only…
  • 10% of sales people make more than 4 contacts.

When you are avoiding punches that makes perfect sense. A second contact implies the first resulted in a blow to our ego, a third means two previous blows. Each new decline hurting just as much if not more than the first that took much of the wind from our sails. But what have we lost by avoiding the shame triggered by hearing them “no thank you”?

  • only 5% of sales are made on the 1st or 2nd contact;
  • 15% of sales are made on the 3rd or 4th contact; and
  • 80% of sales are made on the 5th to 12th contact.

Why is it that some people can keep coming back for more? What makes them different from the other 90% of the population who give up after just one or two contacts?

The answer lies in how we listen to a “no” and in our strategies for dealing with the negative affect that it triggers.

One way to listen to someone who has declined to take a call from you is that they are declining because of who you are. To hear their rejection of your offer as a rejection of who you are and as evidence that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. After one or two no’s listening that way can cause you to start questioning yourself, whether you are cut out for this sort of work, whether you are actually good at anything.

Another way to listen is that they are declining because of something that you did (or didn’t do). To hear their rejection of your offer as a rejection of something that, for now, they don’t believe they need. One or two of these declines will cause you to start questioning how you are going about things. Can you find out why what you are offering doesn’t meet their needs? Maybe you have failed to make clear what it is you are offering? Are you even calling the right people?

The first decline lands like a punch, the second more like a nudge in a new direction. The first, aligned with Dweck’s “fixed mindset”§, diminishes our global capability by adding one more thing to the list of things that we cannot do. The second, aligned with a “growth mindset”, identifies a local opportunity for us to learn something new or something that requires more practice until we can do it.

In both cases the rejection triggers the punishing feelings associated with the shame affect. What we do with the information it provides is the key.

It is not that the people who do the best in sales have no shame – it is that they are able to notice it and to quickly move past it to ask questions about what they can do differently next time. They use their affect system the way it was designed, as a signal they need to take a different course of action.

The implications extend far beyond people who are “in sales” to putting yourself forward for a new role, writing, painting, sculpting or doing anything creative that others will see. If you want to succeed, instead of asking “What are your strategies for dealing with fear?” find strategies to move yourself past the negative affect triggered by being told “no”. Sometimes it can be as simple as saying “That’s really interesting. Could you tell me more about why you have said no?”

It is that easy. And for many of us, to be honest, it is that hard.


§ Dweck, C. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

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