After a 3-month unpaid internship, I got my first job as a salesperson.  I was perhaps the most unlikely salesperson in the world.  My dad was a doctor and all five of his sons had been subtly indoctrinated to think that sales was a dirty word. In no way had I been groomed for sales.

Or so I thought.

One of my first assignments in my new job was to fly out to see one of our company’s customers who was well-known for being a bit of a pickle.  He was a middle manager at a very large telecommunications company and was an old hand at dealing with… vendors. I was just the latest in a parade of account executives this guy had seen – and an exceedingly green one at that. I didn’t know the precise reason for our visit that day. He had called the meeting, but I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be a banner day for the new kid.  Mentally, I was prepared for just about anything.

After the bare minimum of chit-chat, the customer gave me the bad news.

“I know you’re the new guy and I don’t want to ruin your day, but I’ve decided to take my business to your competitor.” He went on, brusquely explaining his reasons. But I couldn’t help noticing that he kept semi-apologizing for what he was doing, like he was in a position of strength and was perhaps enjoying a moment of guilty pleasure as he dealt with a young sales guy.

I remember that moment well.  I remember sitting there in my brand spanking new double-breasted suit. I remember the cramped, windowless office. And mostly, I remember feeling unusually calm.  I had prepared myself. I knew this might happen. I had told myself many times that the outcome of this meeting wasn’t going to determine the rest of my life – so much so that I truly believed it.

As a result of that preparation, I felt really strong. I said with a smile, “Hey, I appreciate how you keep saying that you don’t want to ruin my day.  And I want to reassure you about something – you won’t.  Of course, I’d rather you kept your business with our company. I’ll be disappointed if you leave us, no doubt. But it won’t be tragic. You have to do what you have to do.”

My unconscious ability to manage my mindset – and especially my fear – changed the whole dynamic of that conversation.  Suddenly, we were peers talking about a business situation instead of a groveling young sales rep dealing with a powerful customer. The outcome of the meeting was the same.  The customer left us. But the outcome of my sales role was actually strengthened by the experience.

I started to study mindsets that work for long-run salespeople – and influencers of all stripes – and mindsets that get in the way.  Sales is a mental game – maybe one of the most mental games you can play. All of the best techniques and tips and tricks mean little if you can’t manage your mindset.

Here are a few mindsets I’ve observed:

  • Curious vs. Judgmental – While observing a high performing salesperson do cold calls on small businesses, I saw a sharp exchange with an office manager that led to us being shown the door.  As we walked away, the salesperson muttered “I knew she was going to be a bitch from the beginning.” It didn’t take long for him to realize that his mindset – that office managers in general and this one in particular were bitches –  led him to feel and act… well, bitchy.  His whole approach to an office manager’s understandable reluctance to allow him into the office changed when he shifted his mindset from irritation to curiosity about what he was doing to provoke a bad reaction. Mindset matters.
  • Friendly vs. Adversarial – Another salesperson surprised me by saying over breakfast, “I really love figuring out how to beat the customer.” He must have seen me choking on my scrambled eggs because we had a lively discussion on which is a more effective mindset: seeing customers as opponents to be conquered or as potential friends whom we may be able to help.  My argument: you do have opponents. They’re called competitors.  Potential customers will smell it if you’re trying to beat them. And they will not want to lose. How much better to have customers believe you have their best interest at heart? Mindset matters.
  • Proud vs. Ashamed – What’s the first thing a prospective customer asks a salesperson? “Who do you work for?” The hidden question: “Is your company any good?” Salespeople who are proud of their company answer that question fearlessly.  Those who think their company is shoddy or shady wind up mumbling. Next time your senior leadership team is wondering whether it’s worth it to treat customers and employees well, think of that poor salesperson answering that question every day: “Is your company any good?”  Make them genuinely proud vs. having to win Emmy Awards for acting proud when in fact they’re ashamed. Mindset matters.

While mindset is partly each person’s responsibility, companies have a big impact on the mindsets their people show in the market. So as a leader of your organization, think about the mindset you build into your people.  Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do you talk about mindset as much as technique? When is the last time you told stories and taught people to take a higher road in how they think so that they can pull off great behavior when it counts?
  • Have we studied the moments in customer interactions when our people are most likely to be under stress – the moments when a customer pushes, challenges, or dismisses? Have we helped our people to think about those situations differently so that they can actually behave in a way that really represents our brand on its best day?
  • What do you notice about how your company talks about customers? Listen, we all have difficult customers who haven’t been to Supplier Appreciation School. But do we talk about our average customers like we would talk about our best friends – full of genuine interest and a desire to make a positive difference to them – or are they simply means to our paycheck. Or worse yet, an inconvenience?
  • What do we allow or even encourage in our company that might undermine the pride of our people in our company? What can we do to arm our people with rock solid confidence? I’m not talking about hype here, the stuff we so casually throw into sales meetings to get the troops fired up. Salespeople quickly figure out what’s real and what’s hype – and hype deals a blow to real pride.

What examples of winning mindsets – and the organizations that foster them – can you share?