Cognitive Dissonance in Sales Culture

Cognitive Dissonance:

“an uncomfortable feeling or stress caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a fundamental cognitive drive to reduce this dissonance by modifying an existing belief, or rejecting one of the contradictory ideas.” – Wikipedia

Today’s Sales culture is wrought with cognitive dissonance.  Here is an example:

The executive orators give great lip service to how we are in all this for the long term success of the customer.  All the marketing material says this, so it MUST be true, but you better frig’n get that deal in and hit that number this quarter…the interest of the customer is clearly secondary.  In addition, there are no metrics or compensation mechanisms in place to reinforce the behavior. Unfortunately, Salespeople live in this dissonance every day.  In fact, if you can’t handle a significant amount of cognitive dissonance, today’s sales culture may not be for you. (There are a few companies, however, that go to great lengths to align their corporate lip service to the compensation plans of their Salespeople.  We have a long way to go in this area but at least its a start.)

I’ve known some good salespeople who have been eaten alive by the cognitive dissonance in their sales organizations.  Unfortunately, pointing this out in one of these organizations will usually not do you any good.  Either the dissonance will chip away at your performance until you leave or you are asked to leave, you will succumb to it and become a second rate sales person, OR you will learn to navigate through the dissonance and serve the customer despite it.

I suggest the latter.

The Sales Lexicon


Have you ever heard how most salespeople talk?

Let’s take for example the sales “pitch”.  Salespeople make
“pitches” to their prospects.  Salespeople are the pitchers, and
prospects are the batters.  If we take the analogy further, the pitcher
tries to strike the batter out and send him back to the dugout with
nothing for his effort.  Wait, there’s more… Companies want their sales
people to be able to make this pitch, if, by chance, they are in an
elevator with one of their prospects.  Is it any wonder that
salespeople get a bad wrap?

Salespeople struggle to “close” deals.  The prospect  wants or needs
the product or service but it seems that they are trying to keep the
deal “open”.  The problem is that while it may be the end of a process
for the salesperson, it is just the beginning for the prospect.  The
process of achieving value from the product or service has not even
started for the prospect.  No wonder there is resistance.

My point is that the sales lexicon is wrought with contentiousness
between sellers and the prospects that we are supposed to be trying to
help.  By talking this way we prepare ourselves for conflict with the
prospect. The way we talk and think about our prospects &
customers when they are not around, will affect the way that we treat
them when we interact with them directly.

One way to practice this is to go through an entire day pretending
that your prospects can see and hear everything you say and do.  Try
this and you will be surprised at what you discover.  My experience was
that I first noticed myself thinking carefully before I spoke with my
colleagues about different sales cycles.  After I got used to it, I
began to notice a heightened energy level within myself and my own
sales culture.  A much more constructive dialogue began to occur around
my sales cycles.  After all, if my prospects/customers were watching
me, I would want them to see a positive, constructive person who
is calmly and firmly looking out for their best interest.

The same rule applies here.  The way we talk and think about our
prospects & customers when they are not around, will affect the way
that we treat them when we interact with them directly.  Try this, and
you will be surprised at the change that takes place in your sales
culture and in your sales cycles.

Competitor or Partner?

We spend a lot of time strategizing about how to win over our competition in a sales cycle.  We have entire departments dedicated to finding out the strengths and weaknesses of our competitors.  And we should study and understand our competition.  But not to the point where we are blinded to what our competitor can teach us in a sales cycle.

If we look at the ecosystem of a sales cycle as a whole, competitors are necessary for us to win.  In that sense, your competitor is your partner in the selling process.  For example, if we end up on a short list with a particular competitor we can learn a great deal from them.

Before we begin “setting traps” or “creating FUD” (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) about our competitor we should unbiasedly ask and answer these questions:  What about their product, company, sales team is attractive to the prospect?  What is cool about their product?  Are they providing something beyond the product or service itself?  Who in the prospects organization is their champion and why does their champion like them?

If we think of our competitor as a partner in the selling process and honestly and objectively answer these questions (and others) it will give us great insight into what the prospect is looking for.  And if we combine what we learn with what we have independently discovered about the prospect, we will have the information we need to win the business.

OH.. **IT!!

In one of my previous blogs I discussed the importance of how we talk about our prospects or customers when they are not around.  I recently was having lunch with a colleague named “Jim” who told me the following story:

Jim had managed to work his way to the CEO of an organization to sell his solution.  After numerous meetings he was a bit discouraged because he didn’t seem to be making much progress.  The only thing that was progressing was the amount of follow-up information he was asked to generate after every meeting.  So, he reached out via email to a colleague to get some additional ROI information for the prospect.  The colleague emailed back asking some additional quesitons about what he was trying to accomplish there.

Jim clicked back, “I’m trying to get this dumb-ass to buy something.”

The appropriate ROI information was eventually sent back to the CEO of the organization and yes… the unthinkable happened.  The email was sent with the trailing thread that included the “dumb-ass” quote.  Jim said there was a second after that send button was pushed that he irked in horror “OH SHIT!”

So what happened then?  Jim immediately called his boss to tell him what had happened.  They discussed a few options.  Since the comment was at the bottom of the thread, they could take the chance that the CEO would never read it.  Or they could ‘fess up and take their licks.  They decided on the latter.

Jim went to the CEO and told him what happened.  He told the CEO that indeed, it was he that was the dumb-ass.  The CEO, who obviously was not a dumb-ass as accused and was actually quite a thoughtful person, lectured Jim that he needed to be more careful about what he said and wrote about his prospects.  After the lecture the CEO told Jim that despite this error he still wanted to consider Jim’s product.

Jim got the order last week.

There are lessons to be learned here the least of which is to never put in writing derogatory comments about your prospects or customers.  More importantly, we should avoid the mindset where we are disparaging our prospects or customers in any way.  We (our products and services) are not the center of their universe.  It is our job to earn their mind share.  Somehow, in ways not necessarily as overt as this story, your attitudes about your prospects and customers will manifest themselves.


When practicing the martial art of Aikido, one of the basic principles is to put yourself in the place of your opponent.  This creates a situation in which you are not colliding with your opponent, but are becoming one and agreeing with their power in order to neutralize the attack.  My Sensei, John Gilmore, when teaching an art will physically put himself facing the same direction as the opponent and happily say aloud, “Shall We Go.”

Translating this concept into words that describe the sales environment is difficult.  The good news is that I found someone who did just that… without even knowing it.

I don’t often get excited about business books.  There are a lot of good ones out there but more often than not 5 pages could do for the 200 that the author gives you.  But I’ve run into a book that so accurately describes what I think customer relationships should be about that I have to give it a plug.  It is called “We: The Ideal Customer Relationship” by Steve Yastrow.

Steve describes how most companies (sales people) will settle for transactional relationships with their customers.  While he does not blame technology, he does blame companies for using technology to cheapen their interactions as opposed to using it to deepen their relationships.

Steve references Martin Buber’s I & Thou frequently.  His writing is very thoughtful and he explores the very underpinnings of relationship.  He shows us the benefits of “We” relationships up against the pitfalls of “Us vs. Them” relationships.  He uses customer stories and specific examples to tighten up his arguments.

This blog is dedicated to “selling in the new world”.  Steve Yastrow is clearly a pioneer in this new world.


The Casualty of Multitasking

In Aikido, there is an exercise called Happo Waza.  The meaning of this is “eight ways”.  We move our attention in one direction and move our body in the same direction.  Then we move in another direction… and another… and another.  We do this in 8 different directions.  One of the teachings that I take from this exercise is that we cannot move in multiple directions at once.  We cannot focus our attention in multiple directions at once.

Wikipedia defines multitasking as:

the performance by an individual of appearing to handle more than one task at the same time. The term is derived from computer multitasking. An example of multitasking is listening to a radio interview while typing an email. Multitasking can result in time wasted due to human context switching and apparently causing more errors due to insufficient attention.

Notice the phrase “appearing to handle more than one task”.  The definition also includes the idea that multitasking results in “time wasted”  because it causes “more errors due to insufficient attention”.

In Sales, there is another casualty of the multitasking culture.  It is relationship.

Do you know salespeople that cannot sit down and have a conversation with you without checking their email, phone or voicemail?  I’ve seen salespeople behave like this in front of customers.  What message does this behavior convey?  It is simple.  “I’m so important that what is happening on my Blackberry is far more important than you.”

That’s sick.  Get over yourself.

Your ability to focus fully on the customer or colleague who is immediately in front of you is directly proportional to the quality of relationship that you will have.

My Favorite Scene in Mad Men

To me, this is what sales should be all about.  Finding a way to reach people at a personal level… a place that everyone has, but few, especially in the business world, ever reach out and grab. Establishing this kind of vulnerability and relationship with your prospect is what can make your profession meaningful… And as a byproduct, make you a whole bunch of money.