How Not to Lose a Sale

Robyn*, a close friend of mine and senior leader at a large pharmaceutical company, referred me to work with Dan, the CEO of one of her company’s subsidiaries and someone she knew well. She would arrange for the three of us to meet. The lead wasn’t just warm; it was hot.

During the sales process I made a series of decisions, all of which felt — in fact, still feel — eminently reasonable. Here’s what happened:

1. With Dan’s permission, Robyn and I met several times before the meeting to discuss Dan and his situation. Dan was new to his role as CEO and needed to step up in tricky circumstances. By the time I met with him, I understood his challenges and it was clear that they fit squarely in my sweet spot as an advisor.

2. The day of the meeting, Robyn and Dan were running behind schedule. We had planned for 60 minutes but now only had 20. “No problem,” I told them, “I’ve been briefed about the situation, so we can cut to the chase.”

3. I sat down in an empty office chair which happened to be uncomfortably low to the ground and I instinctively raised the seat to the level at which I normally sit.

4. Dan started the conversation with a compliment about my latest book and told me how much he enjoyed my blog posts, which reinforced my decision to “cut to the chase.”

5. I explained briefly what I knew about his situation and when he acknowledged that I understood it, I launched into how I would approach it.

6. At one point, Dan asked me a question and I hesitated before answering. Robyn suggested that we discuss it later but I didn’t want to disappoint so I thanked her but said I’d be happy to share my thoughts and I did.

Nothing I did or said or thought or felt was dramatically off base. In fact, each step — each choice I made — was practical, sensible, and appropriate from my perspective.

Which is precisely why I crashed.

I was operating from my perspective. But Dan wasn’t. He was operating from his perspective. And from his perspective, the fact that I was operating from my perspective was a deal-breaker.

The problem? I wasn’t attuned.

Daniel Pink, in his excellent book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, calls attunement one of the three most valuable qualities you need to move others. (Pink talked about this in a recent HBR Ideacast.)

Essentially, attunement is being in synch with who’s and what’s around you. When you’re in attunement, you’re curious. You ask questions, you listen to the answers, and you empathize.

I might have been attuned to the challenges Dan was facing — but everything I did and said indicated that I wasn’t attuned to Dan. Or even to Robyn.

According to Pink, the first rule of attunement is to reduce your power. You do that by letting go of your perspective, which opens space for you to share the perspective of others. Pink quoted one highly successful salesperson who related this to humility. Great sales people, she said, take the attitude, “I’m sitting in the small chair so you can sit in the big chair.”

I did the opposite. I raised my seat, literally and figuratively. I took control of the conversation, sidelined Robyn when she suggested we talk later, and spent what little time I had trying to prove to Dan that I understood it all and I was the right guy to help.

I was too easily flattered by Dan’s comment about my book, too rushed by our time crunch, and too eager to impress both Robyn and Dan. I tried so hard to prove my competence that I came off as incompetent. Maybe not in terms of my solution, but certainly in terms of our relationship.

I acted with the sensibility of an extrovert, which is typically assumed to offer a strong sales advantage. But Pink’s research suggests that being extroverted can actually be a liability. Why? Because too often we talk when we should be listening.

To the extent that I listened at all, I was listening to gather enough information so I could make a case to Dan that I could solve his problem. In other words, I was listening simply to empower my speaking.

But why didn’t that work? Wasn’t Dan looking for information about me and what I might do for him?

Maybe. But he as much as told me told me he knew enough about me from my writing, just like I knew a lot about him from my conversations with Robyn. No, Dan didn’t really want to hear me speak. He wanted to hear me listen.

What Dan was really looking to figure out — what most people are looking to figure out — is what it would feel like to work together. And what I showed him in our brief conversation is that it would feel like some expert coming in and telling him what he should do.

If I were Dan, I wouldn’t hire me either.

What would I do differently next time? I would sit in the chair I was offered and listen to Dan tell his story. Then I would ask him a number of questions to make sure I could see the situation with his eyes, analyze it from his point of view, and feel his emotions. I would attune to him.

That would require that I let go of my agenda, stop trying to get hired, give up trying to quickly and smartly summarize what Dan needed, and cease trying to prove myself.

My goal, the entire purpose of my presence, would be to connect.

If I did that well, I wouldn’t have to worry about showing him what I was capable of. There would be plenty of time for that later — once we started working together.

*Names and some details changed

Originally published in the Harvard Business Review


  1. Cathy Stanley says:

    Just saw your segment on Fox and immediately put your site on my favorites page. My husband and I run a small used car lot and I am the primary sales person/office manager. I like this approach and will continue reading!

  2. mahesh says:

    Hi, i have been a salesman for the last 12 years in the Indian financial industry. You have put it across brilliantly what one really needs to do when selling but this kind of consultative selling needs a lot of time. Although they might be highly successful in the long run one does not get that kind of time in my industry. Pressure on conversion is extremely high and the need is to do it right now. Have you written anything on selling skills in shorter time periods?

  3. Mike Peters says:

    Hi Peter,
    Thank you for sharing your experience. Your story reads like a novel we
    can all learn from. Like in any prospect situation there were many variables outside of your control. Whether attuned, aligned or both, here’s why I think you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself:

  4. Angela Finn says:

    Hi Peter,
    Thank you for your article. I have gone into business and am finding the taks of selling myself daunting because I am trying to be an expert when I am not. Your article reminded me to be what I am – a good listener – to connect with the client.
    I have set myself a challenge this weekend to be a stall- holder at a Bridal Expo. Even though I am still green in this business my aim at the Expo is to listen – to get attuned with my potential clients and become attuned to their needs and not mine. I have confidence it will work.

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