A Look Inside the Minds of the Top Salesmen

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Psychology Of Selling" by Brian Tracy. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to level up your sales game and become the top salesman? What is it that distinguishes successful salespeople from mediocre ones?

People who succeed in sales have high incomes and job security. However, while lots of people enter the profession, only a few find such success, and there’s a wide discrepancy between the results of top salespeople and mediocre ones.

In this article, we’ll look at the psychology of successful salespeople and the mindset that fuels their success.

The Psychology Behind Successful Salespeople

Some salespeople are far more successful than others. In fact, the top 20 percent of salespeople make 80 percent of the money being earned in the profession as a whole—we call this the 80/20 rule. Further, 20 percent of that top 20 percent (equaling 4 percent of the total) make 80 percent of those earnings. In other words, out of every 100 salespeople, there are four people who are earning as much as all the rest combined. 

How can you get into that select top 20 percent of 20 percent? To get there, you must first understand two key principles underpinning the profession:

  • Success comes from having a winning edge, which means you only have to be slightly better than others to have an outsized advantage.
  • Success and failure are mental. Success comes from having a positive self-concept and self-esteem, and failure comes primarily from your fear of rejection.

Success Comes From a Winning Edge 

A winning edge is a small advantage in capability or skill that adds up to a significant difference in results—like when a horse wins a race by just a nose but takes home 10 times the prize money as the horse in second place. The important thing to note here is that you only need an edge: a few things that you consistently do better than anyone else. Like the winning horse, a salesperson might win a sale because of a small reason—maybe her product has one slight advantage in one feature, or maybe her presentation was just a little more professional—but the sale she secures can make a significant difference in her earnings. 

A winning edge compounds over time. In the beginning of your career, if you’re doing a few things better than your peers, you’ll pull ahead of them a little. If you continue to press your advantage, the distance between you and the rest of the crowd will increase until, eventually, you’re earning five or 10 times what other salespeople are earning.

Success Comes From a Positive Attitude

Developing a winning edge starts by developing a positive self-concept: how you think about yourself, your skills, and other people. Your self-concept determines your attitude and how you approach the world in general and sales in particular.  

A positive self-concept is built on positive self-esteem, which is how much you like yourself. To increase your self-esteem, start by simply telling yourself that you like yourself. Make it a mantra that you repeat throughout the day: in the car, in the shower, and before bed. Repeating the phrase will lock it into your subconscious.

Repeat this mantra especially before making a sales call. Talking to yourself positively—“I like myself and I like my work”—will pump you up, get your energy flowing, and prepare you to perform at your best. Conversely, if you tell yourself negative things like, “I hate cold calling,” or “I’m terrible at presenting,” you will create a negative mood, which will sap your energy and make your job harder.

There’s a direct link between high self-esteem and success. This works in three ways:

1. Positive Feelings Are Reciprocated

When you have a positive self-concept, you approach potential clients with excitement and confidence, which translates into sales. Your positive attitude makes people feel positive about you and makes them more receptive to your sales pitch. This becomes a positive feedback loop: When you feel good, you more easily make a sale, which makes you feel good, which leads you to another sale. For this reason, a person who’s just made a sale will often quickly follow it up with a second sale, and then a third. 

Conversely, if you have negative beliefs about your sales abilities, you approach potential clients with anxiety. Customers will feel this anxiety and will be less likely to buy from you. You will get caught in a negative loop. 

2. Practice Improves Your Skills 

When you have a positive self-concept, you tend to like your job, and you will consequently spend more time doing it—people devote time to things they enjoy. When you devote more time to something, you inevitably get better at it. Thus, if you enjoy doing the things that lead to sales (for example, prospecting or engaging with customers), you’ll do them more readily and consequently become better at them. This will again lead to a positive loop in which improved skills cause an improved self-concept, which in turn causes improved skills. 

Conversely, when you have a negative attitude toward something—say, for example, calling prospective clients—you’ll avoid doing it, which will, in turn, limit the practice you get doing it, and will therefore limit how much you can improve that skill. 

3. Your Earning Comfort Zone Increases

Your self-concept determines your income by defining your earnings comfort zone, or the income level at which you will be satisfied. A person with a higher self-concept will generally feel more entitled to a higher earnings zone than a person with a low self-concept, and this will greatly affect her ultimate income. 

Researchers have found that a person generally earns within 10 percent of what she determines her worth to be. If you see yourself as a $50,000-a-year person, you’ll behave in ways that will earn you approximately $50,000 a year. If you see yourself as a $100,000-a-year person, you’ll act, and earn, accordingly. 

Conversely, if a person earns 10 percent more than what she thinks she deserves, she tends to spend the “extra” money until she, too, has settled into her comfort zone. In addition, her self-defined comfort zone can become a psychological block that prevents her from achieving more. For example, imagine someone who intends to earn $60,000 one year suddenly having a great few months that earn her $50,000 by August. She may find herself unmotivated to work for a few months. Then, when the end of the year approaches, she’ll suddenly hit the road and start selling again, earning that last $10,000 toward her goal. 

Success Comes From Setting Goals

The most successful people in sales are the ones who set goals for themselves. Consciously thinking about and setting goals enters these intentions into your subconscious mind. When your subconscious mind works toward your goals in conjunction with your conscious mind, you have a much higher likelihood of achieving those goals. Your subconscious mind can, for example, open your eyes to opportunities where you might have missed them and can help you find the right words to say in a presentation. 

This is one of the reasons there is such a high correlation between success and goal-setting, and it’s why the highest-paid salespeople in any field are the ones who write and rewrite their goals every day, continually adding to them and revising them. 

You can activate your subconscious mind through the act of writing, by pictures, and by affirmative statements. Use all three techniques to fully engage it: 

  • Write your goals down: As you determine and calculate your goals, write them down. The very act of writing solidifies your plans and makes them feel more real to you. 
  • Visualize: When you create a clear mental picture of your goals, your subconscious mind understands them. Picture the person you want to be: calm, confident, and capable. Before you enter a sales meeting, picture the client reacting to you in a positive way: smiling or signing a sales order. You’ll be surprised at how often your visualizations become reality when you mentally rehearse your sales meetings in this way.
  • Use positive self-talk: When you tell your subconscious mind something, it receives it as a command and starts to work on making it true. As mentioned earlier, adopting positive mantras throughout the day can help you feel better about yourself. In the same way, repeating your goals to yourself can train your subconscious to accept them. 

Interestingly, everyone uses the techniques of visualization and self-talk on a daily basis. Everyone thinks about their last sales meeting and their next one. The difference between a mediocre salesperson and a successful one is the content of that visualization and self-talk: While a mid-level salesperson will think about what went wrong or how they felt when a customer was rude, a top salesman will focus on what went right—a great line they came up with or how they responded to a customer’s rudeness. In either case, the salespeople are each mentally preparing to repeat the experience they’re thinking about. Negative thoughts bring about future negative experiences, and positive thoughts presage positive experiences. 

Calculate Specific Goals

Specific goals are far more helpful than vague goals. To give yourself the best shot at success, figure out your exact sales target and from there, figure out the focused sales activities you need to do to hit that target. Do this in steps:

  1. Decide your annual income goal. Be realistic. Unachievable goals will only demotivate you. If you earned $40,000 this year and suddenly decide to earn $500,000 next year, you’re more likely to feel discouraged than motivated. This comes from a quirk of human psychology: Your self-concept automatically rejects and ignores any goals you set that reach too far beyond anything you’ve accomplished so far. Aim to increase your current salary by 25 to 50 percent. 
  2. Figure out how much you need to sell annually to meet this income goal. Consider both base salary and commission.
  3. Calculate how much you’ll need to sell monthly to meet this goal. 
  4. Calculate your weekly sales goals. 
  5. Calculate your daily sales goals. 
  6. Determine what specific activities you must do to reach those daily goals. How many calls will you need to make? How many presentations? How many follow-ups?
  7. Plan a daily schedule that will allow you to do those activities. If you’ll need to make 10 calls a day, what time do you need to start in the morning? Set subgoals throughout the day: for example, that you’ll have made six calls by 10 a.m.
Set Personal Goals as Well

Your sales goals ultimately serve your personal goals; the reason you sell is to earn money to fund your life outside of work—your family, your hobbies, your vacations. Having greater clarity on what you want to do with your earnings helps motivate you. It also helps you decide on what annual income goal you’ll need to reach to achieve your personal goals. 

When examining your personal goals, be inclusive. Think of everything you’d like to purchase in the next few years. The longer your list, the more motivated you’re likely to be. Keep a running list; as you’re watching TV or reading a paper, if you think of something you’d like to own or do, add it to your list. Setting goals should be an ongoing process. 

Failure Comes From Fear

In the same way that the qualities that drive success are mental, the fears that drive failure are also mental. The primary fear that holds a salesperson back from success is the fear of rejection

The fear of rejection is triggered by the possibility of disapproval, judgment, or rudeness from a customer. It’s human nature for us to want to avoid these feelings, but our attempts to avoid them can act as a brake on our progress. For example, one study found that on average, salespeople work for a total of only about 90 minutes every day, in increments split up between about 11 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. For the rest of the day, they engage in procrastinating activities to avoid possible rejection. 

In other words, a fear of rejection can stop you from working—from making phone calls, from following up on leads, from setting up appointments—which can prevent you from reaching your sales goals. 

There are three truths you can internalize to help you get over your fear of rejection:

  1. Rejection isn’t personal: Rejection is an expected and normal part of sales. When you accept this, you’ll be able to let rejection slide off your back and it will lose its power over you. 
  2. Courage takes practice: Showing up in the face of possible rejection takes courage. Fortunately, courage is like a muscle—the more you practice it, the stronger it gets. If you push through your fear of rejection and keep showing up for work, every day, it will become less and less difficult. 
  3. Positive thinking conquers fear of rejection: To conquer your fear of rejection, use the same technique described in the section on improving your self-esteem: Repeat positive mantras to yourself whenever you feel yourself shying away from a situation because of your fear. For example, if you tell yourself “I can do it!” before making a call you’ve been putting off, you’ll pump yourself up with positive thoughts and have less trouble finally making that call.  

A Look Inside the Minds of the Top Salesmen

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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