Brokerage Ops the Jan/Feb 2012 issue

Irrational Optimism

Understanding the fine line between optimism and delusion.
Posted on February 11, 2012

favorable side of events and to expect the most favorable outcome,” and delusion, which is described as “a false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact.”

Getting excited about an opportunity is normal. But an opportunity is not a done deal. When there’s not enough business on the books or hot leads in the pipeline, it can be difficult to maintain some skepticism about a new business opportunity.

You might have taught yourself to be disciplined about your approach to the reality of a new opportunity that is not yet closed. Yet even the most successful sales professionals are vulnerable to the optimism trap, thinking and talking too much about a promising opportunity before it really deserves such energy and attention.

Why do we do this? Much has to do with how we are wired. It’s exciting and seductive when someone wants to meet with us and shows an interest in who we are and what we do. This fills the void for two of our universal fears and corresponding needs, as noted by researcher and author Donald Brown. The first is our fear of insignificance and our need for respect. The second is our fear of the outsider and our need for community.

I was reviewing a big potential deal with a producer recently. He told me he asked all the hard qualifying questions and was certain his firm was going to win the business. I didn’t want to burst his bubble, but it seemed to be moving too fast and sounded too good. I was pretty sure he missed a number of questions and cues and was falling into the realm of sales-related delusion. Is there medication for that?

When the prospect went dark and then put everything on hold, the producer confessed that he might have made some assumptions. I refrained from “I told you so.”

This is a smart guy, yet he was blinded by the prospect’s Fortune 500 name and a couple of nice people who told him what he wanted to hear. He got seduced and did not dig deeper to get the full truth, and as a result he lost control of the negotiation.

I see so many instances when people get really excited and optimistic and then the big deal doesn’t come through. It’s interesting that, even though you are a smart and savvy person, the emotional instincts of attachment, assumption and irrational optimism kick in. They override your experience and general tendency toward rational thinking.

It’s interesting that, even though you are a smart and savvy person, the emotional instincts of attachment, assumption and irrational optimism kick in.

But there are ways to check your optimism when assessing what seems like a can’t-miss business deal. Here’s where to start: Notice when you or anyone on your team spends a lot of time talking about your “amazing opportunity.” Ask hard questions. Follow your process. Splash a little cold water on the rhetoric and emotion. It might not be in your nature, but don’t be afraid to exercise a healthy dose of skepticism or at least a teaspoon of realism. It will go a long way in the sales process. No matter how much you like your prospect and believe what they say, remember that they are predisposed to telling you what you want to hear while keeping vital information from you. Often your potential prospects have no idea how to make the right decision to get what they need.

You’ve heard me say that sales is like dating. It’s natural to be excited about a first date with a good-looking prospect. But your excitement doesn’t help you read the cues your date is giving you about his or her level of interest. You don’t want to pucker up—to seal the deal, as it were—before your date is ready to reciprocate.

I am generally a very positive person. At the same time, I have learned not to fully trust the human instincts of those to whom I am selling. They can withhold information, sometimes lie or mislead, and often procrastinate before making hard decisions. In other words, they take the path of least resistance.

I have been disappointed too many times. Sound familiar? So I try to keep my natural optimism and excitement in check and lock my delusion down in the basement. I focus on the things I can control, such as asking really good questions, always having clear next steps and doing my best to emotionally detach myself from the outcome. The simple things are often the hardest.

I’m just sayin’.

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