November 14, 2006

Sales Intuition: Does It Work for You

By Steve Martin, Author, “Heavy Hitter Selling”

All salespeople remember the highlights of their sales calls. They can easily recall who they met with and whether the meeting was fruitful or a bust. However, one of the major differences between average sales­­people and truly great sales­­people is their ability to recognize and remember a wider spectrum of inform­ation from sales­ calls. They use their accumulated experiences to determine what they should say and do when face-to-face with prospective customers.

This process is called “sales intuition” – comparing a series of past experiences against current circumstances. Most salespeople don’t think about their sales intuition since it works automatically. In reality, sales intuition is a highly developed model for making decisions and a powerful heuristic engine that is constantly learning from the past. In other words, salespeople are constantly learning from past customer experiences and continually incorporating these new reference points as part of their decision-making process.

Salespeople spend most of their time trying to predict the behavior, intentions, attitudes, and feelings of our customers. Sales intuition and memory work hand-in-hand in determining what they should say and do next. The best salespeople collect more data points and intuitively know how to store them.

In essence, sales intuition is the ability to read and anticipate a customer’s action beforehand. The four components of sales intuition are recognizing all the information during a sales call, decoding the meaning, storing the experience, and finally, retrieving and comparing information.

all sensory

the meaning



The Four Components of Sales Intuition
The first component of sales intuition is recognizing all the verbal and nonverbal communication during a sales call. To accomplish this, our senses collect information from the words customers speak, their gestures, and other sensory perceptive signals. In addition to paying attention to what the customer is saying, it is sensing the progress and momentum of the meeting. While the information is sometimes obvious, most often it is subtle and requires close attention to be recognized.

After the information is distinguished, care must be taken to ensure that they have correctly decoded the meaning (the second component of intuition). Everyone has their own personal dictionaries or lexicons of words. In fact, the average person’s vocabulary is about fifty thousand words. However, the definitions or semantics of the words vary between people.The meaning of “cost-effective”, “performance”, and “soon” vary from customer to customer. Correctly ascertaining the meaning people are actually trying to communicate by the words they select, the order of the words, and the way they are said is necessary for proper decoding. “Does the customer’s dictionary definition of a particular word match mine?”

Decoding also requires determining the congruency of people’s communication. It’s not only making sure that the speaker’s and listener’s dictionaries are the same but also checking if the speaker’s verbal and nonverbal communications are in agreement. For example, when customers say they enjoyed the meeting, do they display the warmth and affection that reinforces their words?

Once decoded, the next component of sales intuition is storing the experience. Although it weighs only three pounds, our brain is infinitely more complex than any computer. The brain has an incredible capacity to sort, prioritize, process, and store information. The mind stores a sales call experience in the form of unstructured objects. The objects are pictures, sounds, feelings, or actions that represent the experience. The better the sales call memory, the more data points are available for sales intuition. Here are six principles to help improve your memory of the sales call:

*          Sensory Information
During the sales call, consciously gather as much information as possible from your sight, sound, and touch senses. A vivid event is more likely to be memorized than a dull one, and the more sensory information that is incorporated into your memories, the higher your likelihood of recording it.

*          Association
Thoughts and experiences are more readily recalled when they are linked to a specific association. A very simple association would be the success or failure of the call. The association may be further defined by the customers’ technical and business requirements, their objections to purchasing your product, their prominent personality traits, and so on. Movement or action can also be used to add a third dimension to the memory and help ensure the event’s retention – for example, imprinting in your mind that you were writing on a white board when the customer presented a significant objection. How something is remembered will determine how much is remembered.

*          Specificity
The persistence of a memory is directly related to the precision of details that are input at the time of the experience. During a sales call, you may even want to tell yourself that some information is important and is not to be forgotten.

*          Unique Events
Many sales calls are free-flowing events that lack a strict organization of facts. Therefore, it is easier to remember any unusual and unique aspects of a sales call that stand out from the ordinary and mundane.

*          First and Last
Most salespeople are quick to remember how a sales call began (the big opening) and how it ended (the grand finale). This is a natural characteristic of memory, whereby we tend to remember the information that is presented first and last more than the details in between. This particularly applies to longer sales calls, more than an hour. One way to help remember all of the in-between information is to mentally break the sales call into smaller segments (or chunks) either by time, presenter, or topic of discussion.

*          The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Be forewarned, your brain has been trained to block out unpleasant images. However, it is critical that all information during a sales call, both good and bad, be stored.

Retrieving and comparing the individual entries within memory is the final component of intuition. Let’s pretend a salesperson is on a new sales call and recognizes the person he is meeting with as a skeptical person. By recalling past sales calls with skeptics, he or she is able to access the other attributes from these sales calls and determine the best course of action.

How do the components of sales intuition actually work during a sales call? The decision about what a salesperson says during a sales call is largely the result of their sales intuition. When a salesperson is asked a question or makes a statement, he or she will provide either "an instantaneous answer" or a “calculated answer”.

The instantaneous answer is available immediately since it is either the recall of a logical fact or the recollection of a "flashbulb episode". Logical facts include details committed to rote memory, such as product specifications, features, and performance details. Flashbulb episodes are emotional, physical, or cerebral experiences that were so overpowering that they are permanently imprinted in short-term memory. For example, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center is a flashbulb memory for many people.

Meanwhile, the calculated answer is akin to solving a mathematical equation within your mind by searching and selecting the right answer or creating an appropriate answer based upon a set of rules learned from prior experiences. The diagram below helps illustrate these concepts.

How Sales Intuition Works
Three types of calculated answers are constructed in long-term memory. The first type uses a prevalent attribute of the call to search previous experiences, for example, recalling previous meetings with skeptics to help answer a question asked by a skeptic.

Pattern recognition requires a more complex calculation involving multiple attributes. Let’s say, you were asked by a purchasing agent with a skeptical, detail-oriented personality, how your product is different from your major competitor’s. The creation of your answer would be based on previous encounters with this particular circumstance. Pattern recognition can be thought of as trying to find the what, when, where response – what you should do, when you are in this circumstance, where you need to respond to a question or execute a sales-related action.

Finally, in some instances salespeople are presented with situations they have never encountered before and they will have to use their imagination to create an answer. Making a best-guess answer requires a pattern recognition search to find closely resembling experiences plus additional hypothetical reasoning to create a new model. Obviously, this process takes the most time.

Since all types of calculated answers require processing in long-term memory, they take longer to produce. Recalling a logical fact that is resident in short-term memory is much easier than figuring out what to do next based on imagination. However, a customer expects you to respond to a question within a certain time frame. If you are face to face, this time is measured in seconds and there is a penalty for delay. The customer will perceive your answer as untruthful if the expected length of time is exceeded. This results in “selection pressure” on salespeople to produce an answer promptly. Quite often, when salespeople lie to a customer it is more likely because of the pressure to produce an instantaneous answer rather than a conscious decision to mislead.

Selection Pressure
Unfortunately, many companies today are making three common mistakes. First, the majority of sales training time is spent only on memorizing logical facts about the company, product, and competitors. Little or no training is given on the development of sales intuition, when in fact a person’s intuition is responsible for saying or doing the right thing at the right time.

The second mistake is that sales organizations don’t spend enough time studying and sharing the collective sales intuitions of their top performers. The fastest way to bring a junior salesperson up-to-speed is by imprinting the sales intuition of heavy hitters.

The third mistake is made during the hiring process. Most companies make previous experience in the same industry their main criterion for hiring. Since experienced people command the logical facts, they are assumed to be qualified candidates. A more important hiring criterion is how candidates respond to selection pressure. In other words, how quick-witted or fast on their feet are they, and are they able to solve complex problems in real time? Do they possess natural sales intuition?

Every selection process presents the salesperson with a “customer puzzle”. In order to solve the puzzle, salespeople must accumulate data. Learning how to find and interpret, store, and recall valuable information is a skill that Heavy Hitters have developed over time. Armed with this information, they are better able to determine their course of action based upon the data they have collected and past comparable experiences. By doing this, they can determine and select the best sales strategy and say the “right” words that offer the highest probability of winning.

Steve Martin is the author of the best seller "Heavy Hitter Selling”. His latest book "Heavy Hitter Sales Wisdom" is a sequel to his previous book. Steve has been personally responsible for over a quarter of billion dollars of high technology sales while working for leading edge Silicon Valley companies over the past twenty years. During this time, he has participated in thousands of sales calls and worked with hundreds of salespeople in roles ranging from salesperson to Vice President. For article feedback, contact Steve at


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