Perception is Everything

UPDATED: May 11, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 14, 2011

You've been selling all your life.

Remember giving Dad your best sales pitch to borrow the car? Then you bundled up your qualifications, crossed some fiingers and hoped your potential new boss would “buy.” Truth is, even your love life depends upon someone’s perception of you, on your ability to connect socially and ultimately “sell” the entire package.

The same holds true for business sales. Cold calling a prospect is much the same as asking for a dinner date. Success or failure comes down to perception and presentation. Granted, prospects aren’t expecting any sort of romantic spark, but they do measure salespeople, rightly or wrongly, by their impressions. “In the eyes of the observer, perception is reality. The observer believes that what he or she sees is real,” says Gary Hankins, author of The Power of the Pitch.

The difference between a successful salesperson and a mediocre one often lies in the nuances of social behavior and the skills for building relationships and controlling another person’s perception. So, while you may be adept at sharing your in-depth knowledge of your product, if you stand too close and invade your client’s personal space, you may be perceived as pushy or creepy. Fail to listen empathetically to clients, and you could be perceived as egotistical. Lack enthusiasm in your voice and you’re lazy.

Because human interaction of any kind is fraught with pitfalls like misperception, it is in your best interest as a salesperson to critique your own social skills and pay close attention to the reactions you get. Survey your friends and colleagues, videotape your presentations or seek the input of a coach. Perceive yourself as others do, and you can make meaningful and strategic changes to your social behavior that will make a lasting and accurate impression on everyone you meet.



People cutting short their interactions with you? Something about you may be off-putting. Maybe your personal agenda to sell is overpowering those around you and turning them off. Are you doing all the talking?

Entering into a conversation with anyone, be it a friend or sales prospect, should resemble a game of backyard catch. “Pay attention to how long you hold the ball, and then toss it back in his direction, which signals it’s his turn to talk. In time, he’ll toss the ball right back to you,” says Joe Sweeney, author of Networking Is a Contact Sport. Monopolize conversations and you risk being dismissed as a pompous, full-of-himself bore, even if you’re simply overexcited nervously talking to fill awkward silence.

There’s a time and place for the hard sell, but don’t let your enthusiasm for your product or service alienate your friends and potential clients. Your behavior when meeting people casually in a social setting should differ from that of a power networker glad-handing in a room of business prospects. Overt attempts to sell at a social gathering backfire. Instead, keep your cool, show an interest in others and focus on building relationships, rather than selling, in this venue.

Examine your motives. If you start every conversation focused on What’s in it for me?, you’re in for a bumpy career in sales. You’ll develop superficial relationships that lack the necessary strength for long-term networking and success. Choose, instead, a “pay-it-forward” attitude, and foster relationships based on giving rather than receiving. Sincerity really does pay; it just takes a little longer.

Start by taking an interest in the who, rather than in the what. “Use any scrap of information fl ying around your brain to formulate an interesting question, which can cut through the clutter that typifi es human discourse these days,” Sweeney says. For a good conversation starter, look to what’s important to this person. Maybe there’s a new, industry controversy you’d like him to weigh in on or, perhaps, her son sacked the quarterback twice in Friday night’s game.

Asking, however, is only half the equation here. You must also listen. Focus your attention on the speaker and take in every word. Empathetic, active listening not only raises your likeability factor in the eyes of the prospect, but also gives you fodder for future, compelling questions. You’ll need these as you nurture the relationship.


If you want to connect with people individually or in group presentations, you have to put your ego aside and develop a “Rock Star Attitude.” In other words, talent is not enough. Sure, you play guitar and sing, but audiences don’t buy it unless you show them some love.

“If stakeholders don’t like you, it will only be a matter of time before you’re fi red. Wall Street is littered with the bodies of CEOs who have failed to understand the importance of the Rock Star Attitude,” says Hankins.

When you’re making a presentation, showing the “love” is easy. Start by maintaining eye contact and smiling— a genuine grin, not a grimace or some plastic version. Lighten up. Don’t focus so hard on the pitch that your face looks strained. Bring a little levity, interject some humor and get your audience involved by asking questions and expecting answers. Be prepared and rehearsed, so you can relax and actually enjoy the human interaction of the pitch. Audiences will feel your authenticity.

Sales, in its simplest form, connects people with what they need. The sharper your ability to discern prospect and client needs, the greater your sales success. But the easier you make it for your client to relate and communicate with you, the easier it will be to discern those needs in the first place.