What if the greatest salespeople on the planet are the opposite of who you think they are? Everyone sells, every day. It’s why the most successful people are better than most at selling themselves, their ideas, or their products. Yet when people hear the word “sales” they think of an overly confident, articulate extrovert at best, or, worse, a pushy, know-it-all huckster. Because of these misperceptions, when they find themselves in a situation where they need to sell, they feel compelled to put on the persona of a “good salesperson.” But there’s a disconnect between who we think good salespeople are and who they actually are. In any room, they’re not the most self-confident, they’re the most self-aware. They’re not the most sociable, they’re the most socially aware. And they don’t succeed in spite of obstacles, they succeed because of obstacles.
In their new book The Unsold Mindset, USC Marshall Adjunct Professors Colin Coggins & Garrett Brown sought out some of the most successful people from all walks of life, including CEOs, entrepreneurs, doctors, trial lawyers, professional athletes, agents, military leaders, artists, engineers, and countless others in between in hopes of understanding why they’re so extraordinary. They found that as different as all these incredible people were, they all had an eerily similar approach to selling. It didn’t matter if they were perceived as optimists or pessimists, logical or emotional, introverted or extraverted, jovial or stoic – they were all unsold on what it meant to sell and unsold on who people expected them to be.
In this interview, I speak to Colin Coggins & Garrett Brown, two of the world’s foremost experts on sales. We talk about the counterintuitive nature of the greatest sellers on the planet – and how we need to understand the psychology, culture and reality of sales.
Q: What do we think – and what should we think – when we think of sales?
Colin: Every keynote that we have, we start with two questions to the audience. The first question is, “What do you think of when you hear the word salesperson?” They say – yucky, manipulative, smarmy, etc. Then the second question is, “Who is the greatest salesperson you can think of?” The two most popular answers are Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King Jr. Parents and siblings are a close third, so that incongruence is where we started this book.
The greatest salespeople in the world are really good at selling, and selling is different to all of them, but it’s the exact opposite of what most of us think it is. Selling is about creating agency in the people that you are talking to so that they feel like they are part of the decision-making process. Selling is wanting to ask questions that you really want to know the answers to. Not ones that you have to ask. Selling is a connection and a relationship where people look for the good in you and what you’re saying. In other words, you want people to believe in you. That is an exercise that goes both ways. Great sellers look for the good and believe in people in order to do their job.
Garrett: It’s almost cliché at this point to say that everybody sells, but it’s true. Whether you’re selling a product, whether you’re selling an idea, whether you’re selling your child on whether they should eat their vegetables, or selling your partner or your spouse on what to have for dinner; any time you are trying to influence somebody or get them to make a decision that’s good for them you are selling.
We started out thinking that we were going to be writing a book about the mindset of great salespeople in the traditional sense, people who sell products and services. After talking to them, we’d ask them the question Colin mentioned about who the greatest salesperson is they knew, and the answers they were giving us were not people you would consider salespeople. They told us doctors, lawyers, actors, the local cupcake shop owner in the hometown where they grew up. So then we started talking to these people about how they “sell.” Most of the time they’d tell us, “I’m not a salesperson. I don’t sell. I inspire. I solve problems, I teach.” They would reframe it in some way even though it was still selling.
People have that misconception, and you think of that stereotype seen on TV, but in reality, any time you’re trying to convince somebody to do something, to take some kind of action that’s going to be good for them, that’s selling.
Q: Is that where the concept of the unsold came from?
Colin: We’ve never met anybody that has changed the world without moving people. We’ve never met anyone that changed their own world without moving people. When you think about what Garrett was saying, that everyone sells, in order to do anything of meaning and to chase your dreams you have to move people. Moving people is not a ‘yucky’ thing. Martin Luther King Jr. moved people.
The problem is that when we think about what it means to move people, we automatically think about somebody else. But all of these people that we interviewed were unsold on what it meant to sell. They give themselves permission to redefine it, just like they give themselves permission to show up raw and authentic, almost the antithesis of what most of us do. They give themselves permission to share a piece of them that most of us intentionally are trying to hide because they think it is the right thing to do.
We have students who prepare for an interview and say, ‘I’m going to be the best version of myself.’ Well don’t try to act like the authentic version of this person. Just be the authentic version of this person. They say, “Yeah, I get it. I’ll act authentic.” And we’ll have to say, “No, don’t act authentic. Be authentic.”
Being unsold on who society expects you to be means you give yourself permission to be vulnerable, and be authentic, and the result of that is people will see themselves in you. And that’s what people don’t get is that people don’t gravitate towards perfection. People like people like themselves. And that’s another definition of “selling,” when someone can see themselves in you.
Q: How do we deal with the emotional challenge and burnout of sales? Does inauthenticity contribute to this?
Garrett: For any role that we have in life, we have this box that we think we’re supposed to fit into, whether it is as a parent, or as an employee, or as a salesperson… A salesperson may think they’re expected to have all the answers, and to be perfect all the time, to be able to overcome any objection. Whatever that image is in our head we start to play that role. During the research process for the book we discovered a scientific finding behind this which was when you have to pretend or act and keep up these unrealistic appearances it can lead to that burnout eventually. They were ‘unsold’ on the fact that they had to this.
We talked to one sales leader who had an employee that was a great person, someone he loved spending time with, but he wasn’t getting results. He went to listen to some of the salesperson’s call recordings to try to see what was wrong and the person was unrecognizable. He said, “Where’s the person I was out for drinks with last night?” It’s because that person was putting on a persona and, like you said, that’s exhausting and will cause someone to burn out.
Q: Were there any common qualities in these best salespeople in different roles?
We found that what people are good at and what they love doing are not necessarily the same thing. Most great sellers and leaders figure out the things they love about their job – what they would do for free – and set up the infrastructure to intentionally avoid the parts of their job that force them to show up inauthentically. They’d set up the infrastructure to mitigate burnout because they’re mitigating inauthenticity.
These people were learners, they didn’t want to ‘know it all.’ They were the smartest people in the room but they were trying to find out a way to not to be the smartest person in the room. Most people are doing the opposite.
We talked to an advertising technology executive who was super successful at her job but she didn’t like technology. Think about that – she sells technology and is great at it, but she doesn’t like technology! Early on in her career, she said that the words “I don’t know” changed her life forever. Somebody asked her a question and instead of pretending she had the answer or skirting the question, she said, “I don’t know, let me go find out for you.” She realised she got more credit for being resourceful and finding answers, not for being like everyone else and having the answers on hand.
Another one I would add is that all of these people were very purpose-driven, and that surprised us. We started out asking them about their goals because we thought a book about selling needed to talk about goals. Traditional salespeople have goals handed to them in the form of quotas, and high performers of course have goals, but instead of answering our questions about goals, these great leaders and sellers would start talking about their purpose. We were talking to the former CMO of Atlassian, a massive global tech company with over 250,000 customers around the world, and 37 seconds into the interview he is beautifully articulating his purpose, and it’s this statement that you can tell guides the decisions he makes, and the companies and people he chooses to work with.
While we found that all of the high performers and all these salespeople, whether they had sales in their title or not, had goals, they were always tying it back to a higher purpose. Their goals became mile markers instead of finish lines on the road to this something bigger that was guiding all of them.
Q: How can we get over the ‘dread,’ if we have that, of selling?
Colin: That’s why we wrote the book! You are talking about self-awareness, whcih is very key to us. To be self-aware enough to know that you think sales is a yucky word, means you are self-aware enough to be a really great seller. That’s what it is all about.
Take our class, for example. We teach Sales Mindset for Entrepreneurs at USC. These students are not paying $60,000 a semester to show up and learn how to be a salesperson when they graduate, but that’s actually what they’re doing. A third of them show up every single class because they want to learn how to sell ideas. They want to garner investments, they want to be leaders, and entrepreneurs. A third of them show up because they want to sell themselves. They want to build relationships, they want to get hired for jobs. And a third want to sell products and services.
If you understand that everyone is selling, then you can actually re-mark the playing field and start thinking about, well, who actually is the greatest salesperson on the planet? For example, if I’m a mother or a father and I have to sell, or if I am a marketer who has to pitch an idea internally, or if I’m interviewing for a job – these are all sales activities, and none of these people typically would call that “sales” because they don’t like the word. That’s when they give themselves permission to put on an act. But if they would acknowledge it’s selling, and that’s why they are uncomfortable and trying to act like a different version of themselves.
Who people hope you are and who people expect you to be are two different people. When you arrive at an interview, the interviewer might expect you to be polished and have perfectly prepared answers for their questions, but they might hope you are someone just like them, imperfect and trying to do your best to figure it out.
During the COVID lockdown, we were watching recordings of a group of under-performers that were thriving during lockdown. The reason they were thriving was because they started the conversation immediately saying, “Hey, I just want to call out the elephant in the room. Yes, that’s my two year old behind me, and, yes, that’s my wife chasing him. I don’t even know if we should be having this conversation but we both have jobs to do so I just wanted to acknowledge how weird this is. And the other person would immediately say something like, “I’m so glad you said that. This is my first pandemic too!” They’d catch this vibe in the first 20 seconds. They only caught that vibe so early, the customer and the salesperson were on the same team so soon, because the seller assumed that this other person was in the same imperfect situation. All these great unsold sellers know that’s the truth, always. They see themselves in their customers, and in turn, their customers see themselves in them.
Q: When someone has gone through sales training, they can become far less effective because the pitch looks the same, the pattern looks the same, when they try to sell. What are your views on that?
Garrett: If you are starting out as a traditional salesperson, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking advantage of basic sales training. But we always tell everybody to remember that there is no right way to do things. The problem is that you get these trainings and you hear a certain way to do something and you think that’s the only way it has to be done. You think “even though that’s not comfortable for me, or how I would do it, or how I would say, I have to do it that way,” and that’s just absolutely not the case.
One example that makes us cringe is mirroring. People have been teaching salespeople to “mirror” for who knows how long. The idea is, supposedly, if you mirror a person’s body language to copy what they are doing it builds some kind of connection. But what really happened at some point many years ago, somebody was studying a great salesperson and they noticed that the salesperson was mirroring the body language of the person they were selling to. Since that salesperson was successful, they concluded that mirroring is what great salespeople do, which led to generations of people thinking about where their left arm goes or if they should be crossing their legs, which is ridiculous.
If you look at the science, humans mirror people naturally when we are genuinely and authentically connecting with another person. So the mistake that somebody made was thinking mirroring was why that person was a good salesperson, but they were actually good because they were so deeply connected with the person that they were talking to, that they were naturally and authentically mirroring them. It was the connection that made them a great salesperson.
Another one that we talk about from traditional sales training is a 3×3 exercise, where a sales trainer will tell you before any sales conversation to spend three minutes researching three things about the person you are going to talk to that you can use in the conversation.
That might mean looking them up to find something you can artificially use to build rapport or finding something that happened to their company that your product can help with. But there’s always this subtext in that training that you’re leveraging this information. Research is important. It’s great, but the subtext in the 3×3 is that you’re going to leverage it against the other person and use it to your advantage in the conversation. That motivation doesn’t sit right with us because a sale shouldn’t be like a chess match where you’re trying to win a game, you want to be on the same team as the other person working towards a solution that’s going to be good for everybody.
So we teach the 3×3 differently. We talk a lot about the impact of “falling in love” with the person you’re going to talk to, because we know that you’re going to act differently, you’re going to move differently, you’re going to come across differently, and you’re going to care differently if you genuinely care about the person you’re talking to. So instead of that traditional 3×3 exercise, we tell people to spend three minutes looking for three things that they actually love about the person that they’re going to talk to. Or at least could love.
Maybe you do your research and see that they’re involved in a charity and you are passionate about the same cause. It could be that you admire the outfit they’re wearing on their profile page. It doesn’t really matter if it’s big or small, as long as you love it. The point is to change your mindset so that when you show up in that conversation, you are showing up as somebody who genuinely cares. You want to find out if that person is the person you hope they are and that you’ve “fallen in love” with beforehand. If you do that, you’ll ask better questions, you’ll listen better, you’ll do whatever you can to do what’s best for that person, because you won’t be able to help it if you love them first. You’re in a different mindset.
Q: You talk about in the book of ‘adaptive resilience’ which is important because the “nos” a salesperson encounters are hard. Can you elaborate on how we build that resilience and the concept of ‘adaptive resilience.’
Colin: Learned optimism is a common theme throughout the entire book. In most industries, if a salesperson is getting said ‘no’ to 7 out of 10 times, they are probably doing really well. If they’re 30% closers, they are probably doing really well for themselves and for their company. Then the question is, how do you view the 70% of the time you get rejected? In the book we call it “celebrating the process,” and we found that great sellers understand, they’re self-aware enough to know, how long the sales cycles are. They’re self-aware enough to understand that they’re going get to ‘no’ 70% of the time, and so they just approach it as if it’s an exercise in prolonged gratification.
They celebrate more than just the win. They don’t just celebrate great conversations or successful milestones or closed deals. They also celebrate great losses. They celebrate failures and getting hung up on and missing out on deals, because they know the lessons they learn will make them better the next time.
Garrett and I always say we wish every new salesperson 1000 ‘nos’ on their first day so they have a huge tool belt, as long as they ask, “What could I have done differently?” Getting a ‘no’ is a good thing but getting the same ‘no’ twice means you are not doing your job. If you can celebrate a great “no” because now you have a tool to prevent you from getting that “no” again, that is the difference between great sellers and everyone else.
[Vikas:] Was it the same for you Garrett, the in terms of the reflection about resilience?
Garrett: Yes. There’s another theme that runs across all of this which is that, if you look for the good, you are going to find the good. If you look for the bad, you’re going to find that instead.
When Colin talks about celebrating the process, all of these great, successful leaders and sellers that we talked to, they just had this uncanny ability to find the good in a bad situation. It’s not toxic positivity. If they are having a terrible day, they acknowledge that and they live in that but in the long run, they know they’ve come out of every bad situation they’ve ever been in before. They have a pathological optimism that drives them through and pushes that resilience because they are looking for something positive. It’s the same with falling in love and getting into that mindset, you’re looking for the good in the person. We know that what you look for, you’re going to find.
Colin: The entrepreneurs that follow you will appreciate that later on in your career, you’re looking for the friction, you’re looking for the obstacles because you realise that success follows these challenges that someone’s going to solve. But early in your career you’re looking to avoid obstacles, you’re looking to avoid friction, to avoid the pain. At some point, that’s how you can measure self-awareness growing and that is the point when you realise that to have a breakthrough, you actually have to find something to break through. So there is an optimism scale that starts to get easier over time.
Q: What are some of the most important things that all of us can do to be better at selling [in whatever context it may mean for us?]
Colin: You got to read the book!
Garrett: The first thing you got to do is acknowledge what you are doing is selling and get comfortable with that and realise that it’s not an ‘icky’ thing. If you need to reframe it and call it “teaching” or “inspiring” or “problem solving,” that’s fine, but know that it’s selling.
The second one is really a tangible takeaway and related to what Colin was talking about earlier, when he touched on intentional ignorance and setting up the infrastructure to ignore the things that don’t light you up or that you’re not as good at as other people. Is there a way for you to bring in resources to give yourself permission to intentionally and intelligently ignore those things?
Like the example of the woman who didn’t like technology. If you were that person would you be able to bring in other resources from your company that do love technology? Are there customers that you’ve worked with who could have that conversation instead? I mentioned General McChrystal earlier. As a military general he told us he’s expected to know everything, but he realised that there are people in his organisation that know things better than him and that can give direction on things better than he can. He wanted those people to live their dharma and do the things they’re passionate about so that he didn’t have to try to be someone he’s not or know things he doesn’t. I would say it’s important to set up to give yourself permission to ignore the things that are going to make you less compelling or passionate or happy with your job is something that all of us can do if we spend five or 10 minutes just thinking about it.
Colin: I think that falling in love is probably the most important thing that you can attempt to do that you could start immediately. Great sellers are remembered for their questions, not their statements. The question is, why are they so damn good at asking better questions than everyone else? When you ask a really good question to someone, the chances are they’ve never heard it before. So then they ideate for the first time in real time, and whatever that answer is, that’s their’s – the person asking the question has literally given them a gift, because now they have this answer, but it’s theirs. They take ownership of it. The only way you can ask a question like that is if you want to know an answer that most people don’t want to know. And the only reason you’re going to want to know the answers is if you’re enamoured with this person, or if you’re looking for things that other people are looking for, or if you are researching them in a way where you’re not necessarily falling in love with them, but you are falling in love with the idea of who they could be. If you could spend three minutes finding three things about someone that you’re about to talk to and just asking questions – Who do I hope they are? What are three things that I could love about them? You will show up and you will move differently. Your first question might be the same as everyone else’s, but your second question is going to hit differently, because we all know what it feels like to be in a conversation with someone who’s looking for the good in us, who believes in us, who wants the best for us. You can’t fake that. If you want to act authentic it’s going to be impossible. But if you want to show up authentically, figure out what you’re genuinely excited about.
Garrett: I want to give one more because Colin inspired me with that answer. We have the luxury as sales leaders and as consultants who work with companies to watch hundreds of salespeople do what they do and we can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen somebody at the end of a call, they’ve done a great job, and they’ve done everything that they’re supposed to do, and the customer/prospect on the other end of the phone goes, you are a great salesperson… but I’m not going to buy. When we analyse this, the reason for the rejection is almost always because the salesperson was too good; they backed the customer into a corner where the customer didn’t feel like they had any control or agency over their own decision. If that is happening to someone, what’s probably happening is that they’re stripping the customer of their agency, and we all want to be in control of our circumstances and in control of our decisions. Doing the things that Colin just mentioned, and asking questions and letting people come to their own conclusions is a really great way to give somebody a choice and let them make the decision that’s best suited for them so that you are not backing them into a corner and seeming like you’re making it for them.
Colin: People will say ‘no’ to you because you’re right.
Colin Coggins and his business/teaching/writing partner, Garrett Brown, are authors, speakers, and professors known for their entertaining and unexpected approach to selling that blurs the line between sales and life. They teach the popular class they created, Sales Mindset for Entrepreneurs, at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. As sought-after speakers, they bring their antithetical, mindset-first approach to audiences around the world. They are also co-founders of Agency18, a firm that helps mission-driven companies adopt the Unsold Mindset.
Colin has deep experience as a sales & revenue leader, practitioner, and theorist, known for his unique and proven approach to scaling revenue generation by cultivating sales IQ across entire organizations, not just within sales units. He has held senior leadership roles at several emerging technology companies, including Bitium, Mobile Roadie, and most recently as the Chief Commercial Officer at Fabric. Colin was the SVP of sales at Bitium, where he and Garrett met for the first time. They worked together until Bitium was acquired by Google, and haven’t stopped working together since. After the Google acquisition, Colin took on a Chief Revenue Officer role, while also becoming a sales advisor to startups, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Techstars, and a lead mentor at Black Ambition.
Colin remains an investor, advisor, and an executive commercial leader, in addition to the work he does with Garrett. He resides in Los Angeles, California with his family.
Garrett Brown and his business/teaching/writing partner, Colin Coggins, are authors, speakers, and professors known for their entertaining and unexpected approach to selling that blurs the line between sales and life. They teach the popular class they created, Sales Mindset for Entrepreneurs, at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. As sought-after speakers, they bring their antithetical, mindset-first approach to audiences around the world. In 2023, their book, The Unsold Mindset: Redefining What it Means to Sell, was published by Harper Business. They are also co-founders of Agency18, a firm that helps mission-driven companies adopt the Unsold Mindset.
Garrett began his career as a corporate lawyer representing entrepreneurs and startup founders. Inspired by his clients, he decided to leave the world of law and enter the exciting world of tech startups. His first role was as a salesperson for online gaming platform Fastpoint Games, where he eventually climbed the ranks to run all sales and business development efforts until the company was acquired.
Garrett later helped launch enterprise software startup Bitium as the company’s chief revenue officer, building and overseeing all revenue functions. After Colin joined the company, the two worked side-by-side until Bitium was acquired by Google. Garrett joined Google in a revenue management role, learning countless lessons about the inner workings of one of the most recognizable companies on the planet.
Today, in addition to the work he does with Colin, Garrett is an active investor and startup advisor. He lives in Huntington Beach, California with his wife and two boys.