Poker – especially Texas Hold’em – has exploded in popularity over the past decade and with good reason: it’s a game of skill.Despite being played in casinos and containing huge elements of betting and gambling, it is a game won over the long run by the best, most disciplined players. You’re not playing against the house, with odds stacked against you.
Sales reps can learn a lot from poker.
Many of the same skills and lessons you need to succeed at poker – discipline, preparation, strategy, tactical execution, negotiation, game theory, data analysis – you also need to succeed in sales. For sales reps who either play casually at home with friends, or seriously in casinos or online, poker is a great microcosm for how they can succeed in sales.
Here are 6 lessons from the game of poker that can be applied to win the game of sales.
Play the Opponent, not the HandOne of the most famous adages in poker is that, “You always play the man, not the hand.” Players have certain styles, patterns, and unique habits that should affect the decisions you make when going up against them. Treating every hand, or type of hand, the same way will allow smarter players to exploit your lack of adaptability.
Adaptability, or agility, is also critical in sales. Every prospect you speak to will be different, with their own pain points, their buying preferences, and their priorities. Just because you sold software to one manufacturing company in Japan doesn’t mean that all manufacturing companies in Japan will be similarly receptive – you must do your research on each prospect, know the account intimately, match unique solutions to unique pain points and adapt to each new opponent you face.
Working with Incomplete Data and Information
A big part of poker is about managing and measuring risk – after all, you don’t know (for sure) what hands your opponents are holding and what cards are about to fall next. You have to take stock of the information you do have – the cards you’re holding, the historical trends of the opponents you’re facing, the betting patterns they’ve used so far in this hand – and decide how best to attack each hand.
In sales, you’re not in the minds or behind the closed-door discussions of your prospects. You think you know what’s important to them – based on your research, the probing and challenging questions you’ve asked, your past experience with similar customers – but you can never really be sure. You just have to apply the information you do have, listen to your gut, and trust in the process. Which brings us to…
The Importance of Process
Performance is doing the things you need to do to get the results you want. Results are a byproduct.You could play perfect poker…and still lose a hand. Or have a losing session over the course of a night. That’s just the reality of a variance-based game. Success in poker isn’t measured on short-term victories, but over tens of thousands of hands; luck evens out in the long-run, and skill eventually rises to the top.
- Steve McKenzie, InsightSquared VP of Sales
That’s why poker players always preach the importance of adhering to their process, and to always do the right thing at every step and every decision of each hand. It’s important not to be results-oriented – you’re simply forcing the odds into your favor as often as possible, to combat the unpredictable nature of luck and variance.
Sales is the same way. You could do all the right things…and still lose the deal. That doesn’t mean you should change the way you do things, because of this one bad result, when you have a proven track record and historical benchmarks that tell you the sales process is sound.
Steve McKenzie, the VP of Sales at InsightSquared, likes to remind the sales team here that “It’s all about performance – doing the things you need to do to get the results you want. Results are a by-product of that performance and process.” If sales reps focus on doing the right things at each level – from prospecting, to qualifying, to demoing, to challenging and to closing – the results, and deals, will come.
Tilt Control (aka Being a Good Loser)
Ah, tilt. That old scourge, the inner demons that every poker player inevitably battles after a tough loss or a losing session. Giving in to tilt – a state of mental or emotional confusion and frustration – means letting a bad result affect you and the way you play, leading to adoption of suboptimal strategy and tactics.
To combat tilt, poker players analyze their bad beats in terms of how they played the hand. If they did something right during any part of the hand, it‘s important to give yourself the credit for that and to continue doing it in future hands, results be damned. However, it’s also important to be self-critical, take lessons from what your opponent did, internalize that lesson and be prepared for it should you run into this scenario – and you will – again in the future.
Every sales rep has suffered a bad loss, a deal they fully expected to close that stumbled at the finish line. It can be frustrating to know that not only will you not be hitting your quota, but you spent so much time working on this opportunity. At this juncture, it’s important to not let one bad loss affect the way you play in the future – not to tilt – but also to reflect and learn important lessons.
Conducting a sales post-mortem on every opportunity you lose, especially the ones you were sure you would win, is a powerful exercise. By studying your loss reasons, you can identify patterns as to what you are doing wrong in your selling and start making real steps into improving on those mistakes for future opportunities.
Data-based Introspection and Self-Improvement
Poker players, especially online professionals, are extremely data-driven. This not only helps them during actual gameplay – being able to quickly calculate the chances of making a flush on the river, the pot odds of a particular hand to justify a call, the proper bet-sizing to ensure you maximize your return on the river – but especially with post-game analysis.
Again, it is important to remember that success in poker is measured in tens of thousands of hand, over an extremely long period of time. The multitude of hands you played prior to today should affect how you play in the future. You should be analyzing in great detail how your historical trends to course correct and play even better in the future.
A sales team that isn’t data-driven will never improve, simply because they don’t know where they need the most improvement. At what stage of the sales funnel are they losing the most deals? Do they know what their sweet spot is, in terms of opportunity size and stage? Have they measured their lead sources to know where most of their opportunities are coming from?
Sales is a game that is perfect for self-improvement, simply due to the wealth of sales data at our fingertips. By analyzing this data with a critical eye, you can readily identify the key areas to improve upon.
You Gotta Know When to Hold’em…Know when to fold’em! That’s the crux of poker in a nutshell – maximizing your winning hands to get as much money as possible, while minimizing the damage done on bad or losing hands, and sometimes even pocket Aces can be a bad hand. Every poker player has had to make a tough lay down on the river, giving up what had once looked like your golden ticket because your opponent simply made a better hand. It’s better to save your money and live to fight another day.
No sales rep wants to waste time chasing losing opportunities. Sometimes, despite your stubborn refusal to admit otherwise, you know some opportunities just aren’t going to Closed-Won. Instead of digging in your heels and spending more time and calories chasing those losing opportunities, it’s better to just fold your hand and move on to the next opportunity. Time is a sales rep’s most precious asset, and it should not be wasted.