What Poker Taught Me About Sales


I’ve spent so much of my life between sales pitches and poker tables that I sometimes forget which game I’m playing.

I’ll be in a sales pitch and a client will push back with a bold objection. In my head a poker voice will ask, ‘Did I just get raised?’

I’ll be at the poker table betting with a strong hand and my opponent will be unsure if he should call or not. In my head a sales voice will ask, ‘Have I really convinced him to buy?’

I could write a book about the similarities between sales and poker. They are uncanny.

But I don’t have time to write a book right now so I’ll start with a post about some of the things poker taught me about sales.

Here they are:

Luck in the short term, skill in the long term.

My mother could sit down with the best poker player in the world, one time, and win.

But if they played 100 times, she would most certainly come out on the losing end (sorry, Mom).

This is the answer to the much debated riddle, “Is poker skill or luck?”

It’s both…depending on time.

In the short term, anyone can get lucky and win a hand.

Similarly in sales, anyone can get lucky and close a deal: right time, right place, 24 hour sales cycle and boom, you’re a superstar.

But time has a way of leveling the playing field and in the long term, luck will give way to skill.

If you want to achieve great things over the course of your sales career then you’re going to need to hone your skills.

That is the only way to continuously succeed over the long term. You can do this by becoming a student again.

Results matter, but to get them, ignore them.

Most poker players walk into the casino with the goal of making money. They’ll say to themselves, “I’m going to try to make $500 today.”

That’s the wrong focus.

Focusing on results produces stress and anxiety, neither of which are going to help you win.

Focusing on results is focusing on the future, when it’s the present that’s going to get you there.

Instead, build a process that you’re confident will get you to the result and focus entirely on that process.

If you’re a poker player walking into the casino, your goal should be making the right decisions at the poker table. Nothing else. You must have faith that if you do that, day in and day out, the result will come.

You might get unlucky and lose today, but if you’re making the right decisions then in the long term you will make money. So forget about the results.

If you’re a sales professional walking into a quota of $500k, your goal should be to figure out what actions on a monthly, weekly, and daily level will get you to the result.

Figure those out and then forget all about your quota.

I used to stare at the gap between where I was and where I needed to be in regard to my sales quota. It produced stress and anxiety and not much else. I didn’t have a process I could believe in so I just stressed about the gap and ran as fast as I could in a million directions, hoping I’d somehow “get there.”

What I needed to do was to think about the present: what do I need to do today?

What I needed to do was get clear on a daily process and forget all about my quota.

Am I getting the right pot odds?

If there is $50 in the pot and someone bets me $50, that means I need to put in $50 for a chance to win $100. I’m getting 2:1 on my money.

On the other hand, if there is $50 in the pot and someone bets me $1, that means I only need to put in $1 for a chance to win $51. I’m getting 51:1 on my money.

Much better pot odds.

In sales your pot odds are the total size-of-prize (SOP) you could win if you were to close the deal, and what you ‘put in’ is the amount of effort you need to give in order to close the deal.

Poker taught me to never over-invest in small deals, nor to under invest in big ones. You need to find a way to align your efforts with your possible returns.

Don’t be a calling station.

In poker a ‘calling station’ is someone who never bets and who never folds. They just passively hang around in the hand, hoping to get lucky but never knowing whether they are ahead or behind.

It’s an easy persona to replicate if you’re interested in becoming a losing poker player.

In sales, you can’t hang around passively in deals, letting the client do all the betting and just hoping that it will close. You have to get in there and bet. You have to take control — and you do that by challenging.

If they’re too optimistic about your product/service, challenge them. Ask them why they’re so optimistic and see if they can communicate the value proposition back to you. It’s great that they’re so keen but what are the reasons they wouldn’t move forward with a purchase?

If they’re too pessimistic about your product/service, challenge them. Ask them how they plan on solving their problem without your product. What would be the impact to them personally, and to their business, if they don’t solve their problem?

Find out where you are in the hand so that you can properly assess your pot odds.

By Ryan Paugh

Hi there!

With decades spent exploring the outer world and the inner world, I share some of the insights I have learned along the way.

Topics include mindfulness, spirituality, growth, perspective, and career.

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