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Stop Gambling on Sales: 3 Poker Lessons Help You Win Big

ByGreg McBeth,
business.com writer
| Last Modified
May 09, 2019
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> Marketing
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Just like every table is unique when playing poker, each sale might necessitate a slightly different set of plays. Regardless of whether you're playing or selling, the approach you choose will be the difference between winning and losing.

To observers, a game of high-stakes poker might look like a random series of events. To players, it's anything but. While luck certainly matters in the short term, over time, the most skilled players are certain to come out on top.

In that sense, poker is analogous to sales for small businesses. Despite research suggesting that only 47.3% of expected deals come through, given enough of a sample size, strong salespeople will always have above-average success, even if individual deals go south for seemingly random reasons. A critical role in their long-term success is that they know the outcome is more in their control than others might think.

That sales and poker align closely is a belief born from my personal experience of playing professionally. While in college, I began to play poker online – initially for fun and eventually to finance spring break. After depositing $100 online one night and turning it into $2,000 within 24 hours, I quickly realized my earning potential and started taking trips to Las Vegas. The day after I graduated from college, I moved to Vegas and immediately began playing full time at the Bellagio – six days a week for up to 12 hours each day.

After a year of that exciting lifestyle, I scaled back to playing poker recreationally and began a full-time corporate job. Gradually, I worked my way up the ladder into an executive position at an artificial intelligence startup where I led sales and business development. While my resume might seem disjointed, the problem-solving and personal development skills that I learned from poker and sales have helped me achieve success in my career.

If you've struggled with sales for your small business, take my advice as someone who has been in stressful situations with rent money literally on the (poker) table. You don't need to have an ounce of gambling blood flowing through your veins to benefit from these three sales lessons that I learned from poker.

1. Learn your game so you can prepare accordingly.

Winging it is for amateurs; professionals know that success requires preparation. You have to understand the inner workings of your small business in the same way you need to understand more than just the basics of the game to win at the card table. When I was playing full time, I spent my off hours reading poker books, discussing hands in online forums and speaking with other players about different strategies. There is no substitute for time at the tables, but you will be more effective if you prepare and study different strategies that you can test at the tables.

Understanding the inner workings of your business requires understanding your market, competitors, product, customers and employees. Research is important but will only get you so far. Every successful entrepreneur and business leader must get out and interact with the people who make their business possible. The best CEOs and sales leaders I've worked with spend significant time with others by hosting one-on-one meetings with direct reports, leading company Q&A sessions, sitting in on customer calls and taking part in interviewing candidates.

Effective selling requires this type of upfront preparation too, and modern sales leaders understand that they will often engage with multiple decision-makers who bring their own biases and predilections. As the 2018 B2B Buyers Survey Report notes, on average, a half dozen people are involved in the buying process. Just as poker players need to learn different players' styles to adjust accordingly, salespeople must be ready to work with anyone who comes to the table.

2. Know when to hold 'em; know when to fold 'em. 

Kenny Rogers' song rings true in both poker and sales. In poker, you always have the option to fold, but most players don't do it often enough. Similarly, you can always walk away from a potential deal, but most small business owners don't know when to do so. Especially for SMBs and early-stage startups with a limited customer base, it can be tough to walk away from revenue.

However, chasing ineffective revenue can be doubly costly down the road, especially for a business with limited resources. This is why it's important to set disqualification criteria early and establish the buying process upfront. By understanding what factors will render a prospect unprofitable, who will be involved in the deal, who has decision-making power, the timeline for a potential purchase and the potential hurdles, sales reps can get a better sense of when a deal veers into an unrecoverable situation.

This isn't to say that you won't get surprises, but surprises aren't necessarily deal-killers. The longer you sell and the more knowledgeable your audience, the more frequently you will hear unique objections and encounter unfamiliar situations. Effective preparation is absolutely critical for managing unpredictability.

As one statistic notes, 61% of talented sales experts believe the game has gotten tougher. That means you don't always have the luxury of going back to your reading material to learn how to handle challenging situations. Instead, training yourself and your team on general-purpose skills that help you spot the differences between a "hold" and a "fold" deal is critical for small businesses. This is where an effective hiring strategy focused on ability and character in addition to experience pays dividends.

3. Respond to bad beats by playing your game.

Play poker long enough and you'll experience a bad beat: a hand you should have won but didn't due to bad luck. Bad beats are one of the most frustrating aspects of poker, and even the best players in the world aren't immune to being rattled by them. But the best players also recover quickly. Sales is no different.

Sales, like poker, are both mathematical and psychological. Sell long enough and you'll probably lose several deals that seemed like sure things. After such bad beats, it's important to remain focused on the process. After all, an effective process is designed to minimize the primary risks of a deal.

Have a system of routinely following up with prospective clients, engaging with multiple people within an organization and making sure all conversations drive to relevant next steps. Effective client research and continual skill improvement will help you reduce the risk associated with every deal. Instead of focusing on wins or losses, use them to re-evaluate your strategies and ask why something failed or succeeded. You'll still experience challenges and losses along the way, but they'll be easier to handle and less frequent, because you will have set in motion the steps to succeed.

Greg McBeth
Greg McBeth
See Greg McBeth's Profile
Greg McBeth is the head of revenue at Node.io, the first turnkey AI platform that enables businesses to leverage predictive artificial intelligence within their own products, customer databases, and external systems of record, all via a standard API. In addition to his work with Node, Greg coaches companies and business professionals on how to improve performance with a multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving that starts with asking “why?” — an approach he developed as a professional poker player and card counter after graduating Stanford University in 2004 with a engineering degree and focus in behavioral psychology.
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