No seriously, you’re not ready to read this. Don’t worry, we see this all the time.

You’re still reading? Well, okay. Maybe you are ready.

This article is about telling people something that goes against your intended goal. This article is about negative reverse selling.

  • What is negative reverse selling?
  • Where did negative reverse selling come from?
  • Why does negative reverse selling work?
  • How can you use the negative reverse selling tactic?

What is negative reverse selling?

Negative reverse selling is a “reverse psychology” selling technique that helps to direct a conversation and test your prospect’s resolve. It’s done by asking questions and making statements contrary to the goal of closing a sale.

Reverse psychology is defined as “a technique involving the assertion of a belief or behavior that is opposite to the one desired, with the expectation that this approach will encourage the subject of the persuasion to do what actually is desired.”

In other words,

  • Tell someone to do the opposite of what you want them to do
  • Do something that would normally result in the opposite of what you want

Negative reverse selling takes reverse psychology and applies it to sales. Potential customers have concerns, objections, and questions in the sales process. Sales reps have to push past these and get to the sale.

‘Normal’ sales situations require a sales rep to:

  • Explain away a concern
  • Overcome objections
  • Pivot from a difficult question

Often, potential customers expect to be sold to. They’re prepared to resist a salesperson’s tactics. They think of sales reps as the classic used-car-salesman stereotype and will not be swindled no matter how good the sales rep makes it sound.

And they push back.

In a negative reverse selling scenario, the sales rep agrees with the prospect or continues to ask them to elaborate without trying to overcome or convince them otherwise.

This is done in two parts:

  1. A ‘softener statement’ to agree with the customer and clarify that their concern is valid and understood
  2. A negative statement expressed in a way that’s opposite to the position you want to take or the direction you want to steer the conversation (reverse psychology).

The softening statement is used to lower the prospect’s defenses and disarm them. This is so the negative statement doesn’t provoke, offend, or anger them. Examples of softening statements include:

  • “I see what you mean”
  • “I understand”
  • “Which means…?”
  • “So…”
  • “That’s a completely valid concern”
  • “You’re absolutely right”

The unexpected negative statement leans into the prospect’s objection or concern. Because the prospect is geared up to disagree with the sales rep, the prospect ends up defending the product!

“People will fight to the death to preserve their right to say “No,” so give them that right and the negotiating environment becomes more constructive and collaborative almost immediately.” – Chris Voss in Never Split The Difference

Negative reverse selling helps you keep the sales conversation in your control

The intended result of negative reverse selling is to make the prospect to reconsider or explain the reasons behind their objections. It’s the art of making them sell to themselves.

Where did negative reverse selling come from?

Negative reverse selling was created by David H. Sandler in 1967 as part of the Sandler Selling System. The goal of the system is to convince the prospect that they are pursuing the deal and in need of the product, rather than sales representatives ‘selling’ them.

The system begins with a fit assessment or sales discovery call. What happens on that call?

  • The sales rep dives into the prospect’s pain points and learns about the prospect’s business
  • Ideally, sales reps listen more than they talk and ask plenty of questions
  • When the rep understands the prospect’s problems, they explain how their product/service solves them

Negative reverse selling fits into the system if/when a prospect begins to ask questions, express concerns, or wants to ‘think on it’.

The negative reverse isn’t a concrete step in the process for every deal, but a strategy to use when the situation is difficult to overcome.

Negative reverse selling pushes the prospect and tests their reaction to an idea rather than jumping at the first opportunity to close the sale. Sandler compares this to fishing and many recommend a strategy called ‘stripping line’:

When you’re fishing and you feel a bite, don’t set the hook right away (or you’ll lose the fish). Instead give the fish some line to run, let it take the bait and catch itself. All you’ve got to do is reel it in and take a picture with it.

The same applies to sales. If the prospect shows interest and you ‘set the hook’ (go for the close) too early, chances are they’ll become suspicious and be put off. Instead, do the opposite of what you want, and give them some space to sell themselves!

Dale Carnegie summed it up when he said, “…when I went fishing, I didn’t think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted. I didn’t bait the hook with strawberries and cream. Rather, I dangled a worm or grasshopper in front of the fish and said: ‘Wouldn’t you like to have that?’”

Why does negative reverse selling work?

Negative reverse selling works because trying to convince people doesn’t work. You can’t convince people of anything. They will resist. Prospects want to buy but they don’t want to be sold.

They have to discover the solution themselves. Negative reverse selling helps to make your potential buyer think it’s their idea.

“Something in each of us is resistant to the idea of closing. We all like to think something is our idea. This is the beauty of negative reverse selling. Remember, the most powerful close is when a client is doing the closing.” – Pete Oliver, President at Sandler Training

When you tell your prospect:

  • “It’s probably not a good idea”
  • “You’re not ready”
  • “I don’t think you have what we need”

They will start to defend themselves, and your product! They craft their own arguments about why it is a good idea, why they are ready, and why they have what is needed.

Prospects expect sales reps to respond when they object or have a concern. They expect the sales rep to convince them otherwise and they’re ready to push back. Negative reverse selling uses this to the sales rep’s advantage.

Negative reverse selling is like a pendulum – if you pull in one direction and let it go it swings back in the opposite direction.

Don’t push them in the direction you want – pull them in the opposite direction! Their tendency to ‘pull away’ from sales reps will move them in the direction you want them to go.

This is where the negative reverse sell shines. It’s about taking a step backward to draw the prospect forward.

How can you use the negative reverse selling tactic?

You can use negative reverse selling in tough sales scenarios. When the prospect:

  • Expresses a “deal-breaker”
  • Is dragging their feet
  • Wants to think it over
  • Objects to price, timeline, or delivery

Sandler’s negative reverse selling shouldn’t be relied upon as a primary sales strategy, but a method to break a stalemate. It’s a challenge that tests your lead’s interest and cuts through the formality.

“Every person loves the chance for self-expression and the opportunity to prove his or her worth, to excel, to win. So if you want to win people to your way of thinking, when all else fails, Throw down a challenge.” – Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

If you choose to use negative reverse tactic, you have to be willing to accept ‘no.’

Hearing ‘no’ isn’t a bad thing. It’s part of a sales job to determine the potential customer’s fit. Not every prospect will be a closed sale. And if you’re going to get a ‘no’ you might as well save time and get to it as soon as possible.

Let’s look at some specific use cases.

You might try the negative reverse selling technique when a potential client is concerned about pricing.

“The price is too high.” – many of your prospects

Here you have a few options. You can leave it open ended and let them elaborate:

  • “Which means…?”
  • “Say more.”
  • “So…?”

This approach requires the prospect to explain themselves. Is their budget too low? Do they not see the value? Are they trying to get a discount? You might have to ask for clarification a few times before you get to the real reason. Let them sell themselves by telling you everything they need.

“An attempt to get people to change their choice (e.g. away from a currently used brand) could lead them to defend that current choice—otherwise they might look irrational. Instead of asking customers to make a choice, ask them to first think about the benefits or features they desire, and then consider how the available options meet their criteria.” – Professor J. Scott Armstrong in Persuasive Advertising

Or you can soften them up first and then hit them with a negative reverse haymaker:

  • “I completely understand. I don’t think you’re ready to make this investment.”
  • “That’s a valid concern. I guess we’re done here.”

There’s definitely some risk involved in this response. But in the right situation the prospect will defend their readiness and sell themselves on your product.

Another common situation to apply the negative reverse is the stalled prospect.

“I’ll have to think about it and get back to you.” – every prospect ever

Many deals fall through the cracks because the prospect went dark or ‘ghosts’ the sales rep. Potential customers love to “think about it and get back to you” and never get back to you.

The ‘scale of 1-10’ strategy with a negative reverse reduces the chances of that happening.

  • “With 1 being ‘not at all’ and 10 being ‘ready to purchase today’, where are you on a scale of 1-10?”

This question is a perfect set up for the negative reverse because whatever their answer, you can use it to your advantage. Respond that their level of interest is higher or lower than you thought in order to push or pull them in a particular direction.

Conclusion: Use the negative reverse with caution!

The negative reverse is high-reward, but comes with a significant risk. The deal could blow up in your face, the sales lead could get angry, or worse. The last thing you want to do as a sales rep is fight with your prospects.

Using psychology as a sales tactic works in some scenarios, but should never be your primary strategy. The negative reverse must be calculated and thoughtful, not an every-time-you-face-an-objection tactic.

That said, Sandler’s negative reverse selling strategy can be an effective way to resurrect a deal that seems to have flatlined. It’s also a strategy that helps you get to the real reasons behind a sales prospect’s concerns or objections, and that is valuable information for a sales representative to have.