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Historically, salespeople have not been regarded positively. In the public imagination, the stereotypical salesperson is slick, deceitful, and immoral. They'll do anything to make a sale -- even if it means lying to a buyer's face. 

Today, the vast majority of salespeople do not fit this description. Instead of shoving products down their prospects' throats, they strive to enable positive outcomes and provide valuable guidance. A far cry from the used car salesman of old.

The best salespeople know that acting pushy, demanding, or impatient will turn off their prospects. If you're an overtly rude or unpleasant rep, it's no surprise your prospects don't like you. However, according to psychological research, a handful of subconscious and seemingly innocent behaviors can also damage a person's likeability. 

Although these six behaviors seem innocuous, they could actually inspire your prospects' or clients' disdain. If you don't seem to "click" as well with your clients as your colleagues do, one of these bad habits could be to blame.

1) Using the word "honestly."

The word "honestly" is increasingly becoming a verbal tic that all professionals say from time to time. But while it might be the equivalent of "ah" or "um" to you, it comes off very differently to your audience. 

Honest people don't generally call attention to their honesty. If a sales rep peppers their pitch with "to be honest" and "honestly," the prospect might actually start to mistrust and dislike them. Not to mention that the phrase raises questions about assertions not preceded by "to be honest." Does that mean everything you've said before was a lie? When are you being honest, and when aren't you?

If you have doubts about how damaging this word can be, consider that police interrogators listen for the word "honest" as an indicator that the suspect is lying. Hopefully you'll never find yourself in a dimly lit interrogation room, but just in case, you might want to purge "honestly" from your speech now.

2) Being too giving.

In recent years, a wide variety of sales experts and influencers have proposed replacing the mantra "always be closing" with something more fitting for modern selling -- "always be serving," "always be helping," "always be consulting," etc. No matter what version you go with, the message is clear: Giving is good.

Except when it's not. University of Washington research found that study participants who played a game extremely unselfishly were regarded with suspicion by their fellow players.

"A majority of participants said they would not want to work with the unselfish colleague again," a Science Daily article stated. "They frequently said, 'the person is making me look bad' or is breaking the rules. Occasionally, they would suspect the person had ulterior motives."

While being accommodating is great, being overly accommodating is not. Bending over backwards to please a client might actually make them dislike you instead. To avoid crossing into doormat territory, ask for something in return each time you grant a prospect's special request or give them something outside the normal scope of service. 

3) Not playing favorites.

According to The Challenger Sale, most B2B buying processes now involve multiple stakeholders. That means reps don't just have to get on one person's good side -- they have to endear themselves to five or six executives at a time. 

While it seems like a given that salespeople should strive to foster an equally strong relationship with all relevant stakeholders, this might actually cause the team to turn against the rep. A Northwestern University study of speed daters found that participants perceived to be unselective were less desirable than those who demonstrated special interest in a few particular matches. In other words, people who like everyone the same are not as well-liked as those who allocate their affection and praise disproportionately.

This isn't to say a salesperson should become best friends with two stakeholders and snub the rest. Reps should form bonds with everyone on a buying panel. However, if certain ties are tighter than others, that's more than acceptable -- it might actually be better for your overall likeability. 

4) Using belittling language. 

Again, sometimes the most ordinary words can cause the most damage.

If a rep is actively pursuing a client, they should believe the prospect would benefit from their product or service. But although this is apparent to the salesperson, it might be anything but to the buyer.

For this reason, salespeople should stay away from language that subconsciously makes the prospect feel uninformed or slow. Think words and phrases such as "obviously," "evidently," "clearly," "without a doubt," and "you should." Nobody likes feeling dumb or being told what to do, and just one small word can change the tone of an entire conversation.

5) Posting a too close close up.

This is undoubtedly the strangest entry on the list. In a CalTech study, participants were asked to describe their feelings about a person based on two headshots -- one taken seven feet away, and one taken two feet away.

The result? Participants judged the person in the overly close picture to be untrustworthy and less attractive than the exact same person photographed seven feet away. Lesson: Don't post a selfie for your social media profile pictures (unless you used a selfie stick to take it). 

6) Not listening.

Salespeople can sometimes get so caught up in their thoughts about a sale that they mentally drift off when their prospects are talking. And after repeating this habit several times, they become masters at responding like they're listening while actually zoning out or multitasking.

Although some prospects might not sense the salesperson's mental distance, others will, and their perception of the salesperson will sour instantly. Consider that Tim Sanders, author of The Likeability Factor includes the following on his list of "unlikeability aspects:"

  • I get distracted when listening to others.
  • I talk more than I listen.
  • There are times when I am dishonest with people.

Although it might be tempting to jot off an email or respond to a social media comment when on the phone, the prospect will like you much more if you give your undivided attention to the conversation. 

7) Self-promoting. 

Salespeople walk a thin line when they talk about their companies. On the one hand, they want to assure prospects that their business would be in good hands. But boasting too much about their amazing service can get annoying fast.

The scary part is that judging how much is too much can be clouded by innaccurate perception. A study from City University of London found that people who bragged to others tended to project their happy feelings onto their audience -- when people who had been bragged to reported negative feelings on the whole. 

Science and psychology writer Wray Herbert reminds us that a dose of humility can go a long way in getting others to like us.

"The fact is that modesty, or even self-effacement, can be more effective than bragging in creating a good first impression," he wrote in an Association for Psychological Science article. "Most of us know this from being on the receiving end, yet we still err on the side of self-aggrandizement."

To earn prospects' trust, they must like you first. Don't come off as the swindling, easy-to-hate salesperson. Stay away from these behaviors, and watch your likeability soar.

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Originally published Apr 2, 2015 8:00:00 AM, updated February 01 2017

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Building Rapport