Every sales leader wants a team that adapts quickly to change, with dynamic collaboration and consistent top performance. But most sales teams are held back by one surprisingly simple factor: they avoid conflict instead of using it to their advantage.
If sales teams can make conflict advantageous — both inwardly with each other, and outwardly with prospects — they can innovate, collaborate, and grow. The key is to embrace conflict as a healthy part of selling.
Traditionally, we’re taught to fear conflict in sales — to do whatever it takes to avoid bumps in the road. But in reality, only unresolved conflict is bad. Conflict itself is good, and essential to sales.
In over 20 years of working with top sales executives, I’ve never once had someone tell me, “I wish I’d avoided that conflict for a little while longer.” Instead, I frequently hear, “I wish I hadn’t waited so long.”
It’s time to change your view of conflict — and help your salespeople do the same. Here are the top three keys to making conflict advantageous in sales:
1. Create positive debate and borderless ideas through emotional safety.
While salespeople may appear outspoken, many of them aren’t saying what’s really on their minds. They think nothing will change even if they share their true feelings — so what’s the point? There’s also a pervasive fear that speaking up will just lead to more work for them.
As the sales leader, it’s your job to create emotional safety so people feel comfortable speaking up. Many leaders tout, “Tell us the truth, even if it hurts.” But as soon as someone says something confrontational or different, it’s easy to become defensive.
Your reaction to conflict trickles down to every member of the team. One way to prime the pump for emotional safety is to share about your own vulnerabilities and mistakes you’ve made, and how you dealt with them. Ask questions to encourage new ideas and honest feedback, too.
In turn, emotional safety will foster positive debate and the exchange of spontaneous, borderless ideas on your team. Both are essential to innovation in sales. Neither can exist unless people feel comfortable confronting others and challenging the status quo without fear of reprisal.
Positive debate is where people contribute different perspectives to the group instead of simply disagreeing with each other. This is the difference between saying “I disagree with that” and saying “I disagree with that, but what if we looked at it this way instead…” A sales team without positive debate is complacent, rigid, and struggles to act as a cohesive unit.
Spontaneous, borderless ideas are equally important. It’s natural for people to have ideas, but the key is that they’re spontaneous — meaning they can come at any time without fear of being rejected — and borderless — meaning they can cross the border into other people’s “territory” to shed led on blind spots.
We all have blind spots. I laugh when people say, “I know my blind spots,” because if we knew them, then they wouldn’t be blind spots. Borderless ideas shed light on blind spots precisely because they are coming from the outside.
2. Remind people that you can’t solve a problem you don’t know about.
As a sales leader, it’s your job to remind people that you can’t solve a problem you don’t know about. Avoiding conflict only covers up problems and makes them worse. Sometimes the truth hurts, but it’s always better to understand the actual problem so you can try to fix it.
I was recently brought into an organization where the sales team was complaining about their marketing material. The sales leader told me, “The biggest problem my team has right now is that they’re not getting what they need from marketing. That’s what’s holding them back.”
After doing some digging, however, it became clear that the sales team had much bigger issues. While the marketing material might not have been perfect, it wasn’t that bad. As is so often the case, the sales team was just making an excuse to cover up the real problem. In truth, they were upset about their new compensation structure.
By taking his team’s complaints at face value, the sales leader couldn’t see the real issue. Before I came along and dug deeper, he was content thinking the problem wasn’t his fault and that his team was otherwise happy. And, while this made him feel good at the time, it would have ended up costing him in efficiency, productivity, time — and ultimately his top performers.
As for the salespeople, they were happy to tell a little white lie to avoid an unpleasant confrontation with the boss. I hear this all the time: “A little white lie isn’t unethical, and it’s not going to hurt the organization.” But in reality, these tiny cover ups build up over time to create a dishonest culture where nobody tells the truth and no problems get fixed.
The same holds true for prospects. If a prospect makes a comment that doesn’t fully make sense, salespeople need to dig deeper. That means creating intentional conflict instead of simply nodding along to whatever the prospect says — and that can be intimidating. But your sales team will build stronger relationships if they can solve their prospects’ real problems. And they can’t solve those problems unless they know about them.
3. Tell prospects what they don’t know they need.
I understand why this makes sales leaders uncomfortable. Usually, good prospects are handled with kid gloves. Salespeople are taught to tiptoe around their best prospects. Rocking the boat is frowned upon.
But prospects need to be told what they don’t know they need. This can sometimes create conflict — but it’s good conflict. For example, if a prospect asks for a solution that won’t address their needs, your salespeople should feel comfortable suggesting a different approach that will be better
Your salespeople must also be willing to firmly debunk myths, tell prospects when they’ve been misinformed, and push back when prospects act like they have all the answers. The best sales teams are bringing up ideas and solutions that their prospects aren’t even thinking about.
This can sometimes create conflict — but it’s good conflict. Telling prospects what they don’t know they need helps salespeople come across as trusted advisors who understand their prospects’ needs in a way that stands out from the competition.
Cultivate and use conflict to your advantage, and watch as your team performance, sales, and profits surpass the competition.