The Big Picture: Vulnerable to Success

I want you to pause for a second and try to visualize yourself during your most recent customer interaction. Who did you speak to? What did you say? How did you say it? And what was the outcome?


Reflecting on this interaction, were you brimming with confidence, touching on all the high notes of your company’s products? Did you and the customer connect?

I’m going to assume that your conversation with the customer did not include you talking about a weakness of one of your company’s products. That frank admission would be a dark cloud hanging over your sunny parade of positivity and might have led to a crummy outcome. Right?

Look, I’m a guy who’s been known to take an occasional walk down the path of negativity. Forever and a day, my wife’s been telling me to chill out on the negative comments. I get it — no one likes a Debbie Downer whose unending blasts of negativity make people head for the exits. That said, a modest dose of self-criticism, whether of yourself or your company’s wares, is healthy. And it can actually go a long way with customers.

Note that I said self-criticism — not criticism of your competitors, the industry, Congress … well, you get the point. Speaking badly of others is more likely to injure your reputation versus others. So, be sure your negative observations are inwardly directed and end there.

Why might a small dose of inner-directed negativity be helpful? To paraphrase fellow Long Islander Billy Joel, it’s a matter of trust. In a recent survey, HubSpot Research presented the following scenario and posed this question to respondents:1

You’re stranded on an island with 20 strangers. The group is holding a vote to decide who will be the leader. Everyone agrees the leader should be trustworthy, but unfortunately, profession is all you have to go on. Whom do you vote for?

  1. The doctor
  2. The accountant
  3. The professional musician
  4. The sales rep

Well, sorry to break it to you, but the unappreciated sales rep got a paltry 3% of the vote.1 This demonstrates that there is a huge trust deficit in the selling profession. However, don’t fret: this presents a classic opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade. Being seen as trustworthy is a great way to distinguish yourself from the competition, provided that you can overcome people’s preexisting biases against salespeople. And trustworthiness’ close relative credibility will help get you there. One way to build your credibility is to admit your weaknesses.

Acknowledging weaknesses upfront makes your claims about your product’s and company’s strengths that much more believable. Adam Grant, MS, PhD, well-known author and professor at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, tells the story of a young woman who applied for a job for which she wasn’t qualified.2 If in her shoes, what would you do? Play up your strengths and hope for the best? In this case, the young woman sent a cover letter that started with: “I’m probably not the candidate you’ve been envisioning. I don’t have a decade of experience as a product manager nor am I a certified financial planner.”2

While I might not take such a bold approach, perhaps this candidate was on to something. Why? Because she got the job. And Grant attributes that to the woman’s upfront candor about her deficiencies, which resulted in her strengths coming “across as more credible.” And not only that, but her approach helped her stand out in a sea of pure (and boring) self-promoters.

You may be uncomfortable with admitting your weaknesses to someone on whom you’re trying to make a good impression. In fact, when not executed in the appropriate manner, this approach could backfire. For example, it could prompt a customer to focus on a weakness he or she never would’ve thought of. Therefore, I advise sales reps to only address weaknesses that are realistically blocking their path to increased sales. In other words, the weakness addressed must be one that is already perceived by the customer.

Secondly, without minimizing your customer’s concerns, either show how the weakness is actually a strength (unfortunately, it’s rare that you’ll get this opportunity) or place the weakness in the context of the product’s strengths and show how, on balance, your product is superior to your competitors’. Think of yourself as an accountant tallying up the profits and losses of the products in your marketplace. Develop the story that best supports your claim that net-net your product comes out ahead. Isn’t honest accounting, after all, what your customers really want?


  1. HubSpot. Only 3% of people think salespeople possess this crucial character trait. Available at: Accessed October 27, 2017.
  2. Quartz Media. In a job interview, this is how you address your weaknesses. Available at: Accessed October 27, 2017.

From MENTOR. December 2017;8(12): 6-7.

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