Chess pieces on a board with a fallen King

Be Gracious in Defeat

In my last post, I outlined “The Soft Sell” framework. I’d now like to take a few minutes to unpack one of the core tenants—Be Gracious in Defeat. This simply means that failing with poise and grace is a critical skill for every salesperson.

Let’s face it, even the best salespeople don’t close 100% of their pipeline. Far from it. The best sellers are winning around 1 in 3 deals, and an “average” seller hits around 1 in 5. Of course this does vary by industry, but I digress.

Note: As an aside, you can check out how you stack up in your industry via this great calculator on HubSpot.

At any rate, sellers and managers, books and courses, all understandably focus most of their time and energy on how to “win more deals”, but they often ignore what we should do when we lose.

Learning to Fail

I touched on this a bit in my last post, but let’s spend a few moments digging into those losses to see how we can make them as productive as possible for our bottom line. 

At the outset, we need to reframe the whole idea of what a “loss” really means to us. The way, I see it, a loss should always be our first step towards our next win. 

Build Rapport Through Failure

If we’ve been diligent in our followup and conscientious in asking the right questions at the right time, we have also indirectly been building rapport, which is a key component to earning trust.

Remember that the first time we’re pitching new business with a new prospect, we’re starting from zero. But even if we don’t win that first opportunity, by being gracious in defeat, we’ll start off in a better place the next time we have the chance to pitch. 

It’s crucial for us to enthusiastically thank our prospect for their time and consideration when we lose a piece of business. This shows that we’re not only after their budget, but we’re truly interested and invested in establishing a partnership that develops into the future.

Don’t Lose Your Head

It’s flabbergasting to me how many people in the sales world (particularly in ad sales, where I have the most experience), express external anger towards a prospect when losing a piece of business. I noted a personal anecdote in that last article in which a competitor of mine lost their cool to a media buyer who turned down his program.

I totally understand how frustrating it is when we fail to close a deal. We’ve all been there. We [hopefully] believe in our brand and what we’re selling. We know we “had the best option” for the prospect’s business, and we’re shocked and disappointed when we don’t make the cut.

When we lose, it’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction and lash out, but we need to stop ourselves from overreacting. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s critical that we take a deep breath and relax. 

Tip: I always find it helpful to wait 24 to 48 hours before responding to negative news so that I can allow my emotions to stabilize and avoid potential passive-aggressive language.

When we lash out, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. We become a temperamental “problem rep” who clients will be hesitant to work with in the future. When we blame the prospect instead of taking responsibility ourselves, we lose our credibility.

Remember, prospects want to work with a partner who they trust has their best interests at heart. We all need to earn that trust every single day with every single interaction.

Find the “Why”

At risk of belaboring the point, as already noted, the first step towards a win tomorrow is to be gracious in defeat today. 

The second step, then, is to uncover the “why”. Why didn’t we win the business? The insights we gather here must be documented and analyzed to help us learn from our past mistakes to earn future success.

Maybe our execution was great, but the price was too high. Maybe the concept was great, but the execution was not what they were looking for. Maybe our program was a BMW, but they were looking for a Mercedes. In other words, it might not be that our idea was “bad”, but they just went with something a little different. 

Note: Until you have a proven track record, there will always be lingering questions as to whether or not you will actually be able to deliver on your promises in a way that’s seamless and efficient.

Help Your Future Self

As I just mentioned, it’s also important to get to the “why”, so that we can apply those learnings to the framework of our next pitch. Maybe that next pitch will be a month from now, maybe a year, or maybe longer; the timing is irrelevant. We’re making an investment today in “Future Us”.

Remember that there are two “buckets” of relationships we build with every pitch:  One is with the company we are pitching and the other is with the people we interact with. To be gracious in defeat is exponential in that it enables us to establish trust with both the company itself and the people involved in the deal.

Make every pitch count. Be gracious in defeat to build off of every loss.
Photo by Chris Moore on Unsplash

This helps us the next time we pitch that company as well as the next time we pitch those people. Few employees spend their entire career in one role, and as they move onto their next job, they’ll take this interaction and that trust with them wherever they go.

If the decision maker who did not select us this time around moves to their competitor, now they’re taking the experience they had with us right along with them.

Prospects will remember how well we treated them, and that will now help us at multiple companies! 

It’s also important to note that we’re not just pitching our product, but we’re also pitching ourselves. Just as our prospect might not be in their role forever, the same is likely true for us as well.

In addition to building up the value of our company, we should always also be building our personal brand.

Goldie Chan at Forbes wrote a great article a couple of years back on this very topic. In her article, Goldie quotes Jacob Shwirtz, the former head of social partnerships at WeWork, who says, “Whatever the priority happens to be today… always keep in mind the impact you leave on others and remember all we have is our own reputation… that’s our brand.” This statement couldn’t be more true. At the end of the day, all we really have is our own reputation.

With that in mind, what’s another form of defeat in which we must always be gracious? Failing to land a job, of course!

If we interview for a role and don’t get the offer, we cannot take it personally. Maybe we were imperfect in our presentation that day, maybe the interviewer was having an off-day. Maybe upper management already had a candidate in mind. Sound familiar?


We all know that sales is “a relationship game” and we should always look for opportunities to strengthen our relationships even when we don’t make the sale.

While it may be cliché—when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade, right? We never know when someone we’ve met along the way might be thirsty for a drink, and we’ll be there at just the right moment to give them a sip.

Be gracious in defeat to "make people feel loved today"
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash







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