Sales Intuition: How to Use It and Improve It



Years ago, I read about the sales strategies employed by a remarkably successful car salesperson.

One of them was to never pre-judge customers. His fellow salespeople would ignore the scruffy looking guy or the tire-kicking teenager as being poor prospects. He never did that, and said he frequently closed deals when the poorly-dressed guy turned out to be wealthy, or the teenager returned with his dad (and dad’s checkbook) a few hours later.

This seems like sound advice. And, like much advice based on anecdotal evidence, it may be mostly wrong.

(Note: The salesperson in this story might have been Joe Girard, but I wasn’t able to track down the reference. If you’ve encountered this advice, feel free to confirm or correct me in a comment!)

Were the other salespeople wrong to make snap judgments? Perhaps not.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Marketing, the validity of a salesperson’s intuition was demonstrated.

The four month study, conducted in multiple locations of a mattress store chain, both observed salespeople interacting with customers and then followed up with interviews of both parties.

Intuitive vs. Deliberative

The researchers distinguished between two ways that salespeople evaluated the needs of customers. The first was intuitive – the salesperson’s first impression of what the customer needed and how to approach the sales process. The second was deliberative, which was a more reasoned re-appraisal of the situation that emphasized thinking about the interaction and often revising the first impression.

Here’s what the scientists found:

The results reveal that accurate intuitive judgments improve selling performance by enabling more appropriate initial sales strategies. These judgments not only help increase the effectiveness of salespeople’s selling efforts but also reduce the amount of selling time, resulting in improved selling efficiency. However, performance is compromised when inaccurate deliberative judgments follow accurate intuitive judgments.

mattress store
Customer interactions with salespeople were observed in multiple mattress stores.

Avoid Overthinking

The results showed that intuitive sales strategies were effective and efficient. On the other hand, overthinking them tended to result in fewer sales.

In #sales, science shows you should trust your intuition. Share on X

There are a few cautions before you turn off your brain and guess your way through the sales process.

First, the accuracy of the intuitive judgments was dependent on experience. A seasoned salesperson familiar with the product and typical customers will have better intuition than a newcomer to the field.

So, it’s possible that the master car salesman I described at the beginning of the article wasn’t wrong – he just had better intuition than the rest of the staff. Perhaps other salespeople had thoughts like, “Kids don’t have enough money to buy a car, and can’t get loans. I won’t waste my time”

Looking at the same teenager, our salesman’s intuition might have suggested that, “This kid looks like he comes from a well-off family, and his shopping style looks serious. I’ll go talk to him.”

The study also found that the most successful salespeople trusted their intuition but further improved results by adding some deliberative thinking.

How to improve your sales intuition

One key finding was that the salesperson’s empathy was a major factor in the accuracy of their intuition. The authors of the study recommend an “empathetic focus” on the customer, observing posture, tone of voice, and other clues to the customer’s emotional state.

While we often think of empathy as being a personal characteristic, or something we either are or aren’t good at, it can be learned.

For example, in Six Habits of Highly Empathic People writer Roman Krznaric suggests practices like developing active listening skills and working on your imagination.

Want to take an empathy test? If you’d like a rough idea of how empathetic you are, ry this quiz at Greater Good.

Increase your empathy to improve your #sales intuition. Share on X

Intuition Cuts Both Ways

Intuition helps salespeople gauge customer needs, but it works the other way, too.

Closing a sale depends on the customer’s perception of the salesperson’s personality, motivation, trustworthiness, and other factors. An interesting study at Tufts university showed that salespeople could be evaluated in “thin slices,” i.e., very short samples of observation.

This adds to the wealth of studies showing how important first impressions are, and also suggests that “sales manager intuition” shouldn’t be discounted.

Intuition is Real

Einstein and intuition
Quote attributed to Albert Einstein by author R. Samples. (Image via

Some claims for intuition belong in the world of parapsychology. For example, there’s no scientific evidence that a person can intuitively predict future events, like that the plane they are boarding will have a mechanical problem.

But, when it comes to evaluating other people, assessing their needs, and even predicting their behavior, the case for intuition is a lot stronger.

In this case, intuition isn’t a psychic phenomenon, but rather our brain analyzing subtle inputs to arrive at a conclusion or a feeling. As the first study showed, this intuitive processing is mostly non-conscious – over-analyzing the situation consciously resulted in less accurate predictions.

In short, when it comes to an in person sales process, pay attention to your intuition and don’t overthink it.

The only real valuable thing is intuition. -Albert Einstein Share on X

  1. Ferdinand Edwards says

    “Logic, which alone can give certainty, is the instrument of demonstration; intuition is the instrument of invention “

  2. Tim says

    Another great article Roger! It’s in a similar vein to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”. Experts can trust their gut-feeling but when overthinking their ‘choices’ they make mistakes.

  3. Hi from France !
    Another cool quote from Einstein : “The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest” 😀

  4. Calvin Jones says

    It is great to let intuition lead the way not only in sales, it kept me unwound and alive thru two wars. I would like to learn more about using it in sales. And my intuition tells me to get your book.

  5. John Hiatt says

    It was Joe Girard,in “How to Sell Anything to Anybody.” Simon & Schuster., 1978.

  6. Andy says

    My intuition definitely gets a boost from my own experience when working towards a sale. I think I can usually spot a serious prospect and convert them into a customer quite easily. Having said that, there are still times when I get it wrong. I try and strike a balance and not spend too much time if on a prospect if I am getting the wrong type of vibe. I have also come across plenty of ‘scruffy kids’ who come back with their parents and surprise me out of the blue.

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