Sallie, holding a Ph.D. from Walden University, is an experienced writing coach and editor with a background in marketing. She has served roles in corporate communications and taught at institutions like the University of Florida.
Updated on October 26, 2023
What is Sales Shame?
A Popular History of Sales Shame
The Definition of Sales Shame
Causes of Sales Shame
Impacts of Sales Shame
16 Ways to Overcome Sales Shame
There once was a man who was a fantastic salesperson. He moved loads of his company’s products and made a lot of customers and colleagues happy. But every night, when he came home from work, his wife criticized him.
Even though he made a respectable income, she was embarrassed to tell her friends what he did for a living. The emotional abuse got so bad that he considered leaving his profession even though he was one of the best salespeople in his office.
Why is it that we as a society don’t value salespeople when it is one of our most common and profitable occupations?
In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the definition, symptoms, causes, impacts, and solutions for an all-too-common condition known as “sales shame”. After reading, you’ll know whether or not you suffer from sales shame and how to overcome it if you do.
Let’s start by looking at a short history of the way we view salespeople in popular American culture.
For decades, popular culture has created the narrative of a salesperson as a crook, a con man, and a liar. This has caused people to generally have a low opinion and tolerance of salespeople, even though it is one of the most common and profitable occupations in the world.
Sales shame can have harmful impacts on even the most successful and outwardly positive salespeople.
While some amount of shame may be healthy, chronic shame about your work can have a seriously detrimental effect on your career and your life.
You can overcome sales shame through an array of mindfulness techniques and actionable steps.
A Popular History of Sales Shame
Early Perceptions of Salespeople
Salespeople have always gotten a bad rap. In fact, the traveling peddlers of Old Europe were seen as not much better than criminals. The traditional business model at the time was based on crafts, and talented craftspeople believed the quality of their product spoke for itself. For the upper classes, hawking your wares on the street was viewed with suspicion and disgust.
However, the industrialization of 19th-century America gave rise to a new class of industrious entrepreneurs marketing mass-produced wares all around the country. Organized selling campaigns and traveling salespeople became commonplace as larger companies streamlined their processes and aimed their products at everyday consumers.
The salespeople they hired fit well into the overarching American narrative of the self-made man. No matter your background, sales offered a successful path to economic freedom. But in some ways, our collective cultural imagination still made the salesperson out to be a pitiable figure.
The Role of Media in Shaping Sales Stereotypes
Our negative view of salespeople has been reflected and magnified by popular culture. Through the years, the salesperson in mass media has often been portrayed as an ethically-bankrupt con man, a clever trickster, a desperate liar, and no better than a hopeless thief.
20th-century plays like “Death of a Salesman” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” explored the hopeless, tragic, and alienated nature of the modern salesperson. Contemporary movies like “Used Car,” “Seize the Day,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and “The Big Short” portray salesmen as maniacal crooks and moral delinquents. Even Former President Donald Trump has been depicted as the stereotypical representation of the flawed but unflappable salesman.
As a result, a Hubspot survey found that only 3% of Americans view salespeople as trustworthy. Doctors, on the other hand, were the most trusted professionals at 49%.
Sales performance expert Jason Forrest puts it succinctly.
“According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, sales is the single largest profession in the United States,” says Forrest.
More than 50% of college grads are likely to work in sales at some point in their careers. [But] less than 3% of the 4,000 colleges in the United States have a sales program or even teach a single sales-specific course.… It’s no wonder people are programmed to have such a dim view of salespeople. They’ve probably encountered a lot of bad ones. This, unfortunately, has bled into salespeople’s picture of themselves. They deny themselves because they’ve been denied by others.
The Sales Profession in Today’s World
Nowadays, many people involved in selling products and services call themselves influencers, lifestyle coaches, consultants, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and CEOs—anything but salespeople. I once heard of a used car salesperson who called himself a “transportation consultant.”
These people convince themselves they are not selling – that they are providing you with something you want. But it’s a sleight of hand. Everyone is selling something. From the hot dog vendor on the corner to the Kardashians on social media, we’re all in on the game.
So why is so much shame associated with the economic necessity of selling, something that we all participate in, in some way?
Before we explore the causes of this common misunderstanding, let’s take a deeper look at what sales shame really is.
The Definition of Sales Shame
Before we go even further down this rabbit hole, let’s define shame in general.
Shame is a feeling of embarrassment or humiliation that arises from the perception of having done something dishonorable, immoral, or improper. We feel shame when we violate social norms we believe in. Unlike embarrassment, which is a passing feeling, shame makes us direct our focus inward and view our entire self in a negative light.
While shame is an uncomfortable emotion, its origins actually play a part in our survival as a species. Without shame, we might not feel the need to adhere to cultural norms, follow laws, or behave in a way that allows us to exist as social beings. Since we want to be accepted, shame is an evolutionary tool that keeps us all in check.
However, shame can be problematic when it becomes internalized and results in an overly harsh evaluation of oneself as a whole person. This inner critic might tell you that you are a bad person, worthless, or have no value. The truth is, how deeply you feel ashamed often has little to do with your worth or what you have done wrong.
Chronic shame is with you all the time and makes you feel as though you are never good enough. Once this shame loop is established, it can be difficult to shake a belief you are fundamentally flawed. If you have shame about your daily occupation, it is likely to be deep-rooted and powerful, and will probably carry over into other aspects of your life.
Sales shame, in turn, is a deep sense of embarrassment, guilt, or self-criticism that arises from perceived failures, rejection, or unmet expectations in the sales profession.
It is a complex emotion that can have a lasting impact on a salesperson’s well-being and career prospects.
Whether due to cultural biases or personal experience, sales shame revolves around a persistent belief that you are doing something inherently wrong in your job as a salesperson. However, unless you are selling illegal weapons, toxic drugs, or human beings, this is a gross misconception. Nonetheless, these feelings of shame can be deeply ingrained and hard to shake. Ultimately, they will negatively impact your life and career if left unchecked.
Toxic shame vs. Healthy shame
Not all shame is bad for you. In fact, healthy shame can also exist. Shame can be healthy when it causes you to have humility, allows you to laugh at yourself, makes you humble, or teaches you about boundaries. Without at least a little bit of shame, people would have trouble measuring the effects of their behaviors on other people.
However, toxic shame involves the notion that there is something inherently wrong with you on the inside. These beliefs become part of your core identity rather than a transient state. People who experience toxic shame may try to present a perfect outer self to hide how they feel on the inside. Ultimately, toxic sales shame will wreak havoc on your sales performance and could cause you to leave a successful career, unless it is properly addressed.
Symptoms of sales shame
The symptoms of sales shame can be overt or subtle depending on how it manifests itself in an individual salesperson. Here is a list of the most common symptoms you’ll see in a person suffering from sales shame.
Always worried about what the customer thinks
Feeling unappreciated, even after making a sale
Believing you have little impact on anything important
Acting overly defensive for no reason
Lashing out in anger
Isolating or avoiding attention
Looking down, instead of looking people in the eye
Keeping your head hung low
Slumping your shoulders, instead of sitting or standing up straight
Stuttering when you speak
Speaking in an overly soft voice
Emotional and psychological effects of sales shame
Research has repeatedly made a connection between toxic shame and psychological issues. Mental health conditions and life events associated with shame include:
Loss of job
Causes of Sales Shame
At first, you might think that a struggling sales rep is simply afraid to make a call or close a sale. In truth, the real inhibitor of action in sales is not fear, but shame. Fear is generally short-lived, but shame can stay with us for a lifetime. It is a complex, deep-seated emotion that takes time to unravel.
For this reason, the causes of sales shame can be complex and hard to pinpoint. However, there are some common explanations for why people develop a negative view of themselves as a salesperson.
1. Rejection and failure in sales
People in sales are going to hear the word “no” a lot. To succeed in this field, you have to have a thick skin and a willingness to face rejection. For someone prone to shame, each failure can reinforce negative self-perceptions and cause a salesperson’s unhappy sense of self to spin out of control.
2. Unrealistic expectations and constant pressure
When your income depends directly on how much you sell, a sales job can be chock-full of pressure. Ambitious bosses can put unrealistic expectations on their employees in an effort to drive up the bottom line. These constant demands to meet targets and sales quotas can cause a salesperson to feel as if they are always coming up short.
3. Comparison with others in the industry
Everywhere you look in our country, whether you are listening to the morning or evening news, or tuning into social media news sources, it seems as if people are making money hand over fist. Sometimes, we have to wonder: how do they do it?
In reality, everyone’s career path is different. Many come from inherited wealth or were simply in the right place at the right time. Some have worked their way up from the bottom to achieve great things, but the truth of the matter is that not every sales career is going to look the same. If you focus too much on how others are doing, it can seriously affect the way you feel about yourself.
4. A sense of having to hide your motives
Many salespeople are afraid of closing for the very fact that they don’t want to admit the driving motivation for their work: to make money. Of course, you want to help your customers the best you can and provide them with the perfect solution to their business needs. But, let’s be honest, if your business doesn’t make money, it’s not going to be around for very long. And, if you don’t make sales, you’re probably not going to be around too long either.
5. Cultural biases
Earlier in this article, we discussed several popular works of American literature and film that portray salespeople in a villainous or tragic light. Through these unfounded stereotypes, we’ve been conditioned as a culture to view salespeople negatively. Instead of realizing that the vast majority of salespeople are here to help you, we fear that they secretly want to rip us off and take advantage of us. Although there are unscrupulous actors who are “out to get you,” when it comes to most sales professionals, this is almost never the case.
6. Psychological factors
Beyond job-based reasons, sales shame can also be caused by underlying psychological reasons including:
Childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect
Mental health disorders that involve self-criticism (e.g., generalized anxiety, major depression)
Being the victim of bullying
Rejection from your family
Weakening of an important relationship
Past abuse in a work environment
Impacts of Sales Shame
Needless to say, sales shame can have a significant impact on sales professionals’ emotional and psychological well-being. Clearly, a person suffering from sales shame is not going to succeed in their job as well as they could if they felt good about their work.
However, sales shame may not initially cost the salesperson money. As long as they have strong motivation and ambitious goals, they can usually perform at very high levels. The emotional toll, more often than not, is the higher cost of sales shame.
These folks simply do not get the same amount of pleasure from sales as other salespeople do. They have to psyche themselves up every morning to continue to perform at high levels. It takes a great deal of emotional energy to get going and to keep going. Eventually, the financial rewards no longer compensate for the emotional distress they go through every day.
If you’ve experienced sales shame, you probably know it can have a negative impact on your life and work. In the coming paragraphs, we will look briefly at some of the negative impacts a salesperson might experience if he or she suffers from sales shame.
1. Effects on job performance
Humans are intuitive. If you don’t feel good about what you are doing, your customers are going to pick up on it. Sales is an especially personal occupation that requires building relationships and trust. If you’re ashamed of your job, your results are going to suffer whether you like it or not.
2. Decreased self-esteem
Someone with sales shame is going to have a hard time feeling good about themselves. We spend a significant amount of our lives at work. Though the image of a stoical salesman continuing on through the rain may have a place in our popular imagination, it’s unrealistic to think that sales challenges don’t affect the psyche of the salesperson. Why do you think Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” ended the way he did?
3. Reduced resiliency
Do you sometimes feel unable to bounce back from setbacks? If you’re suffering from sales shame, it’s going to be harder to motivate yourself when sales pitches don’t go your way. Instead of looking at every call as a learning opportunity, each failure becomes a brick in the wall of shame that only serves to reinforce your limiting beliefs.
4. Inhibited creativity and innovation
If you feel ashamed of what you do, you’re going to be far less likely to take productive risks that can advance your career. The more confident you are, the more able you will be to use all of your resources and talents to the best of your ability. It’s this power to think outside the box that often separates the winning salesperson from the also-rans.
5. Perfection and overachievement
It can be hard to know when to say “when” if you don’t feel good about yourself. While some people with sales shame will withdraw from their work and social interactions, others will actually work harder in an attempt to prove their value. Inadvertently, this misdirected dedication can lead to increased negative self-perceptions as they can never meet the unrealistic standards they set for themselves.
6. Damaged customer relationships
A lack of confidence and self-esteem makes it challenging to establish trust and connect authentically with customers. On the other hand, if you feel good about yourself and what you’re selling, your customers will actually enjoy the process of buying from you. Suffice it to say, sales shame makes this almost impossible.
7. Mental and physical impacts
Here is a list of additional effects that chronic shame can have on a salesperson:
A belief that you are flawed or there is something inherently wrong with you
Inflated ego in an attempt to hide the belief that you don’t have value
Physical health problems
Loss of confidence and self-esteem
Depression and anxiety
Addiction to alcohol, drugs, spending, sex, etc.
Feeling empty, lonely, or worn out
Difficulty trusting others
Always feeling as though you are being judged
16 Ways to Overcome Sales Shame
While sales shame can be a serious problem, don’t stress! There are ways to overcome it. Read on to uncover the path to salvation from this potentially career-ending misperception.
1. Growth mindset
The abusive sales trainer, Blake, played brilliantly by Alec Baldwin in the 1992 movie version of “Glengarry Glen Ross”, loves his ABC mantra of “Always Be Closing.” But anyone who’s been in this game long enough knows there is more to sales than closing on every conversation. Those who approach sales with a growth-oriented mindset will find that their skills improve over time without leading to burnout.
2. Mentor support
Working with a successful sales coach or mentor can help you to overcome sales shame. A trusted veteran who’s experienced the in and outs, and ups and downs, of a long sales career, may have the perspective you need to start seeing your occupation in a more positive, and realistic, light.
3. Practice self-compassion
No one ever said sales was an easy job. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a break. No occupation is perfect and we all need to make sacrifices to reach our life goals. Take it easy and do your best. It’s only a job and everything is going to be okay.
4. Use Visualization
Extreme athletes, before they take off on a death-defying stunt, visualize every moment of what they are about to do. By rehearsing in your mind before you interact with a client, you’ll calm yourself down, boost your confidence, and feel an innate sense of power by completing what you set out to do.
5. Set goals you can control
Rather than having a goal to close a sale, make your goals controllable by aiming for specific actions you can and will take. For example, maybe you tell yourself: I will talk about the product for two minutes, lay out the pricing structure, and offer the customer the option to buy. That is all doable whether the customer buys or not. Of course, over time, you’re going to have to land sales, but sometimes when you’re just getting started, it’s more about baby steps.
After you finish working on a sale, whether you close the deal or not, give yourself a pat on the back for what you did well. Pay special attention to any ways you specifically helped a client or brought value to their business. When you do make a sale, it’s important to celebrate that victory, too. You don’t need to throw a full-blown party, but a little dance around the office never hurt anyone.
7. Open communication
Shame grows and festers when it’s kept inside, so it’s essential to have someone to talk to about your feelings toward your work. If the conversation isn’t appropriate for your colleagues or supervisors, consider discussing your concerns with your family or a trusted friend. In some cases, the professional help of a therapist or psychologist may be helpful to explore your beliefs and feelings regarding your work.
8. Listen to sales trainings and podcasts
If you’re feeling down on your job, it can be helpful to get some perspective from the best in the business. There are endless free and paid trainings you can attend. Podcasts are also an easy way to hear something new about your profession. It may just give you the fresh viewpoint you need to recenter your feelings about your job.
9. Believe in yourself and what you sell
You, and the products or services you sell, have inherent value. If you don’t believe in yourself, it’s time to do some soul-searching. If you don’t believe in what you are selling, then you need to find a new job. There are infinite possibilities for things you can sell, so you might as well find something that you know is worth your time and the customer’s money.
10. Realize selling is helping
If your customer wasn’t interested in what you are selling, they wouldn’t be talking to you in the first place. It’s your job to make their business and lives better by providing them with what they want and need. The caricature of the dishonest salesman is an outdated cliché based on fear and biases. Salespeople, in reality, are some of the most helpful people we can encounter in the world.
“Sales, in my view, is the most noble profession you can pursue,” says sales performance expert Jason Forrest. “It is literally the business of life improvement. But you first have to embrace it.”
11. Acknowledge businesses are designed to sell
When you live and work in a capitalistic economy, apprehensions about selling are really misplaced. Businesses are designed to sell. That’s what they do. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s just the way things are. If people didn’t sell, none of us would have any of the things we rely on every day. Sales truly do make the world go round.
12. Remember your customer makes the choice to buy
No one is forcing the customer to make a decision to give their money away. Once you’ve presented their options, it’s up to them to decide if what you’re selling meets the value of the cold hard cash they’ll be parting with. You aren’t forcing them to do anything. But by helping them make a choice, you are improving their lives, reducing their stress, and giving them what they need.
13. Surround yourself with optimistic people
The power of the group is one of the most powerful ways to recondition a thought process. The sheer presence of other people who actually have pride in charging retail prices will begin to change the mindset of the person who struggles with sales shame. Seek out those in whom you have seen the light and follow in their proverbial footsteps.
14. Share examples of happy clients
Sharing testimonial letters from satisfied clients can reveal to sales reps that most clients are still very happy after the sale. In fact, they’re usually happier than they were before or during the decision to buy. To make it extra powerful, get specific testimonies from the clients of the sales rep who is struggling, and read those out loud to the team.
15. Understand the cost of doing business
A sales representative who does not understand business assumes every company is getting rich. But an educated rep understands the true costs associated with doing business. They realize that retail pricing is critical to the long-term ability of a company to serve and keep the client happy. Quality products don’t just create themselves out of thin air.
16. Improve quality
If the quality of the work being delivered is not up to par, then implement immediate changes. Fix quality, and you will remove the natural shame of knowing you are selling an inferior product. When you trust you are providing true value, there’s truly nothing to be ashamed of. Your product will speak for itself, and sales shame will cease to exist.
By now, you should have a broad understanding of sales shame, its symptoms, causes, impacts, and how to overcome it. Remember, people don’t have a problem with salespeople. They have a problem with salespeople who are selfish, uninformed, inflexible, and boring. So, instead of feeling shame about what you do for a living, bring your best self to the job and know that what you do makes a positive difference!
A wise salesperson remembers that the fundamental mission of sales is to improve lives. They approach their work with pride, purpose, and respect for professional selling. And because this belief is their personal truth, their actions, and results, reflect it.
Is sales shame a common experience in the sales profession?
Yes, sales shame is a common experience in the sales profession. The high rate of rejection and failure, coupled with the pressure to meet targets, often triggers feelings of shame and self-doubt among sales professionals.
How can sales leaders address sales shame within their teams?
Sales leaders can address sales shame by fostering open communication and vulnerability within the sales team. Encouraging sales professionals to share their experiences and challenges without fear of judgment, recognizing and celebrating achievements, and providing training and resources for personal and professional development are all crucial steps.
How can organizations create a supportive sales culture to combat sales shame?
Sales organizations can create a supportive sales culture by acknowledging and addressing sales professionals’ emotional well-being. By recognizing the impact of sales shame and implementing strategies to support sales professionals, organizations can foster an environment that promotes growth, resilience, and positive self-perception.
Can sales shame be contagious among sales teams?
Sales shame can indeed be contagious within sales teams. When one team member experiences sales shame, it can create a negative atmosphere and impact the morale and confidence of others. It is crucial to address and overcome sales shame collectively to prevent its spread.
What is the difference between sales shame and imposter syndrome?
While there are similarities, sales shame and imposter syndrome are distinct experiences. Sales shame often stems from specific sales-related failures or rejections, whereas imposter syndrome is a pervasive feeling of inadequacy and fear of being exposed as a fraud in any area of life, including sales.
Are there any positive aspects of experiencing sales shame?
While sales shame is generally perceived as negative, it can serve as a catalyst for personal and professional growth. Embracing sales shame as an opportunity for learning and self-reflection can lead to resilience, self-awareness, and the development of new strategies for success.