I have seen a rise in negative selling behavior -- and I am worried.

The tactics range from trash-talking competitors to truly abusive behaviors against prospects themselves.

And it goes well beyond the Enablement market I work in.

As society has grown less willing to compromise, to seek a middle-ground between competing viewpoints, our willingness to dismiss each other’s views has increased.

Combine this with an increasing pressure to achieve Unicorn status and a flood of venture-capital investments and sales teams, the enablement teams seeking to support them, and the prospects are caught in a perfect, negative storm.

In this article, I will share with you:

  • What is negative selling
  • Why does negative selling happen
  • Why negative selling fails economically
  • The impact of negative selling on mental health
  • Steps to avoid creating an environment where negative selling thrives

What is negative selling?

Negative selling is the act of speaking ill of (aka trash-talking) your competitors, their products, their people, and the companies that buy these products.

“Trash-talking” was defined in a 2016 Organizational Behavior paper as “boastful comments about the self or insulting comments about an opponent that are delivered by a competitor typically before or during a competition” (emphasis added). It also includes “aggressive communication that involves ridicule or self-aggrandizement,” whether that ridicule is malicious or playful. 

Why does negative selling happen

As this article on Psychology Today points out, the reason for bad-mouthing others often lay in a desire to influence via signs of social power and confidence.  

It is often a mask for lack of confidence and overall insecurity.

As Patrick Welch, President of our company reminds me, the abusive tactic had been far more common 20 plus years ago.  

Need I remind you of the similarities of the year 2000 with the economic conditions today?

A flood of venture money, rising sales targets, combined with more competition, leads poorly trained and coached sellers to attempt to rush to close deals.  

This inward focus on the needs of the seller and their business, over the needs of prospects, leaves many sellers in a position where they will do or say anything to get a deal done.

Remember - one of the primary rules of sales is to make the prospect feel safe. Uneasiness, tension, and agitation are all paths on the road to no sale. 

If you are using negative selling techniques, you are walking on that path.

Why negative selling fails economically

According to an extensive study on while negative talk can provide you with a competitive advantage in sports, it decreases your chances of selling effectively.

Negative-selling is particularly risky in this digital age. One wrong comment spoken in a heated moment could make its way to social media and destroy a company’s reputation


Trash talking increases your competitors’ motivation

Instead of growing less motivated, targets of trash talk actually grow more intent on winning when they are being spoken negatively about. Trash-talking raises the “psychological stakes” for the competition.

In this super-connected world, to believe that what your salespeople are saying is never going to be known by your competition is naive. “Oh, those guys are idiots” is a comment that will be plastered all over social media if “those guys” happen to be the prospect’s friend. 

Or the prospect could be so shocked by the salesperson’s incivility that they tweet, “Damn, I just got off the phone with a sales guy who just TRASHED Brand X.”

Once the target discovers your team, their motivation increases have bashed them. 

A test involving 178 students discovered that students who were targets of trash-talking performed better in an effort-based task than students who were not. 

By engaging in negative selling, your sales team is making your competitors more determined to beat them. 

Trash talking forces prospects to defend your competition

As Brian Burns noted in this article, titled Does Negative Selling Against Your Competitors Work, negative selling leaves your prospects in a position where they feel compelled to defend your competitors, further isolating you from many opportunities in the business.

It is not a technique to help buyers see your side -- it is the opposite.

Negative selling can ruin your social reputation

We touch upon this above, but...

Negative selling was popular twenty years ago. Back then, you couldn’t obliterate reputation in a blink. Today, it takes just one bad remark to ruin one’s reputation forever. As top investor Warren Buffett is famous for saying, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.”

Gen-Zers—those born between the late 1990s and the early 2010s—have much more different views of brands than older generations. According to a study by McKinsey, Gen-Zers “believe profoundly in the effectiveness of dialogue to solve conflicts and improve the world.” Gen-Zers are also mobilized around different causes and are dedicated to the “search for the truth.”

Gen-Zers are unlikely to tolerate one-sided trash-talk. 

This generation was raised in a world where all the information they need sits on their phones. They don’t need to believe salespeople because they can go find out for themselves. They’re also primarily influenced by social media so any PR snafu would be catastrophic, considering this demographic which is now of buying age

The impact of negative selling on our mental health


I hope you understand the risk to reputation and the potential impact on deals.

What about the mental health aspects?

Negative selling is tied to negativity bias, which points to the human tendency to lean into negative information more than positive information.

The lingering impact of negative selling

We dwell on the negative and are far more likely to focus our attention there.

It leads to an assumption of negative motivations, applied to the seller leveraging the behavior, and impacts how we interact with them in the future: “Our beliefs and expectations can then influence our subsequent interactions with them (Glover et al., 2017).

And that’s not even the worse part.

For those who lean into the negative, in this case, the seller or the buyer who’s involved with these tactics, the article goes on to note that it can lead to anxiety, depression, and health impacts like elevated heart rates.


The worst cases of negative selling can sometimes turn into gaslighting, leaving the humans we are trying to sell bewildered, unable to trust their own judgment.

Is your health, and the health of those you are selling to, less important than winning a deal?

Steps to avoid creating an environment where negative selling thrives

I didn’t write this article to sell products and I’ll avoid referencing specific products.

However, I want all Enablement professionals to understand the role we play in preventing these behaviors in our business.  Here are a few tips to consider.

Build up seller confidence

One way to stop negative selling is by building up seller confidence, increasing each salesperson’s knowledge and skills, and furnishing all the tools necessary to make the sale easier. 

Have up-to-date sales content that is easy to find

Several problems can exist with sales content. These include:

  • No sales content at all
  • Out-of-date sales content
  • Generic sales content
  • Sales content that is difficult to find.

Simply putting sales content in a shared folder for everyone to access gets confusing quickly. And folders are notorious for getting disorganized in a hurry. Those folders soon grow into a labyrinth of subfolders within subfolders that make content a nightmare to locate.

Content creators could also develop content that caters to specific objections related to competitors. When a prospect brings up an objection, the salesperson should quickly and easily locate that content and send it over for the prospect to view. No trash-talking is necessary because the sales content deals with the objections. 

The key phrase here is quickly and easily

Educate salespeople factually on competitors

These days, people are already 70% of the way through the sales cycle when they even contact sales. And 59% of people prefer to not even talk to a sales rep. 

Information is at everyone’s fingertips. 

Why would anyone want to talk to a trash-talking and pushy sales rep instead?

By educating your sales reps on the facts of your competitors’ products compared to your own, you are empowering them to talk honestly with sales prospects, which is what your prospects want.

When the buyer sees that the information provided was factual, their trust in the salesperson will grow, strengthening trust and increasing sales.

Customer Testimonials

Customer testimonials are a proven way to get more sales. Testimonials narrow the gap between those who want to research something on their own and the sales team ready to sell it to them. Whereas people might inherently distrust someone trying to sell them something, they will believe a client testimonial that resonates with them and they can relate. 

And there’s another side to this coin: Client testimonials can say things that salespeople shouldn’t. This point is not an excuse to bash competitors. But a testimonial that alludes to a competitor’s weaknesses goes a long way to pointing your product out as superior. 

And the prospect will believe it because it’s an objective party’s view on it, not the sales rep’s. 

Monitoring as a tool to coach sales reps

There are plenty of tools on the market that can analyze written and verbal conversations.  Use them as tools to monitor the use of negative selling.

And when you see it, crush it out through empathy and education.

Bring it all together

Negative selling is a habit that salespeople can fall into when struggling during deals. 

As Enablement professionals we are in a unique position to serve, support, and educate our sales people and the business overall.

Will you stand up against negative selling?