Everyone has committed a few faux pas, and it’s often difficult to get out of it, to save face. This is all the more important in sales, as gaffes can ruin our efforts to close the deal. What can we do to minimize the risk of a gaffe? How can we fix it if it happens?

Sales etiquette: When you make a gaffe

Sales, like any complex process, require preparation. The more you know about your future client, the better. And while hard information (what the client does, where their office is, etc) is relatively easy to obtain, soft information (about the client’s personality, what interests them, how they communicate) is much more important, and yet harder - and sometimes impossible - to obtain. Without knowledge, how can you avoid gaffes?

Situation 1.

Peter is a salesman. He sells software which supports management processes in small companies. He has a lot of experience, as he’s been in the business for several years. His clients are mostly owners and managers of companies. Before each meeting, he tries to get as much information as possible about the organisation and the person he’s meeting. He uses the Internet as well as a large network of contacts. Peter is diligent, he knows that his first impression on the client can have a huge impact on a successful transaction. He pays attention to details: his clothing - subdued, appropriate for his character and personality, as well as his presentation and his materials for the client.

He’s always prepared for the next meeting. He knows what the client’s company does, but unfortunately, he has little information about the client himself. When he arrives, he’s welcomed by Charlie - the older, carefully dressed and slightly distanced head of the purchasing department. He notices that Charlie’s desk is in perfect order, with no unnecessary or personal items apart from a typical picture of his family with their dog on holiday. During the conversation, he realises that Charlie is rather cool-headed, but speaks emphatically, knows his stuff, and is convinced of his reasoning. He’s reluctant to respond to Peter’s digressions; he focuses on the subject of the meeting.

At the beginning, Peter mentions a mutual friend, to which Charlie doesn’t respond. However, Peter manages to interest him with the product. They determine that test software will be installed on one of the computers, and the meeting ends. Peter has completed his task, the meeting was successful, and he didn’t make any mistakes - though there was such a risk. How did Peter do it, despite the fact that that he didn’t know much about Charlie?

Peter is experienced and attentive. When entering Charlie’s office, he realized that he was dealing with a person who was orderly, professional, and task-oriented. In such cases, building a closer relationship is more difficult and takes time. He also noticed that Charlie kept his distance - his mention of their mutual acquaintance was left unanswered, so further attempts to build a relationship, such as commenting on the family photo on Charlie’s desk, would be too risky and could put the meeting in jeopardy. Peter did not go further - he knew that if the product turned out to be useful for Charlie, then they would naturally build a relationship based on professionalism and mutual benefit.


  • Before each meeting, prepare yourself carefully. The more you know about the client, the more successful the meeting will be.
  • At the first meeting, act with sensitivity, observe your client, and don’t take risks if you don’t know how they’ll react.
  • Be tactful, and if necessary, take a step back - it’ll pay off in the future.

Despite professionalism and preparation, gaffes happen - even to the best of us. In that case, what should we do to save face and not lose the sale?

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