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The Center for Sales Strategy Blog

You Can Lead a Horse to Water, But You Can’t Make Him Buy It


Salespeople are hired to sell. When a salesperson can’t close a deal with a prospect, it can seem as if they’ve failed. The often-quoted idea that a good salesperson can sell anything to anyone is rooted in one of those lingering old-school, outdated ideas that the selling process is a contest to be won at any cost.

It’s true that in every sales process, someone is going to be convinced to say "yes." Either the prospect will say, “Yes, I’ll buy this” or the salesperson will say, “Yes, you’re not going to buy this.” But what gets so many salespeople off-track and spinning their wheels on lousy prospects is the belief that the only right answer is the prospect saying "yes." 

Giving Up Too Soon or Hanging On Too Long?

The wisdom that “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” has been around since the 12th century. This English proverb is misused when a salesperson gives up too soon on a good prospect. But more often, salespeople tend to hang on too long with prospects that will never buy. 

I remember early in my sales career taking my manager on a call to a small start-up company that I’d been meeting with for several months. As we left he said, “Give them one more approach, and if they don’t buy, cut bait. It’s not you, it’s them.” I was shocked to hear this, because I was still at the stage where I believed if someone didn’t buy, I failed.

I spent way too much time on prospects that used up my time and would never buy, and if I’d realized it sooner, I could have used that time with better prospects who would.

My manager then said, "Look around, they’re not 'Greg-worthy.' You’ve already put more work into helping build their business than they have. The signs are all around. How long has the lobby been half finished? How long have they been waiting to get that new machine? How long have they been saying they just don’t have the money yet?"

Wait, some prospects were not worthy of my time? Or at least not worthy of the dedication to keep trying, when all the signs were saying walk away?

Signs Your Prospect Has No Intention to Buy

Here are some signs your prospect has no intention to buy:

  • They don’t seem open to trying new ideas.
  • They are open to meeting, but don’t have the authority to say yes.
  • They just need to do “something else” first, but that something else never gets done.
  • They don’t have the funds to do it right, and keep asking for a deal that would not be a good deal for either party.

As my manager and I walked back to the car on the call that was a pivotal moment in my career, he said one more thing that I would tell my own sales staff when I became a manager. In fact, I just quoted it again recently, which inspired this reminiscent post. 

“You can lead a horse to water, but if you’re holding its head under water, and it still won’t drink, it’s probably not going to drink.”

How about you? When you look at your prospect list, are they all “YOU-worthy?”

Are you willing to walk away from the ones that have no signs of buying to focus your time and efforts on better, more worthy prospects? 

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Topics: Sales