Red herrings, managed poorly, are emotional hijackers that turn sales calls into train wrecks.

On a Wednesday morning my executive team at Sales Gravy gathered in our conference room in front of a big wall-mounted flat-screen TV. We were there for a video call and online demo of a SaaS platform.

After the basic introductions and pleasantries, Derrick, the account executive, asked if we had any questions before he began the demo. I chimed in with the one question we had not yet asked:

“Before we get started, I think it is important for you to know that we are on a very tight budget. We aren’t a big company, so we can’t afford to pay what you are charging those big company logos that you have on the screen right now [referring to the brag slide where he’d listed a “who’s who” of his company’s clients]. I really don’t want to waste your time if this is outside of our budget. So why don’t you walk us through the costs we can expect.”

Then BAM – like a bass hitting a lure—he took the bait and ran. He stuttered through a vague and non-committal answer that sounded defensive. That’s when the demo and the sales call unraveled.

My Vice President of Learning and Development hit him with, “We’re going to need you to be more specific than that. Sounds like you aren’t giving us the whole story.”

More stuttering and sputtering. The AE was talking in circles, sounding more defensive each time he opened his mouth. His defensiveness and argumentativeness served only to create more resistance.

My team pushed him harder. It turned into a feeding frenzy. They challenged him about the stability of his company, getting references, why he wasn’t showing us logos of companies that were our size, and on and on.

He attempted to gain control and get back to the demo, but it was too late. We were exasperated with his defensiveness, had lost trust, and were bumping up against other scheduled meetings. We politely declined and moved on with our day.

Derrick had blown it on a red herring.


You must avoid getting drawn in by red herring objections at all costs. A red herring is something your stakeholder says that diverts your attention from the objective of your sales meeting.

The term red herring is thought to originate from the practice of dragging a dead fish across a trail to pull hounds off the scent. And this is exactly what happens to salespeople who abandon the objective of their call to chase a red herring. Rather than controlling the agenda and moving toward your targeted next step, you:Start pitching.

  • Get defensive.
  • Become impatient, talk over your prospect, and shut them down.
  • Get into an argument.
  • Skip steps in the sales process. 
  • Immediately start talking about price or negotiating. 
  • Answer hard questions out of context and without clarifying the reason for the question in the first place.
  • Attempt to overcome objections before understanding whether they are real objections and before discovery.
  • Introduce objections that did not originally exist.

Red herrings usually emerge early in initial sales conversations, at the beginning of discovery meetings, at the start of demos and presentations, and during introductions when presenting to a group of stakeholders. Red herrings often seem innocuous—just simple statements or questions:

“Look, before we go any further, I need to know that you aren’t too expensive.”
“You need to know that we are not going to sign a long-term contract.”
“Just so you know, we’re not buying anything from you today.”
“We tried this with your company before, and it didn’t work out.”
“Why are your online reviews so bad?”
“There are several things about your software that we don’t like. We’re going to need you to add some features.”
“We are already in discussions with your competitor.”
Stakeholders bring into sales conversations the emotional baggage accumulated over a lifetime of dealing with salespeople. They are suspicious of your motivations and don’t trust you. They don’t want to be manipulated.

Red herrings are essentially walls that stakeholders erect to protect themselves from being taken advantage of by salespeople. They’re often part of the reflexive buyer script. In some cases, though, red herrings are conscious and direct challenges designed to take you off your game and test your mettle.

Red herrings, managed poorly, are emotional hijackers that turn sales calls into train wrecks. When you face a red herring or get a direct challenge from a prospect early in the sales conversation, remain disciplined to rise above your disruptive emotions and manage your response.

Instead of becoming defensive, argumentative, or angry, leverage a non-complementary behavior to flip the script. Respond in a relaxed, calm tone; acknowledge the issue; and take control of the conversation. But, do not take the bait!

With red herring objections, impulse control is a must and patience a virtue. Most of these early “objections” go away and never come back as the prospect engages, you move deeper into the sales process, and trust deepens.

IMPORTANT NOTE: It’s critical that later in the sales conversation, in moments of insecurity (especially when you are asking for commitments), that you don’t dredge red herrings back up and remind stakeholders of these ghost objections that have long been forgotten.

Learn the PAIS Method for skipping past Red Herring Objections unscathed in Jeb Blount’s new bestseller, Objections: The Ultimate Guide to the Art and Science of Getting Past NO

About the author

Jeb Blount

Jeb Blount is one of the most sought-after and transformative speakers in the world…

Online Courses

Learn anywhere, any time, on any device.


Learn Online

Self-paced courses from the
world's top sales experts

Virtual Training

Live, interactive instruction in small
groups with master trainers


One-to-one personalized coaching
focused on your unique situation