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Applying Game Theory to Selling: Can It Accelerate Performance?

Simply stated, game theory is “the study of mathematical models.” It is mainly used in economics, political science and psychology. Originally, it addressed zero-sum games, in which one person’s gains resulted in another’s loss. Game theory is a study of the ways in which interactions produce outcomes; because of this, it could be applied to selling.


The mathematical theory of games was invented in the mid-1940s. Since that time, there has been quite an evolution as to how it is used as a tool to help determine outcomes based on the predictability of the players and circumstances associated with each scenario or event.

Game theory can be applied to analyze the various ways a scenario will occur, the motive of the players involved, along with predicting the outcome of each player.

In sales, if a salesperson can anticipate what the customer and competitive salespeople/s will do, using the principles of game theory, they can alter their actions to constitute their best chance for a successful outcome given the information and assumptions available in a specific sales situation.

A crucial aspect of game theory involves the information that players have when they choose a strategy.

Gaining an Advantage

A player in a game chooses their first action by considering the possibility of responses and counter-responses that will result from each action. For example; the game of chess would be considered a game of strategy. However, the game of blackjack would not. In chess, both players are required to make decisions. Both players should take time to analyze each other’s moves and contemplate future moves. In blackjack, the dealer is required to follow a protocol and is not allowed to deviate. In this case, you know what the dealer will do, based on the cards that are face-up.

Redesigning or revaluating a sales strategy using some of the concepts of game theory is how the salesperson could potentially gain a competitive edge.

Game theory has its foundation from the Nobel Laureate mathematician John Nash. Nash suggests that most players in a game are “rational.” Because of this, it is sensible to be able to accurately anticipate what to expect from each player: i.e. the customer and competitive salesperson/s (are rational.)

Research will suggest “the customer” will be consistent in the way they start a sales interaction. Approximately eighty percent (80%) of the time the customer will begin the business discussion with one of the four opening comments. The reasoning behind this is their propensity to remain consistent in their patterns and habits (day in and day out.) combined with their desire to get through the sales process with a fair and balanced approach.

Once the predictability of the customer is identified, the salesperson can utilize game theory on how the interaction should unfold, the positives and negatives and how they can alter their approach to improve their chances for success.


By taking the time to make a hypothesis of the customer’s comments, reactions, and responses in a given situation, the salesperson’s ability to increase their performance and enable them to be one step ahead of the customer and competition is greatly enhanced. This preparation however is contingent on the salesperson’s incentive. Is the salesperson motivated to take the time to complete the required “due diligence” to gain an edge?

The better adept the salesperson is at this process, the better they will be at answering the following questions:

  • “If my customer opens the conversation with (fill in the blank), I should respond by saying (fill in the blank).
  • “If I think competition is doing (fill in the blank), I should do (fill in the blank)
  • “If my competition thinks (fill in the blank), what would be the resulting outcome?”
  •  “If my customer wants to accomplish (fill in the blank), based on the above assumptions, I should do (fill in the blank).

By analyzing the possible responses to the above questions, the salesperson can determine the likelihood of “wins” or “loses” for each of the most probable response for the above questions. Completing this task will reveal a need to alter the salesperson’s approach and mindset moving forward. This revelation will help put the salesperson in the driver’s seat.


Greater attention in the areas of anticipating the customer’s habits, competitions likely response and adjusting strategies based on the above four questions should help paint a clearer pathway to success. However, what gets in the way of this success is the player’s ability to engage the customer at a higher level of conversation to obtain more information to enhance their strategy along with their ability to execute this analysis at a higher level of proficiency.

Charles Brennan Jr. is president of Brennan Sales Institute. Email Charles at

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