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How to Sell Like House of Cards’ Frank Underwood (Without Selling Your Soul)

5 min readMarch 9, 2016

House of Cards is back for its forth season. This is just one of those shows that keeps getting better and better and I can hardly wait to see how the latest season ends (I envision some binge-watching in my future). If you’re new to House of Cards, it’s the story of Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey), a ruthless and pragmatic politician with ambitious goals. This season focuses on an election, which is quite topical given that this is an election year.

While Underwood’s tactics are—on a good day!—morally questionable, he has a acute talent for selling the value of his vision. It’s this skill that enables him to continuously ensnare unwitting flies in his web. And one of best parts of the show is that Underwood routinely turns to the camera and directly sells his vision to the audience.

What Salespeople Can Learn from Politicians 

Like politicians, salespeople must be simultaneously persuasive and pragmatic. To that end, here are a few tips that salespeople can pick up from watching House of Cards. Best of all, none of these sales tips require you to sell your soul!

Set Small Goals

When faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, Frank Underwood tells his aid Doug Stamper, “That’s how you devour a whale … one bite at a time.” There are so many moments during the course of House of Cards when Frank’s cause seems hopeless. But through a series of tactical decisions, he moves ever closer to bringing his grand schemes to fruition.

The same is true for sales prospectors. Sure, the end-to-end process of closing new business can seem daunting. But try hunting methodically, by breaking the prospecting process into small, achievable goals. Here are some examples:

  1. Identify a target account
  2. Identify key decision makers at that account
  3. Connect with a key decision maker
  4. Secure a meeting
  5. Discover their pain points
  6. Offer value
  7. Build consensus
  8. Close the deal

To help, look for tools that can help accelerate each portion of your sales process. Think of each step as a single bite and before you know it, you will have “devoured the whale.”

Don’t Be a Doormat. Be a Matador!

To paraphrase Frank Underwood, “There are two types of salespeople: doormats and matadors.” Everyone prefers buying from salespeople that they respect as experts. It’s important to listen to your prospects’ needs and concerns. But you can’t be afraid to take control of the sale. By demonstrating that you understand your prospects’ industry and high-level insight into how you intend to improve their reality, you can position yourself as the sort of expert that people like buying from.

Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson’s book The Challenger Sale offers advice to help reps and managers drive more revenue by being sales “matadors.” The book’s premise is that how you sell is far more important than what you sell. Your prospects are looking to vendors for more than just help buying products. They want vendors to help them identify new opportunities to slash costs, drive revenue and mitigate risk in ways they have yet to recognize themselves. If you’re looking to sell with Underwood’s gravitas, this book is a must-read.

Know Your Weaknesses

One of my favorite Frank Underwood Quotes comes toward the end of season two. He says, “Even Achilles was only as strong as his heel,” meaning that we’re only as strong as our greatest weakness. To be successful, sales reps have to master many skills: verbal communication, emails, time management, collaboration, goal projection and—of course—actually closing deals.

To improve your own skill set, make a list of every skill that’s involved in your position (they can differ depending on role/function). Then, assess on a scale of 1-10 how much you excel at each of those skills. If you have 10s across the board, great! But realistically, all reps need to improve in some way or another. Whatever your Achilles heel is, put your time in. And turn that weakness into a strength.

Learn Your Stakeholders’ Goals

In the latest season of House of Cards, Frank Underwood tells the fictional Russian President Viktor Petrov, “Men like you don’t show up for dinner without an appetite.” Underwood needs the Russian President’s cooperation to move his agenda forward and is therefore eager to discover Petrov’s agenda in order to make a deal.

Likewise, in B2B sales, you need to discover what is driving your prospects. And you will likely find yourself balancing the agendas of multiple stakeholders across various departments. It’s vital to find out what each stakeholder’s goals and pain points.  Then, it’s vital to convince each stakeholder that they are getting something important out of the deal. If you routinely sell to specific buying roles, you may want to take some time identifying what metrics are important to buyers in that role. As an example, CMOs are routinely interested in increasing ROI of their marketing spend, improving lead velocity and overall lead quality.

“There Are Two Kinds of Pain”

The first time that Frank Underwood ever addresses the audience in House of Cards, he tells us, “There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain…” A salesperson’s job is to relieve their customers’ pain. But far too many salespeople go about their quotidian tasks, without doing anything to relieve their own pain.

As an example, how many reps actually enjoy entering data in their CRM? How many salespeople enjoy dialing leads manually? None. These sorts of manual tasks are what Underwood would classify as useless pain. With the right sales technology stack, you can relieve useless pain. Then your team can focus on “useful pain” like improving ineffective sales pitches.

By implementing these House of Cards-inspired sales tips, you can hopefully achieve your own awe-inspiring goals. And, as Frank Underwood would say, “When the money is coming your way, don’t ask questions.”

Want to get some sales tips from other top leaders? Check out our eBook 14 Top Sales Leaders Reveal Their Most Essential Sales Metrics!