How to be a Successful Salesperson—Especially if You Think You Can't
Erika Andersen, Founder/Partner
I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with the idea of being a salesperson. For some reason, even from an early age, I had it in my head that sales was simply about finding people who wanted what I had to offer. So, for instance, selling Camp Fire Girls candy in grade school held no terrors for me: I’d go around and ask people if they wanted to buy it, and if not, I’d ask the next person. I figured there was no harm in asking, even if they didn’t want it—and them not wanting it didn’t have anything to do with me; maybe they didn’t like candy, or were on a diet, or had already bought some from somebody else.
And actually, that’s pretty much how I sell today, 50 years later. When I hear of someone who seems as though he or she might have a need for what my company does, I’ll set up a conversation with that person. When we get together, I’ll listen to find out whether my belief is accurate—whether he or she might benefit from something Proteus offers. If so, I explain the service or product I think they might find useful. I ask if they’re interested in exploring a possible fit between their need and our offer. If not, I assume it’s because they 1) don’t see the need in the same way I do, or 2) they believe they have a better way of meeting that need that doesn’t involve Proteus. I may be disappointed, especially if I see the need clearly, and don’t believe the person is going to be able to be successful in solving the problem without us. But I also know there are lots of other possible clients out there (and lots of wonderful current clients to support, as well), so I’m usually happy to move on. Next!
I recently read a wonderful little book, Dan Pink’s To Sell Is Human, that reinforced these positive ideas I’ve had about selling for all these years. Pink talks about selling as “moving people” to behave differently or think differently—and points out that in today’s world, even people who don’t think of themselves as salespeople are selling indirectly much of the time. Two areas of endeavor he uses as examples throughout the book are the medical field—where patients need to be ‘sold’ on adopting healtheir habits or following courses of treatment, and education—where students need to be ‘sold’ on the idea that learning what’s put in front of them is going to be worth their while. Pink talks about the importance, in this new world of selling, of entering into any “moving” conversation in a collaborative, listening-focused way, as a partner who is a problem-clarifier and problem-solver.
At the same time, reading Pink’s book also made it much clearer to me why most people don’t view sales in such a positive light—why they have a ‘cringe’ relationship with the idea of selling. Pink cites lots of great research showing that rather than seeing sales as a collaborative, mutually beneficial process of finding a fit between need and offer, as I’ve described above, people tend to see it as manipulative, pushy, inauthentic, slightly sleazy. Sales, for most people, evokes images of being glad-handed and lied to by some untrustworthy used-car-salesman-type in a shiny suit and bad toupee. No wonder people think they don’t like to sell!
The problem with holding on to that old, outmoded conception of selling is that almost all of us need to be able to sell. If you define selling, as Pink does, as ‘the art of moving others,’ we’re selling ideas, opinions, and proposed courses of action every day—to our kids, our boss, our spouses, our PTA group, our employees. And for those of us who are entrepreneurs or freelancers, even more of our time is spent ‘moving others’ to see that fit between our business or ourselves and their need.
So it makes sense to shift our ideas about selling—and that means (many of you know this is favorite topic of mine) changing our self-talk. Here’s a quick and simple exercise for doing just that:
1. Ask yourself: What words come to mind when I think of myself as a salesperson?
2. Listen to the response that arises inside your head:
2a. If you find you’re thinking words like helpful, partner, problem-solver, relationship builder, mutual benefit—congratulations. You have the core mindset of a successful 21st century salesperson.
2b. If your thoughts are running more along the lines of words like rejection, pushy, fake, annoying, unwanted, manipulative, scary—I suggest you continue on to step 3
3. What could you say to yourself that’s more positive and hopeful about the idea of you as a salesperson—yet still feels true to you? I asked my husband (whose self-talk about selling is quite negative) and his response was, “I have a great product that some people will find useful. If people don’t want to buy it, it’s no reflection on me.” Great, simple, positive, accurate.
4. Once you’ve come up up with more supportive (yet still believable) self-talk, you’ll need to remind yourself to use it as a more accurate and helpful alternative whenever your old, unhelpful self-talk muscles its way toward the front of your brain.
Changing your mindset in this way is key to feeling differently—and then acting differently—about selling. And as selling starts to occupy a new place in your brain and emotions, you might feel comfortable enough to explore other ways to get better at it. And remember—this positive self-talk about selling will be hugely valuable to you whether your “product” is a great idea you want your boss to be open to considering; a proposal to your spouse about re-allocating household responsibilities; or the best car for the couple who have just walked into your showroom.
And if this whole area is interesting to you, here are two other articles to support your evolution as a new-style salesperson: The Unexpected Secret to Being a Great Salesperson, a post here on Forbes from earlier this year, and Sales Tips: 4 Ways to Avoid Cold Calling, a post I wrote for the Salesforce blog.