You know who you are. You hate selling, but here you are, making your way as entrepreneur, having to sell or sink.
Me? I’m a terrible salesperson. I’m also bad at networking, cocktail parties, and small talk with people I don’t know. Do I seem stuck up, aloof? Not really, just awkward.
I’m probably still scarred from my miserable failure at selling encyclopedias when I was in high school. I spent all summer, never made a sale, never managed to convince even a single person that I was really conducting an educational survey, and not selling encyclopedias. That miserable summer might have been what led me to hippiedom, way back when … but that’s a separate story.
And yet, hating to sell or not, I sold myself to business clients well enough to support a big family on my business plan consulting for 15 or so years, while simultaneously starting to build Palo Alto Software as a product business.
And I’ve had the privilege of working with and watching some greats in this category. I watched, and I learned. It comes down to 5 points:
1. Really listen
Really. Shut up for a bit and listen to the other person. No, don’t half listen while your mind races ahead to the next point. Really listen, and absorb what they’re saying. I like this quote in a Time magazine interview with Larry King:
I never learned anything while talking.
There’s no way to avoid it: you have to actually feel what this other person is feeling. Jump into their skin, or into their head, and look out from inside their head at the rest of the world. My mother used to call it putting yourself into the other person’s shoes. My sister-in-law used to say “borrow my eyes and see through them for a while.” See if you can imagine how he or she feels and he or she sees it. What experiences have they had which led to that point of view?
There’s no substitute for empathy. It’s the most important quality in business.
3. Always tell the truth
Lies come out, in the short term or long. Even plausible lies are time bombs.
When asked questions you shouldn’t answer — it happens; in the software business, for example, some questions about platforms and programming code and such — just tell the truth, and say you don’t feel comfortable answering that question. Explain why not.
When asked questions about weak points or flaws, answer them. You’ll gain some credibility and avoid the long-term loss you risk if you lie and your customer finds out later.
Your credibility, which is inseparable from your integrity, is the key to long-term relationships.
4. Solve the other person’s problem
One of my favorite things when I used to take sales calls, from back when my company was just starting up to just a few years ago (even as president, I used to grab the sales phone on random calls a few times a month), was to recommend a competitor’s product instead of our own. It went something like this:
“If you want a business plan just because you need a stack of papers on a banker’s desk in two days, and nobody’s really going to read it, then you don’t want our product. Ours likes you to think. You want __________.” Ours doesn’t write any text for you, it’s not fill in the blanks …
And I would end up giving them the toll-free number of a competitor. There was great satisfaction in that. And, in the long term, it’s good for the business. People see that you realize what your product is good at, and that other products might be better at different things.
I’ve seen our best salespeople do it over and over: they listen, empathize, and solve the other person’s problem either with our own product or by suggesting something else, that isn’t ours, that will solve the problem. We’re dealing with humans here; not everybody is a potential sale. Some of those people whose problems we can’t solve now will come back to us later, when they have a problem we can solve.
5. Grow thick skin
The first person who ever worked for Palo Alto Software as a full-time salesperson was amazingly persistent. He would leave voice messages for key gatekeeper people once a day for months, without ever getting a returned phone call. And, at least in several key accounts, those months of unanswered phone calls eventually got him — and our product — in the door.
Yes, I know, it’s somewhat contradictory to include empathy and thick skin in the same post. If you really empathized with the people who ignore messages, you might not persist in calling back. But business and life is full of paradox. I can’t resolve this one.
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