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Selling When You're A Reluctant Salesperson

Selling is my job. I’m very good at it and I really enjoy it.

But the idea of "selling" is uncomfortable and confronting to most people.

I remember being told that I was "a natural sales guy" in an annual review meeting. Sitting across from me was my manager. John was a capable, intelligent and sincere man with whom I enjoyed working.

When he delivered this feedback, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

A "sales guy?"

The annoying, used-car, snake-oil salesman, pushy stereotypes rushed into my mind.

I felt sick to my stomach, ashamed that somehow I had the potential to be a deceitful, all-hustle but no substance guy who could (and would) sell anything to anyone.

I have met men and women who fit this descriptive mold perfectly. They sell widgets with little concern for the relationship once the deal is done. Their primary incentive is financial and you can spot their insincerity a mile away.

What real sales should look like?

At the other end of the spectrum are people who are deeply invested in developing a business and making their customers more successful than ever.

They combine empathy, compassion and humor with data and logic to present compelling propositions. These people know that the energy required to close a deal is only half of what’s needed to make a partnership successful.

They are ready for the long haul and know that their strategic success is inextricably linked to that of their customers.

These people also appear resilient, determined and measured but just below the surface, like anyone who takes pride in their mission, they manage the burden of setbacks and fatigue through mentors and tactics that help them grow.

Their primary incentive is changing your world. And I was shown how good this can be by people at the top of their game at General Electric and Google and by entrepreneurs like Andrew Lowe, Jo Burston and Greg Nance.

This is how and what I think about selling.

Getting in the right headspace.

There are 12 truths to selling. They apply to consumer and business sales and are particularly relevant in complex selling (where two or more decision makers are involved) and where partnerships are the most efficient pathway to growth.

But above anything, these truths help people to get into and stay in the right headspace to enter the endurance sport that is selling.

It starts here.

Segmenting customers, crafting messages, pitching new business and placing ads on social media comes later.

The 12 Truths

1. Love what you sell. If you don’t, stop wasting your time (and that of the people to whom you’re selling).

It’s easy to tell when someone loves what they are trying to convince you to buy. They ooze authentic conviction because they know, through careful research, that their product or service will make a genuine and positive difference to the life of the buyer. This comes naturally to most founders.

But remember, if you don’t love what you sell, the buyer will see it from a mile away and there’s a good chance that your behaviors will reflect your incentive (no matter how well you try to hide it). If you’re in this boat and given the value of time, you need to ask yourself if it’s worthwhile.      

2. You either move people closer to happiness or away from fear.

These are the reasons people buy things. Your product or service has to do one of these two things really, really well. If it doesn’t for one person, then they’re not in your target market. If it doesn’t for a large group of people, you may not have a business. Don’t underestimate how binary or how true this rule is.

3. There’s always a run-rate business and a strategic business.

Selling a product or service repeatedly to individual customers is how most businesses get runs on the board and gain early traction. This momentum helps create opportunities to pursue larger distribution through strategic partners. With the right timing and luck, a virtuous cycle will be created where large partners drive higher sales to individual customers.

This never ever happens quickly and that’s why companies of all sizes need to operate a run-rate business (selling to individual customers) and a strategic business in parallel. This is a tricky juggling act but a necessary one in order to achieve scale.

4. Sales involve the whole team.

The buck might stop with one person for sales results but every single person in a company has a role to play in selling. This is as true for the CTO and engineers, who enable features that help to close deals, to those charged with customer service who shape and influence buyer’s perceptions at the front line.

Every team member should be able to answer ‘how do you support sales?’ in the same way each team member should know how they contribute to product development.

Every team member should feel a genuine sense of contribution when a deal closes. The absence of this is a lead indicator of a disconnected culture.

5. Successful selling is backed by three types of marketing messages.

This point isn’t about the mix of marketing channels you use to wrestle for a decision maker’s attention. It’s about how the messages you create co-exist and perform over time to reinforce your brand in the mind of the decision maker.  The first two types of marketing message are scalable, the last one is far from it but just as important.

The first type of message is subliminal and involves the subtle appearance of messages designed to draw curiosity. You might not receive a direct sale from them but they will reinforce your brand. Text ads on LinkedIn or branded weather reports on screens in elevators are good examples of subliminal messaging.

When you receive a direct marketing message, the second type, it comes to you through an environment that you’re very familiar with and it grabs your attention for at least three to five seconds. You find these messages in places like the television screens, in subways or in your Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn feed as sponsored content, to name a few. They’re not specific to you but for some reason, they are presented at the right time and make you stop and take notice.

Intimate marketing usually involves an event where the seller grants exclusive access to a product or the people behind the product. These high-touch, invitation-only occasions are reserved for a small group of decision-makers on the buy-side who want first-hand experience with key people who can discuss an issue they need solved or an opportunity they wish to pursue.

Intimate marketing can also involve repeatedly visiting and supporting prospective clients to demonstrate commitment and empathy. Never underestimate the value of a personal touch in a commercial relationship.

The combination of subliminal, direct and intimate marketing messages is potent.

6. 90 percent of deals are lost due to poor follow-up.

Anyone can send out an introductory email or make the first sales call. It takes discipline and a well thought-through sales process to stay focused, nurture prospective customers and close deals. Invest in technology that will keep you on track. I really like ProsperWorks for customer relationship management (particularly if you use Gmail for company email).

7. Promoters and detractors live at every level of your customers. Work with both.

This is a business to business (B2B) sales truth. As you forge new partnerships with large organizations it becomes clear that there are people who are willing to advocate on your behalf (i.e. promoters) and those who are active in creating roadblocks.

The best salespeople fight to establish the motives of all the actors in a customer’s organization who will influence their companies success. This is a continuous exercise is sensing and responding and it requires working and understanding the perspectives and incentives of promoters and detractors. And that’s why I look forward to one person in a prospective customer organization saying "No thanks!"

As I wrote in The Pyramids Aren’t As Tall As You Think, "no" only means no today and as far as I’m concerned -- this is just the beginning of a strategic conversation.

8. Funnels, numbers and lead indicators are your lifeblood.

Revenue makes a lot of problems go away in business. And although sales results often speak for themselves, I’m always surprised at how many people talk about the steps that lead to a sale (their funnel) and the indicators they use to determine how sales efforts are trending. In most cases, they talk a good game but their funnel, sales numbers and indicators are all in their head or buried in their email.

That isn’t sales, that’s chaos.

Sales funnels are made up of the practical steps required to take someone from being unaware to being an advocate for your brand. And each of these steps is accompanied by a percentage likelihood that a deal will be done given the stage.

For example, the chance of a deal getting done when someone first expresses interest in your product might be 10%. They’ve still got a ways to go as they consider the pros and cons of doing business with you. By contrast, there might be an 80% chance of a deal being done when contracts are exchanged.

Take the expected first-year revenue of a customer and multiply it by the stage at which the customer is in the funnel and you’ll have the potential value that prospective customer will add to your business.

And there’s a sweet spot for how many steps there are in sales funnels. It varies by business. My general rule is that a practical funnel is a productive one.

When it comes to knowing my numbers, I focus on five measures as part of managing sales funnel health. 

These next five are for sales funnel help and health, then I'll bring you back to the sales 12 sales truths. 

#1 - Amount of leads generated.

This is obvious. The real question connected to this measure is ‘where are your leads coming from?’

#2 - Quality of leads generated.

It’s always been about quality over quantity. I look at the overlap in characteristics between customers and those of prospective customers who are moving through the sales funnel quicker than other leads. The insights from this analysis usually result in a change to how we generate leads and how we nurture existing leads.

#3 - Leads to close ratio.

This ratio is telling you how many actual sales come from leads. Here's the calculation: (Amount of Sales Leads over a certain period of time / Amount of Closed Sales over the same time) x 100.

#4 - Average sales cycle length.

This measure is telling you how long it’s taking to win new business. I’ve seen the largest improvements in sales come from examining and optimizing the factors that contribute to sales cycle length. Here's the calculation: (Number of days from first contact + Customer conversion for all deals) / Number of deals.

#5 - Customer referral growth.

This is the number of referrals that come from existing customers. The first four measures focus on ‘getting customers’. This one is about ‘growing customers’. In particular, it’s about how you’re adding value once the deal is done and how that translates to word-of-mouth referrals. Think carefully about how you can incentivize  customers to do your bidding. Believe it or not, it begins with asking customers what it would take to earn their referral.

Although these metrics are important, I don’t consider them lead indicators.

The lead indicator I focus on are the ones that will give me the most insight into whether sales strategies are working, is the number (and outcomes) of sales calls, emails and meetings. You can learn a ton by focusing on this because not only does it give an indication of your organization’s sales momentum, it goes a long way to answering one important question; are people willing to buy what you’re selling.

9. Selling "vaporware" is OK (but be ready to get called out).

I’m a big believer in selling an idea with a prototype before committing to build out an entire product ecosystem. I’ve benefited from investing a small amount of time and money to find there isn’t a product/market fit. I’ve also had the "holy shit" moment when I’ve been called out by a prospective customer who wanted my yet-to-be-built product that day.

Any way you cut it, it’s better to sell first and build second. Saves time, money, and exhaustion.

10. Learn to like product development -- selling is all about experimentation.

There is no "set it and forget it" when it comes to developing a product. It’s about countless experiments. The same is true for sales. The truth of the matter is that you start losing the moment you create a campaign and sit back and wait for results without quickly moving onto the next experiment.   

11. Relationships matter -- but time matters more.

I have two cardinal rules when it comes to sales and business development:

1) Always arrive with value in hand and

2) Never waste a prospective or current customer’s time.

How many times have you rolled your eyes when you see a call coming through from a salesperson.

Take pride in not being that person.

As far as rule one is concerned, set up a quarterly event in your diary to reach out to them but make absolutely certain you have value to bring to these relationships.

And by the way, this doesn’t mean asking them for a coffee. It means adding real value, the type of value that makes their professional or personal life better. It can be as simple as reaching out to wish them Happy Birthday, to sharing a piece of important research that you know they will value to offering to make an introduction based on a conversation you’ve had.

Hopefully, the second rule is self-explanatory.

12. The buyers' decision-making process matters 100X more than your sales process.

I’ve left the best to last. Do not be fooled into thinking that just because you control the speed and creative aspects of your companies sales and marketing that your job is done and it’s only a matter of time until the sales pour in.

That’s not how it works.

The more difficult (and largely uncontrollable) aspect of sales and business development is understanding the decision-making process of prospective customers.

If you wake up each day with a desire to find ways to map closer to their approaches to consideration and buying, you’re halfway there to being successful in sales.

Closing thought

Sales and business development is an endurance sport. It requires focus, resilience, integrity and a sense of humor. I have days when I shake my head at how difficult it feels to gain momentum with customers. The good news is that I’ve always found the answer in one of these 12 truths.

And like building a company as a founder, sales is a learning game. Using mentors and tools like this to help you evolve is essential.

If you learned something new, love to hear from you.