Sales Dos…and Don’ts

Everyone knows one.  You might even be one. You know, that person who incessantly jumps in and finishes someone else’s sentence.  Sure, it’s kind of cute when someone’s 4 year old twins do it.  It’s a bit cute when adult couples do it, until it gets cloying.  It’s a sign of close collaboration when co-workers or partners are so in tune with one another that they can speak as one.  If you’re a salesperson, though, it’s the kiss of death.

The term “salesperson” often evokes strong reactions, some positive, but more often not.  Pushy. Slimy.  Sleazy. Dishonest.  And those are the printable ones. The stereotype of a fast talking, plaid-jacketed flimflam man is etched into popular culture.  This notion is grossly unfair, of course, but it’s out there.  The minute you’re up close and personal with someone in sales the barriers go up and at least part of your brain races to stay ahead of the con that may be unfolding.  I’m here to tell you, though, there are few professions (yes, sales is a profession) that require more grit, thicker skin, and quicker thinking than sales.  If you’re in sales, you know what I mean.  If you work with sales people, I urge you to think about them differently.

So, what makes a good salesperson, or for that matter, what makes a poor one?  Putting aside the point that exact attributes vary greatly depending on the line of business and complexity of the sales, the core qualities and common deficiencies cut across most of them. First and foremost, a good salesperson knows their business.  You don’t need to know how to build the widgets you sell, but you sure need to know how they work and how they are best used.  That’s as true for selling kitchen tools as it is for cable modems.  A good salesperson does their homework and knows what they’re selling.

A good salesperson needs to know when to show how much they know and when to keep quiet.  A common pitfall is what I call “show up and throw up”; that is, coming into a sales call and being so intent to prove you know all about your subject matter that you turn on your mouth (and PowerPoint) and never take a breath. If your prospect wanted a lecture they’d either have asked for it or more likely watched a YouTube video on the subject.  Your job is to inform, not overwhelm.

Listening skills are critical for anyone in a sales role.  Just as you don’t want to drown your prospect in information, you need to make sure you understand their wants and needs.  Once you’ve got some context you can share what you know and gauge the prospect’s response.  Establishing a give and take build rapport and ultimately trust.  Remember, no matter how complex the sale, people buy from people they trust, and often the trust that’s established can overcome limitations in a product’s functionality, name recognition or price.

If you’re not listening, if you’re following a script regardless of where the conversation is leading, you’ll never establish the personal connection that’s the hallmark of a good salesperson.  In the hotel industry there’s a saying: every guest should feel like they’re the first person ever to be in their room.  For a salesperson that means being fully present in the discussion, reacting and responding to what’s being said in the meeting, not what your manual tells you is the next step in the sales process.  There can—and often needs to be—a clear sales process, but it should never be laid bare for the prospect to see.

A good salesperson also knows that what the prospect thinks he needs is not always what he really needs. Striking a balance between “the customer is always right” and respectfully suggesting alternatives that may better suit their requirements as the salesperson’s expertise guides them is valuable, even if it is not always recognized that way.

Finally, it should be noted that being a customer also takes some work, and there’s nothing more frustrating to a salesperson to have a prospect take up their time without a clear sense of what they’re looking for.  Sure, if you are a shop owner you can just say “look around and let me know if I can help.” If you’re selling a service or software or kitchen cabinets, a “tire kicker” can be a time suck.  Remember, salespeople most often get paid on what they sell, not just showing up to work. It’s tough enough to try and convince people to buy your stuff without having to spend their time with prospects who aren’t really prospects.

Thoughtful Hiring

It seems simple, doesn’t it? You have a job opening, so you put out an ad, people come in response, and you pick the one you like best.  Easy-peasy.  Not so fast!  Anyone who has ever had to hire someone knows there’s a lot more to the process than casting a net and hauling in the candidates.  Putting aside the subject of how one even finds candidates these days for a later discussion, this week I want to focus on being thoughtful about candidate selection.

Depending, as ever, on the type of business you’re in, and the level of position for which you are hiring, you may have nothing more than a vague notion of the sort of person who might fit, or you may have an extremely detailed job specification that must be followed along with a set of hiring criteria that pre-screens the candidate pool.  Regardless of how much—or little–flexibility you have, however, it’s valuable to spend some time considering the attributes you believe you need to fill your open role. Does the position call for the need for an outgoing personality? Will the job be a stressful one at times?  Is decision-making, especially under pressure, a requirement? Does the position require independent thinking or working with little or no supervision? Thinking through these characteristics ahead of time form a foundation for the interview assessment that follows.

Of course demonstrated skill the role requires is a prerequisite for consideration.  You can’t very well hire someone for a bookkeeper position who doesn’t know accounting, or bring in someone who doesn’t know programming to be a software developer, but that’s just the “table stakes”.  What matters, often more, are the less tangible aspects of personality and, I believe, the capacity to grow.  For the former, finding a person whose behavior and personal attributes will mesh well and even enrich the organization is an important hiring consideration.

For the latter, I’ve learned over the years that it’s better to hire someone who I think has the ability and thirst to learn and expand their capabilities. Frankly, that’s as true for a restaurant server as it is for an entry level marketing person.  Doing your best work requires the willingness and ability to be curious and to absorb.  Yes, it’s a balance between finding someone who’s right for the current position and you believe can grow into a more senior role over time, and hiring someone who already thinks they’re ready for the CEO’s office, but for my part I lean toward the inquisitive and the ambitious.

One of the most often overlooked aspects of hiring is consideration of where the position you’re hiring for can take the person you hire.  Naturally we think first about our need for a person to fulfill our tasks with competence and at least a modicum of good cheer but a smart hiring manager will look at the role through the employee’s eyes too. Is there an opportunity to advance if desired? Are there ways to make more money? Will the job descend into monotony?  Of course this is all dependent on the type and level of job, but even for the most menial and unskilled of jobs, most people hope for an environment—people and place—that makes them feel like going to work each day.

I also urge you to take a little risk when you can.  Some of my best hires have been people who, while having less experience than others in the candidate pool, showed me a spark, some energy, a hunger to learn and grow.  If you’re a thoughtful manager then mentoring is, or should be, a part of your daily work.  Being a resource for a go-getter, helping to shape someone and see them grow is not just rewarding, but it’s great business too.  Yes, you have to be careful to distinguish between enthusiasm and foolhardiness on the one hand, and precociousness and impetuousness on the other.  It’s often worth the effort though.

Lastly, keep in mind that most managers are lousy interviewers.  As professional recruiters will tell you, there’s both art and science involved in getting the information you need from a candidate and more or less objectively assessing that information.  Few managers are trained in interviewing these days. Follow my advice above and you may have a smoother time of it.  Just one more thing I urge you to keep in mind:  please, don’t ever, ever, ever ask a candidate where they see themselves in 5 years!

Rewriting the Formula

“We’ve given you, like, a million leads!  You don’t follow up on any of them!”

“All the leads you give my team are crap!  We need good leads!”

The two lines above—or some variation—are probably the most often-used in the annals of Sales and Marketing interactions.  So who’s right?  Marketing people often think that Sales guys are lazy, knuckle-dragging order takers who couldn’t find a deal if it bit them on the nose.  Sales execs often think that Marketing folks are academic pukes who spend their lives second-guessing the Sales team but who couldn’t close a deal if their lives depended on it—and who are terrified of anything resembling accountability.  So who’s right?  Both are.  And neither are.

One of the challenges, I think, is that Sales has a more focused mission, or at least one that can be described more succinctly than Marketing’s: find a deal, close a deal.  Rinse.  Repeat.  I don’t want to imply that this mission isn’t tough, sometimes brutally tough; it‘s just focused.  And yes, there are differences between “hunters” and “farmers”, and “strategic account execs” and “telesales reps” but the objective is the same.  Reel ‘em in, sign ‘em, and on to the next.  And I say again, it’s really hard if you’re the one having to do it.

Marketing, on the other hand, is really an umbrella term for everything from public relations to collateral development to product strategy and roadmaps and a laundry list of other functions depending on the company and the industry.  But often the output of Marketing’s work effort, at least from the Sales team’s perspective, is a brochure or an opaque, long “201x Marketing Plan” document that is filled with jargon and directives.  “How does that help me close a deal?”, quoth the salesman.  “Good question”, says I.

What I propose to discuss in this blog—with your help, I hope—is the Sales/Marketing nexus.  How the groups could and should work together, and even explore if the current division between the functions even makes sense in today’s business world.  I want to talk about a shared vocabulary.  A shared accountability.  A common goal.  Something that can bring the teams together at more than the executive level.

Stay tuned.