A few years ago, I really stunk at sales. And I don’t just mean selling products or services -- I mean selling in its most basic sense. Naturally, interviewing for jobs was a disaster. Starting my own business? A pipe dream.
Yet, only a few years later, I’m co-running a successful business and making more than three times my previous salary.
I’ve often thought about how this happened, and I keep arriving at the same conclusion: I learned how to sell. Sure, I learned a ton of other things, too -- but selling is what stands out as the game-changer.
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Why most people are bad at selling
When most people think of a “salesperson,” they imagine a spammy telemarketer or used-car salesman. Hollywood perpetuates these stereotypes in films like The Wolf of Wall Street. The result is that many businesspeople, from small business owners to venture-funded entrepreneurs, never learn how to properly sell their products and services.
I was in this boat until after I graduated from college. Unlike most of my friends, who at the very least had waited tables or worked in retail, I had zero sales experience.
If you’re already an entrepreneur or have been thinking about starting your own business, don’t let your fears hold you back the way I did. You need to learn how to sell. Here are five simple tips to get you started:
1. Practice being more enthusiastic.
Here’s the single best tip from Frank Bettger’s seminal sales book, How I Raised Myself From Failure to Success in Selling: Be more enthusiastic. This isn’t the same as being cheerful -- too many salespeople force themselves to do this and just seem disingenuous. Instead, being enthusiastic means being confident but attentive. Not only does this make you more trustworthy, it also makes sales meetings much more enjoyable.
Most would-be entrepreneurs are either too shy or too formal, and many salespeople go overboard and try too hard. If either of those extremes sounds like you or people you’ve dealt with, learn to talk to leads and clients like they’re your friends. This isn’t always natural -- in fact it was very hard for me, a born introvert -- but it will come with practice.
2. Meet objections with questions.
A crucial part of being more attentive is to know when to ask questions. And the absolute best time to ask questions during a sale is when your lead is getting cold feet.
Questions help you avoid forcefully convincing someone that you’re the right fit. They help you:
Find the key issues
Make your lead feel important
Find out what your lead really wants
Convince your lead that your idea was theirs all along
For example, a question I always ask leads when I run into a wall is “What are you currently doing with your content?” If they don’t have a game plan, this is usually enough to reframe the conversation in a way that helps me make the sale.
But, if they do have a plan, and just aren’t convinced they need my help, I’ll follow up with another question: “Is what you’re doing right now enough?”
3. Find out what your lead wants, then help him or her get it.
The next step is to move from “find out what your lead really wants” to “convince your lead that your idea was theirs all along.” This doesn’t happen naturally -- you need to create an opportunity for it to happen by being very flexible with your approach.
For example, I often come across leads who really need to do more social media, but aren’t willing to pay for it. Instead of forcing the issue, I’ll ask them what they want instead. Half the time, they’ll say a single blog post, because people love the idea of having their own blog.
That’s fine, because at least I'll know what they want. So, I’ll write the first blog post for a client. Then I’ll say, “Hey, you should really be distributing this on LinkedIn, which you’re only updating once a month . . . ”
Before the client knows it, other social media channels will be added to the mix, and within weeks his or her traffic and engagement will rocket past expectations. Even better, the client will feel that focusing on social media was his or her idea all along…
But let’s say your lead is tight-lipped and won’t tell you what he or she wants at all, instead asking for proposal after proposal. A great way to intuit someone's true needs is by investigating the competition, using solutions like Buzzsumo (competitor keywords) and WhatRunsWhere (competitor ads).
4. Always follow up -- even if it seems hopeless
If you think you’re bad at sales, here are some statistics that will make you rethink your assumptions:
44 percent of salespeople give up after one follow-up call.
The average salesperson only makes two attempts to reach a prospect.
80 percent of leads require five touches before the sale.
Add to this the fact that most business professionals don’t respond to emails, and it becomes clear that many salespeople give up too quickly. If you don’t hear back from a lead who you thought was ready to buy, that’s normal:
63 percent of people requesting information today will not purchase for at least 3 months
20 percent will take more than 12 months to buy
If you have a lot of leads, you may find it hard to keep track of everyone and follow up in time. That’s perfectly normal. One tool I used to stay on top of my leads is recurring Google Calendar reminders, back when it was just me doing the selling. Then came SmartSheet Gantt charts when our team grew to a few people, and Zip Schedules for enhancing team communication between multiple account managers. You could always go with Salesforce, but if your sales team is fewer than 10 people that may be overkill.
5. Err on the side of honesty.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing I learned about sales is that Hollywood got it all wrong. Sure, there will always be Jordan Belfort types in the world, but in the end they all get caught and exposed. At the end of the day, the most consistently successful salespeople are actually honest, dependable and helpful to a fault.
Too many of us see sales as a way to enrich ourselves rather than a way to create win-win relationships with other businesspeople just like us. In reality, sales done right should be indistinguishable from effective business networking.
By identifying problems and guiding people to the right solutions, you will not only become a better salesperson, you’ll also exponentially increase your business network, get more referrals and become a trusted authority in your industry.
Would you buy what you’re selling?
You want to be honest for the same reason you want to be more enthusiastic: to build up trust. Trust is the most valuable commodity of any salesperson, and understanding its value is what separates a shady salesman from a rock-star CEO.
A great litmus test for determining whether you and your sales pitch are trustworthy enough is to ask yourself one simple question: “Would I buy what I’m selling?”
Keep asking yourself this question and refining your process until your answer is a resounding “Yes!”