Wednesday, April 14, 2021

How do you end up in sales if you’re reluctant?

It’s not as hard to find yourself in sales. Salespeople in particular, and business growth in general, are both in hot demand. All sectors and industries need growth. Even governments are in a business of providing service to its citizens or attracting businesses and new residents to its communities. That means they all need sellers to communicate benefits and seek out new opportunities.

You might want to start your own business because you’re passionate about your trade or skillset or research, but that means you have to put yourself out beyond your comfort zone. You’re going to need to learn some sales skills to bring in clients, investors and employees so you can share your vision with them.

In other cases, you start a business intending to have a separate salesperson or team, and they don’t work out. As the one with the passion, you realize the best person to sell your product or idea is you.

Perhaps as a scientific person who understands programming code deeply, or the chemistry of a new product, and you’re asked to go out with the traditional sales team as a technical expert. You find yourself working on proposals and deals more than the technical product now.

Your role at work might have shifted or expanded so you are expected to do more convincing than you initially trained for. Maybe you move up to management, or maybe into a partner role where even though “business development” is a more civilized term at cocktail parties and Rotary meetings, you’re selling.

Maybe a spouse takes on a new business because they have a valuable set of skills, but you see it will fail if you don’t get out there and network some additional contacts for them. You could pitch in, make a few calls and help out your sweetie.

As young person, you might have looked at the job market and did the rational calculation that you could make $8.00 per hour as a waiter, or you could try something with commission. The bigger upside potential offsets a little risk, so you dive in.

Even as a regular mid-level employee responsible for maintaining projects or delivering results, you have to communicate your ideas to co-workers. Making recommendations to management requires presenting the benefits of the new initiative or justification for the costs. That’s all selling. You may have to convince a construction crew to comply with safety protocols. This is all selling. It’s also called “communicating”. 

The DNA of all these situations is that you’re moving someone from Idea A to Idea B. If you examine how you got someone off an old idea or preference, and over to your idea, you probably used logic, and presented only the benefits that your teammates or managers would find most valuable, and laid out the costs (in dollars or in terms of risks, as appropriate). You might have even found ways to mitigate their concerns upfront, or make it easier for them to move forward with you. 

Then you have to maintain that effort to communicate enthusiasm and continue to demonstrate or remind what the reasons were for making the change for much longer than your initial presentation: you have to keep selling that idea internally to keep it moving forward. Thanks to Daniel Pink for first illuminating this concept for me in To Sell is Human.

A lot of us find ourselves in some sort of sales at some point in our lives, even when we don’t take on the title or quota. No matter the original motivation, you have to make a decision now, because allowing reluctance to win means you’re losing.

My reluctance breakthrough:

I am a reluctant salesperson. The Reluctant Salesperson came out of my efforts to find my way as a salesperson because I found myself with an unexpected shortage of opportunities. My Dad had been in sales for over 10 years by the time I completed journalism school. He suggested I leave the path I’d trained for to sell for radio and TV stations rather than report for them.

It felt like a big sidestep and egregiously ignoble. I was journalist. Nope. I was an idealist. Can’t do it. I was a creative. No. I resisted for over 20 years.

Until I found myself laid off twice in 2 years. My Dad had a job that I could do in the family business. Nope. In sales. Can’t do it. Selling radio (a hundred-year old technology!!) in a small market. No. This is not the image of myself on my vision board for age 40. None of this was part of the plan.

5 years later, I was outselling him. But I do sales completely differently.

I took the job to help the family business. And to help my own household finances. It was a practical decision, but it wasn’t a comfortable one. I continued to resist in little ways: I gave into distractions because I didn’t want to be doing the work. My sense of myself held me back from seeming pushy. I was terrified of hearing “no” every day. I was petrified of failing. So instead of going out and looking for “yes’s”, I quietly said “no” inside my own head every time I picked up the phone.

I was cowed by the older clients I inherited from him, afraid they would see right through me and push me around. I worried I couldn't negotiate well enough. I worried I didn’t really know what I was talking about. I was embarrassed to go to my marketing club meetings and say I was selling radio. So much misplaced pride!  I missed opportunities because I was too shy to call a prospect until it was too late, and then ultimately created a self-fulfilling prophecy. How was I going to do this and feed my family? I certainly couldn’t count on luck because it felt like all my luck had run out.

But life has a funny way of preparing you for challenges. My Dad was always a big, enthusiastic guy, and when he wanted to be, he was very effective at being a pushy guy. There was never any malice in his pushiness, just drive to get something done. He’s going to grind and move the situation forward until he hits his goal.  That drive got him up and out of his harsh lower-working class upbringing. He was the kid with little to lose and took the gamble that commission-based sales would have more upside than any low-skill job he could get. He was right because he could see the benefits over the costs.

Consequently, because I lived in his house, I spent my early life developing tools to listen and weigh options. I also learned I needed to build up enthusiasm around my creative ideas rather than just force them on people. (As in: “Tada! I made this! Why aren’t you as excited about it as I am?”)  I became an expert in seeking consensus and buy-in because I wasn’t going to change my Dad’s mind by force. If I wanted something other than what he wanted, I had to quietly shift his ideas from here to there, without creating a threat. And I had to stand my ground sometimes to avoid being pushed into situations I didn’t want. These were coping mechanisms of a little kid, that turn out to be coveted tools in the business world today.

I realized the moment I accepted that I was a salesperson when I fell into a happy conversation with a prospect about a store promotion she was considering. The manager was new in her role, and also a little uncomfortable there, like me. We felt some kinship like fellow shipwreck survivors.  She asked what I thought. I had some ideas for her promotion and shared them. We weighed how much she could do with her current resources and brainstormed about what she wanted to accomplish. We were both loose, laughed easily, coffee was flowing, things were comfortable, we were peers just working on an idea. I wasn’t presenting. It wasn’t life-and-death. And then she asked how I thought that promotion would sound on the radio.

Oh! That's when I remembered why I was there: I was supposed to sell her some advertising. And then it clicked.

I had unwittingly, but effortlessly, qualified the prospect, discovered her budget, built rapport, and gained credibility. We moved through a very efficient agenda because I was curious. The conversation was natural and enjoyable. My genuine interest in her, and a transparent willingness to help her, broke through both of our preconceived notions of what a sales call could be.

A genuine interest, knowledge about the strengths of the product, and the ability to help a prospect weigh options to find the best fit. These are the building blocks of 21st Century selling.