Atomic has been interviewing candidates to be the managing partner of a new office we’re opening this summer. The role of managing partner is broad, with the ability to sell our software product development services high on the rather long list of skills. Considering the candidates from this perspective got me thinking about what it takes to be effective in this role. What makes a good technical sales person?
I wrote last summer about a study on the personality traits of successful sales people. Surprisingly, these included modesty, conscientiousness, curiosity, and lack of gregariousness. Doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype, does it?
While I haven’t done a study of my own, I think I can predict some other attributes that would be necessary or at least extremely helpful in selling for a company like Atomic Object.
Natural interest in business
There are many realms of human endeavor: the arts, literature, science, religion, philosophy, motorsports, mathematics, programming, video games, etc. The areas an individual is naturally interested in are where they spend their time learning, reading, practicing, exploring, and discussing; it’s what they retain and can draw upon when needed.
If you are naturally interested in business you probably subscribe to periodicals like Inc., Fast Company, Forbes, and The Economist. You likely read books and follow blogs about company culture, startups, management, leadership, and finance.
While someone without a natural interest in business could no doubt learn some things about business by reading, it might not help them as much in sales as they expect. Both the reading behavior and the effectiveness in sales are effects of a root cause, namely a natural interest in business.
Desire to help
Sales to me is very much about the personal connections I form with potential clients and my desire to help them. I see the same thing in the two people I’ve mentored in the sales role at Atomic. In fact, it was only once I had some help in sales that I fully realized how important and powerful these personal bonds were. All three of us can be much more objective and logical about the value of a particular sales opportunity when it’s not our own. When it is yours, the desire to help can strongly influence judgments about scheduling, priorities, value, fit, etc.
One of the consequences of this aspect to sales, at least for me, is that sales work is exhausting well beyond the time it actually requires. In the first six weeks of 2012 I’ve handled approximately 40 sales opportunities. In that time I’ve logged 60 hours of work on sales. The load on me from those opportunities and the 50 or so people behind them is far out of proportion to the 20% or so my work hours they’ve consumed. Sales has recently felt like more than a full-time job, in fact.
Desire to create value
The desire to create value through our client’s business seems to me another prime motivator in the sales process. Innovation services firms like Atomic have a symbiotic relationship with their client. We borrow purpose from their business for a project; we help create value for our client’s customers; we rely on our clients to bring this value to market.
Our work is meaningful, significant, and valuable to the extent our clients make it so.
While curiosity is one of the common traits found in the study I reference above, I think it’s so important it’s worth repeating. An abiding curiosity and interest in the world, people, markets, manufacturing processes, business models, technologies, companies, and ideas is not only a powerful motivation for sales, but it helps get you through the potentially exhausting work that sales requires.
It’s smart business to have such a diverse client base. It’s also much more interesting.
The “doer/seller” model has one huge advantage over a more conventional and specialized approach to sales; namely, legitimacy in what you’re selling. The confidence that gives the sales person is grounded and real. Your personal experience and intimate knowledge of the product or service you’re selling creates in turn a confidence in the client.
In our business there are many more ways of screwing up than there are of succeeding. Clients, at least those with prior experience, are keenly attuned to self-confidence based on accomplishments and knowledge. Legitimate confidence lays the ground work for trust to be built.
In the end
There are of course lots of techniques to be learned to be most effective in sales. Smoothly uncovering answers to questions like, Who is the decision maker? What’s the budget? What are the real time constraints? Is there potential for future projects? Does the project have the necessary support? and Who else is being considered? is a great skill to have. Techniques like identifying clear next steps, following up quickly, being persistent, etc, are other useful skills to master. I’ve learned most of these the hard way, I still don’t do them all consistently, and there are no doubt others I don’t even know about yet.
In the end, some skills can be taught, practiced, and learned. But I’m not sure someone can learn a natural interest in business, or an abiding curiosity, or a desire to help and create value. I think when it comes to these things you either have it or you don’t.
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