As leaders within consulting firms, we’re often tapped to be part of the team that helps connect new clients with teams. At some companies, this activity is called “sales.”
I’ve spoken with several leaders at service firms over the years who don’t feel good about being part of sales. I’ve heard it referred to as a dirty practice. In popular culture, sales is associated with slick car salesmen who employ high-pressure tricks to get you to agree to something you can’t afford, don’t want, and don’t need. As a leader in the service industry, being associated with that sort of behavior is unsettling.
While there is certainly truth behind the stereotype, it doesn’t have to be the norm. I have found sales to be a fun, empathetic practice that brings forth new economic growth and meaningful relationships.
We All Sell
If we are all honest with ourselves, there’s no escaping sales. In Daniel Pink‘s seminal book “To Sell is Human,” he points out that we all sell all the time. The last time you and your partner decided to stay in and watch Netflix, how did you negotiate the choice of what to watch? There was probably a conversation about needs and wants, with a final compromise on what would be acceptable to all parties. That’s sales!
Sales is the process through which two parties reach an agreement about a mutually beneficial arrangement. We all do it constantly. It sounds like the kind of thing we could all get better at. In my career, I’ve discovered four skills each of us can develop to become better at selling.
1. Be Likable
Being likable isn’t actually a question of being. It’s a set of behaviors. And while these may come naturally to some, they’re also something anyone can cultivate. In my experience, “likability” boils down to five behaviors.
Listen to understand, not to respond.
Much has been written about this point, including a chapter in Stephen Covey’s seminal business book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” I also appreciate Chapters 4 and 5 of Fred Kofman‘s book “Conscious Business.”
Stay engaged with the conversation (by removing distractions).
When I’m in a sales meeting (or any meeting, for that matter), I shut down Slack, close messaging apps, and turn my phone on DND mode. I want to be able to focus on the person in front of me. If I open the door to being distracted by these other communication mediums, I don’t feel I’m respecting the other person by valuing their time.
Most of the time, people come to Atomic because they need help. They have a problem, and they think technology is the answer, but they don’t have the first idea of how to move forward. When I connect with them, I see a person in need of help. My goal during the call is to show empathy.
Research professor Brene Brown has spent decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She describes empathy as:
Listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of “You’re not alone.”
Imagine if that were what a sales call was like? Even if a potential client isn’t a great fit for Atomic, I try to find ways of helping within the bounds of a phone call. Are there people within my network that might be a better fit? Is there knowledge and experience I can share that might help them to reframe their problem statement and consider more possible solutions?
Ask hard questions.
Hard questions seem at odds with empathy, but they are actually the other side of the likability coin. Empathy that doesn’t challenge us to consider other options is what author and executive Kim Scott calls “ruinous empathy.” You avoid the hard conversation to spare everyone’s feelings. Is that really helpful? Listening to understand and holding space for someone to express themselves is clearly beneficial. But after you’ve done so, you need to ask the tough questions to help the other person move forward.
In the context I’ve posed here, that often means talking about money and timelines. Asking questions like, “What’s your budget for this engagement?” or, “What’s your prospective timeline for completion of this project?” is one of the kindest things I can do. Sometimes, I go as far as to ask if they’ve considered off-the-shelf solutions that will get them 80% of the way to success. And, often, I have to tell them that their budget or plan isn’t feasible. Asking these kinds of hard questions and delivering bad news is the kindest thing I can do in that situation.
Getting to talk to new people about totally new (to me) industry verticals is really fun. You’d be amazed at how helpful people are when you show interest in things they are knowledgeable about. I enjoy showing curiosity to prospective new clients by asking questions about their area of expertise. Human beings generally enjoy sharing their knowledge and feel appreciated when other human beings show interest in that knowledge. Of course, curiosity needs to be genuine. Otherwise, it’s a manipulative ploy to get someone to like you.
Cultivating curiosity in your own life will help this quality be authentic in sales environments. Personally, I do this by exploring many different interests in my own spare time. Sometimes, I watch sports — even ones I don’t understand or particularly enjoy. I figure that someone must like this sport and be knowledgeable about it, so the sport has value.
At its heart, I believe curiosity is really about recognizing the fundamental truth that human beings are valuable and, therefore, their interests have value — even if I don’t easily recognize the value of those interests.
2. Propose an Agenda
It’s amazing how often we ask for time from people, then show up without a clear agenda for that time. The agenda doesn’t have to be complex, accurate, or precise. It’s often just a guide. The conversation could go spectacularly well without the agenda. But if it doesn’t go well, the agenda can get us through the conversation. And at an early stage sales meeting, the conversation can be vague and amorphous.
It’s much like if we took a hike in the woods without a map. On a clear day in known territory, that can go great. A map is probably overkill. But if the hike is in a new area and the day is foggy… you’d better have a map and compass. If not, you could find yourself walking in circles for hours.
An agenda in a meeting is there for when things don’t go well and we veer off-track. It’s the guide rails that get us pointed back in the right direction. Most early-stage sales meetings are exactly like this. The relationship is new. There isn’t a lot of trust. It’s not clear what the outcome of the meeting will be. People in this environment can feel a little unsure and insecure. An agenda is an antidote to that feeling. It provides a degree of security that helps everyone relax, knowing that there are guide rails on the meeting.
3. Take Notes
Taking notes in a meeting is my least favorite thing to do. I find it distracting because I feel like I’m listening to record, not listening to understand.
However, taking notes is also one of the most empathetic things I can do — I’m gathering information for another member of the team. Additionally, I’m noting details so the person in front of me doesn’t have to repeat this again. I see myself creating a foundation of knowledge on which we’re going to move forward, building a relationship that will lead to mutual gain.
4. Set Next Steps
When a meeting ends, you always want to know where it’s going next. This gives you the security that the conversation with the other party is moving forward. It also gives the other party an understanding of what they need to do next to continue toward what they want to procure.
I hope you find space in your life and work to cultivate these skills. Practicing these skills will make you a better salesperson, but it will also make you a better person.
What sorts of skills do you practice regularly that help you in sales and everyday negotiations? How do you drive alignment in your relationships at work and at home?
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