“You don’t look anything like your average sales director … which I mean as a compliment”

By Jon Slater on 4 Apr 2014

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I attended the ecommerce expo at Olympia last year, where I was introduced to the marketing director of one of the UK’s larger hosting providers, who made this remark to me. It got me thinking. I took him at face value – so what exactly did he mean?

On one level it was obvious: I imagine for most people the idea of a sales director is someone smart, clean cut, in a suit and tie with a massive watch; I am bearded and at the time was wearing a flat cap, t-shirt and jeans.
But it was the fact that he was complimenting me on looking nothing like my work role which was intriguing. He was clearly suggesting it’s better not to look like a sales director. Even if you are one. Or, perhaps, more importantly – because you are one.

It makes sense of course – sales people don’t have the greatest of reputations. Not in the UK anyway. Perhaps in the US they’re more highly regarded? But here, they’re basically often seen as shiny-suited, kipper-tied spivs. Wide boys who can’t really be trusted. Which – as a sales person – I find sad: growing businesses and economies is quite a noble pursuit isn’t it?
And therein lies the paradox. Because people buy from people they like and trust. But your sales person – well, no matter how nice they seem, they’ll tell you anything won’t they, just to get you to part with your money.

This does certainly chime with my own experience. These days people are very ‘sales aware’ and are sophisticated buyers, whether in the consumer or the business world. There’s more information out there than ever before, helping them to make informed decisions, and the faintest suspicion that ‘I am being sold to’, far from persuading them, is likely to send them scuttling in the opposite direction faster than you can say “If I can do that for you today, will you sign a purchase order?”
So I’ve put together my top seven tips on how to be an effective ‘un-sales’ person. Here they are.

1. Actively try to disrupt the seller/buyer dynamic.

Sales people often cite Glengarry Glen Ross as an influence: ‘ABC – Always Be Closing’ and ‘coffee is for closers’ and all that. However, I sometimes think they’re missing the point. All the characters in the film are recognisable sales types, ranging from the ‘pumped up’ to the ‘desperate’. However, in the end, no-one sells anything. This is basically because the buyers in the piece don’t really want what is on offer – the salesmen are therefore trying to ‘push’ their wares via various dubious techniques. The buyers hold the power. So disrupt this – don’t cede your power, certainly never seem desperate in any way (think of Old Gill in the Simpsons). Stop kidding yourself you can sell coals to Newcastle or whatever. Fact is – no one really ever sells anything. People buy things they want. So, instead, concentrate on trying to facilitate the buying process so people can access your fantastic products more easily (of course, you have to believe you actually have some fantastic products for this to work …)

2. Be yourself.

You have to have a knack for sales; it has to be quite instinctive. There are lots of books out there claiming to have found the magic bullet for sales success. However, as soon as you rigidly start following any kind of method, you are being ‘salesy’ – in which case, please refer to point 1 above. Also, you’re not being yourself – so inevitably you will come across as being slightly disingenuous and therefore not quite trustworthy. Yes, people can be coached to be better salespeople, just as footballers can be coached to be better players. But ultimately, like the best footballers, it comes down to a natural aptitude for adaptation. What works for one person won’t work for another. Even techniques like mirroring: if you’re doing it consciously, it will seem unnatural. Customers aren’t stupid – they will see through that. There’s a time to go into a lot of detail; a time to be brief; a time to be technical; a time to be business-focused; a time to be formal, a time to be informal. As the great football manager Bill Shankly said: “it’s not about the short ball or the long ball, it’s about the right ball”. And it’s about confidence and practice – working your way from being ‘unconsciously incompetent’ to ‘consciously incompetent’, then to ‘consciously competent’ and, finally, to the holy grail of ‘unconsciously competent’.

3. But you’ve also got to be tenacious.

If you’re not a little bit thick-skinned, you’ll give up all too easily. People typically won’t bite after just one interaction. However, there’s a thin line between following up in the right way and being a nuisance. A prospect recently responded to one of my emails saying “as marketing goes, yours is very polite, so congratulations on getting that right.” That was pleasing. It’s tricky getting the balance right, but aim to be politely persistent and persistently polite.

4. Be an expert.

All too often, the salesperson, due to the pressures of being in a target driven environment, doesn’t have the time (or at least has that perception) to gather an all-round knowledge of his or her domain. Often the modus operandi is to garner just enough re-usable information to do the job. And often talented salespeople who are good at either opening or closing are encouraged to do nothing else, to the detriment of their own development. Resist this. Aim to get to the point where you are not overly reliant on pre-sales or your technical colleagues. This way you will become a more valuable asset to your company and your own personal currency will also rise. Customers will see you not as a sales person (refer to point 1 again) but as a trusted adviser – which can only be a good thing.

5. Break the role down.

Often non-sales people talk about sales as if it were just one simple activity. But there are at least four different roles involved, favouring different personality types: outbound lead generation, dealing with inbound leads, new business closing and also account management. Some people are hunters, some are farmers. If you’re recruiting, it makes sense to think about it in this way so people can focus on what they’re good at and what is most productive for the business.

6. Personalise.

Even if you are sending an email to a group for instance, try to make it appear as if it’s come from you personally, and specifically to each individual, not from the marketing department to anyone at all. Modern email clients such as ToutApp support this kind of thing, allowing you to merge in personal information. The view/click rates we’ve seen from simple plain text emails via ToutApp certainly bear this out.

7. Don’t focus on the sale.

Instead focus on the stages in the pipeline. What are these? Well, at the cold end, someone becomes a contact. That’s easy. And it’s straightforward at the ‘hot’ end too – somebody has a requirement. That’s a ‘lead’. You talk to them – it becomes a ‘qualified lead’. You send them a proposal and they seem to think it’s in the right ballpark – that’s a ‘prospect’. They buy – they’re a customer. Easy. But what about those woolly stages in the hinterland between ‘contact’ and ‘lead’ (which is where most people drop out of the pipeline, incidentally)? Have a stab at defining these. What do you need to provide to future customers to move them along? Where might things get stuck? Have they got the right perception of you and your products? Are they missing any information and are they making any erroneous assumptions which might rule you out prematurely?

To conclude, if you get all this right, then sales will start rolling effortlessly off the production line – well, relatively effortlessly anyway. Happy hunting (or farming)!