Top Ten Keys to Sales Success

Sales Success Key # 1 – Resilience

imageIn my list of 10 keys to sales success there is only one item that’s comes from the realm of personal psychology. It’s pretty straight forward: resilience. Do you find you give up too easily? How low do you go when you are rejected? How quickly do you recover?

Disappointment, frustration, and hurt are built right into the job description. After all, the role of a salesperson is to influence. People often don’t want to be influenced, so hearing the word ‘no’ is inevitable. As Sartre put it, “Hell is other people.” Interestingly, statistically speaking, the more you ask, the more often you get told no. Almost paradoxically, the more you get told no, the more successful you are (assuming at least a steady rate of yeses).

Resilience is critical in order to contend with the day-to-day struggles. You can have problems finding a customer, keeping a customer, and getting a customer to like you. You can be beaten by a competitor, miss sales targets, and be told your ideas or products or services simply aren’t good enough. You can easily be perceived by colleagues and customers as over-promising, unrealistic, too hard, too soft. But you have to keep going or things get worse. Resilience is a necessary ingredient.

Just how resilient you are depends on a lot of factors — things like: whom you hang around with, the frequency of letdowns, other life pressures, how you were raised, how you are compensated, your physical condition, the strength of your hopes and dreams, the negative consequences of failure, your level of pigheadness, your habits around self-soothing (e.g., babbling, bathing, buying). All these things impact your response, the duration of your recovery period, and your ability to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps.

But if you want more resilience and “sticktuitiveness”, where can you get it? Juicy question. Many people have spent a lot of time trying to figure that out.

Self esteem is considered a biggie. That pertains to  the extent to which you believe that you are generally able to do what you set out to do, and that you are valuable or worthy, in and of yourself. People with high self esteem tend to be able to override their impulses. Accordingly, the impulse to shy away from rejection, for example, can be overcome if self esteem is high enough.

Managing your own inner monologue or self talk is another means of getting past the impulse to “go to sleep” after a letdown. Actually, what you mumble to yourself can be the cause of a negative attitude as well as a cure. For example, have you heard yourself say, “Yup, that proves it, nobody wants this stuff”? Or, “Our prices are too high,” or, “The competition is much tougher than it used to be,” or, “I’m not very good at this,” or, “I blew it,” or, “We don’t do enough marketing,” or, “There is a lack of internal support,” or, “That customer was a doinker.” Indeed, a negative inner monologue can actually create a negative emotional reaction in your own head. And slow down recovery.

But quick recovery can come from how you reframe your circumstance. Self awareness is the key to this. Recognize yourself responding to rejection. Get really familiar with how you process it. Know what you are saying to yourself, where it comes from in your past and present, exactly what triggers it. Put your finger on how your response might not be rational or might be doing you a disservice. Work hard at overriding that habitual response and replacing it with something like a clenched fist, flexed arm muscles and, in your own private, whacky way, declaring to the universe, “Whoooaa.”

To some extent we’re talking about getting oneself reoriented. For example, when you overcome an impulse (and, in so doing, either manifest or elevate your self esteem), you are essentially reorienting. When you manage your self-talk, you are reorienting. When you talk to your boss after some misfortune, hopefully her leadership reorients you in some way.

Or even change the whole darned paradigm. That’s reorienting at its best. One of the biggest things I’ve learned about mental health or emotional savvy is that one can’t free oneself from negative feelings; but one can either manage one’s life such that hurt is less likely to be the result, or one can try to see things differently.

One of my favorite examples of reorienting is a trick I learned from a group of life insurance sales reps I trained 20 years ago. It was about handling the slings and arrows of cold calling and was called the paperclip technique. It’s pretty much an industrial age kind of thing, but that’s how darned old I am.

If you have to call 100 people today, then make a pile of 100 paperclips right in front of your phone. The goal? Move the pile 12 inches over to the right — one paperclip at a time. One for each dial. “Hello, Mr. Smith, got a minute? No? No problem. Have a good day”. Click. Move a clip. Next call. Next clip. Watch your pile move. Stop when you’ve reached your goal. It’s about moving the paperclips, not about getting rejected.

Get it? It’s not about you.

Sales Success Key #2 – Numbers Orientation

vintage_neon_sign_luckSure, “sales is a numbers game”-but that usually refers to the idea of throwing spaghetti against the wall with the knowledge that inevitably some of it will stick. That’s the simple part of the numbers aspect of selling. There’s a much more rigorous part too.

In my opinion the most successful salespeople think in terms of volume and rates. I don’t just mean they sit with a spreadsheet and crunch and study those numbers-though they might. I’m suggesting that their brains have been trained to actually work that way. Or, they were born that way; the style of thinking is, after all, basically rational. In the same way that you seek to invest your money in accounts with the biggest return, or pay off credit cards that charge the highest interest rate first, salespeople too must invest their primary asset-the minutes of their day-into the activities that yield the best return. In a capitalistic environment, a salesperson ought to sell as much as possible (the volume part), with as much profit per sale (the rate part) as possible. And to do all this in the finite amount of time available.

We don’t want volume alone; we want profitable volume. We don’t want as many appointments as we can get, or to give as many presentations as possible; we want them to be qualified appointments and presentations to audiences who are most likely to proceed with a commitment. It’s a balancing act; we seek to optimize both.

If I have a geographical sales territory, I want to be efficient in my travels. If I manage big accounts, I want to apportion my time based on where I’ll get the biggest bang for my minutes. If I generate leads, I want to know the rate at which they convert and make a science of measuring cost per lead and cost per sale by lead source. If I focus too much on volume, then I might blow it on efficiency. If I focus too much on efficiency, or profitability, or productivity, then I might not get the volume I need.

Every business has its mathematics. The best salespeople think mathematics. In retail, for example, the game is to get as many customers into the door as possible, maximize the rate at which they walk out with a shopping bag in their hand, maximize the average cash register transaction value, and optimize the average profit percentage per transaction. Volume and rates. Volume and rates.

It takes a person with honed left brained intuition to succeed at this game. Or natural skills in differential calculus such that you dream of minimums and maximums. Or a boss who harps.

The problem with all this, of course, is that integrity and compliance with laws and policies need to be woven into the picture. All this striving must be done within certain parameters. Therein is the clash between capitalist values and, well, other stuff.

We’ll save that for another day.

Sales Success Key # 3 – Creating Great First Impressions

Today my daughter is being interviewed for a short-term role at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

No fooling here: I am proud. Whether she wins the opportunity or not, she got exactly this far-and that’s proof enough for me of her star quality.a

We were in Philadelphia so I took her to the train station and she would make her own way from there. That seems to be the formula.

When we unloaded her bag from the back of the car there would only be time for a few words and a hug. We’re not really a long-goodbye kind of family. I dug as deep as I could for my best fatherly advice.

One thing that came to mind is a blog post from a couple of weeks ago-Sales Success Key #1-about mustering the right attitude. “As you’re walking into the office or boardroom, wherever the interview is going to take place, give yourself a shot of positive attitude! Let there be an energy about you!”

The other little offering might be seen as two things because there are two traits involved. But they need to be in balance, and that’s the key.

Here it is: don’t forget that first impressions are made out of quick assessments of your warmth and your credibility. If you have warmth and not enough credibility, you’re undoubtedly lovely, but not quite good enough. If you have credibility but lack the warmth, you may not play well with others.

Indeed, I think this advice is good for salespeople too.

It sounds easy, I suppose. But I don’t think it is. I think the warmth and credibility one projects tend to derive from years of complex personal programming. The good news is that they are also self-programmable. We all have the circuitry for compassion and we all have whatever our left-brained cognitive functioning can offer; it’s a question of whether we can flick the right switches at will. Managing to be genuine while keeping those traits front-of-mind is an art.

Which is why my own daughter will wear the badge of modern art, if I say so myself.

Sales Success Key #4 – Empathy

If you tied me up, put a knife to my throat, and demanded that I pick one and only one key to sales success, I would probably blurt, “Empathy!”

And, if you put the knife down and casually began to untie me, asking, “What’s empathy?” I would say it’s your ability to identify with the perspectives and feelings of another person. It’s not just about understanding the person, or being able to describe what’s on their mind; it’s about allowing yourself, in some sense, to BECOME the person-to take on, at least for a few moments, their orientation, values, stance, concerns, emotions, desires, worldview.

Some salespeople find the task particularly difficult because they get so obsessed with the goal of selling that they forget to listen. Paradoxically, the intensity of the obsession is inversely proportional to the ease of satisfying it. It’s not like running where the harder you try the faster you go. The paradox explains why salespeople are perceived to talk too much, be too pushy, not listen, and even sell features rather than benefits. They know better, of course-we all know it’s important to listen, but pressure from things like the economy, the boss, the competition, and the need for success get in the way.

Empathy doesn’t just inform a salesperson about what the customer seeks and avoids, it also helps the customer to FEEL a connection. That’s actually the biggie here. Think about it. Think of a salesperson you really trusted and from whom you enjoyed buying-one you would gladly buy from again. I bet that person made you feel heard. You sensed that he or she fully understood your stance on the product or service you were considering. You shared something, yes?

Can empathy be learned? Many people say no. You’ve either got it, or not. But I disagree most wholeheartedly. Except for certain psychotic people, we are all born with circuitry for compassion built right into our wiring. The challenge is to learn to switch that circuit on, to keep it on, and to integrate its contribution into the moments of a dialogue.

Now let’s you and I put away the tools of aggression and be friends.

Sales Success Key # 5 – Goal Orientation

Let’s face it, some people don’t really want to get anywhere. And that’s totally fine with me. Sometimes I think trying to get somewhere just takes my attention away from what’s important in the here-and-now.

That being said, the best salespeople I’ve met do want to get somewhere. They effectively steer sales conversations, they tend to be deliberate in their customer relationships, and they guide their careers towards long-term targets. They are goal oriented.

Think of goal orientation as motivation-with-a-sense-of-direction. It’s emotion, put somewhere. It’s not just having a goal; it’s the disposition to go after it.

Where does goal orientation come from? Desperation can be a motivator. Even the most rambling conversationalists get a whole lot more focused in a threatening atmosphere, such as with a tough boss, big financial needs at home, or a suffering marketplace in a bleak economy. In the carrot and stick motivational paradigm, desperation comes from the stick.

Compensation plans and opportunities for recognition and career advancement are examples of carrots. They move people. They lure people.

Notwithstanding the power of these somewhat externally-based sources, there’s also the goal orientation that’s hardwired right into the human brain. Some people are just more competitive by nature and many people are quite inclined to hunt and farm like crazy-all of which are conducive to sales success. In fact the predisposition to move towards goals is something a good interviewer can uncover during the recruiting process.

What happens AFTER somebody is on board is one of the challenges of sales management. Beyond the standard carrot and stick strategies, what kind of education is called for? For that matter, how can YOU improve your goal orientation?

For one thing, you can’t reach goals if you don’t have them-so, as cliche as it sounds, set them. And create time-bound, tactical plans to achieve them. Be sure they are genuine goals (as opposed to objectives to which you give “lip service”) or they won’t really motivate you.

We become more goal-oriented when we officially commit to goals so it helps to tell others exactly what you are committed to accomplishing. When there’s “skin in the game” we become very focused.

One biggie on this: mindfulness helps a lot. It’s a corny word. I know. In one sense the word ‘concentration’ applies here, but concentrating is about work. In fact many of us find it difficult to sustain concentration over a 2 minute period, let alone a whole career. Mindfulness suggests that when you get really good at it, you don’t have to concentrate so much anymore. As with other things, being goal oriented can become second nature with proficiency.

What’s it look like? Well, if you start a conversation knowing exactly what you want out of it, and you keep your eye on that ball, effectively juggling all the diversions that naturally arise in a dialogue, you become the true agent of your goal. That’s a beautiful thing. Throw in some authentic empathy and integrity, and, well, you’ll be famous.

It’s those diversions that will challenge you. They work against goal orientation. There’s the jumble of ideas in your head, and there’s the jumble of ideas being thrown at you. Effective jumble management allows your will (you) to come to the fore.

And the essence of jumble management? Well, in the case of customer conversations, knowing the essential dialogue steps helps; it buys you some bandwidth so you have brain-space to concentrate. Knowing what your reactions are while you are having them helps because it allows you to self manage. Knowing how to respond when the other party wants to veer off your planned conversational path also grants you presence of mind. Oh, and and then there’s the goal itself; there’s got to be a purpose.

That’s why they call it capitalism.

Sales Success Key #6 – Pattern Recognition Skills

You recognize patterns all day, every day. When a situation you’ve seen before arises yet again, you probably know what’s going on and you probably know how to address it. If a colleague says there’s a certain problem that pertains to your area of expertise, you know what to do about it. Perhaps your child comes crying to you about something that’s happened time and time again-you know exactly what’s going on and you know what to say or do. Or your friend plays out behaviour you’ve seen before, you recognize it for what it is, and either address it or go about your day.

I think it was the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who once said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.” In other words, when you get good at something, you don’t rethink it every time the matter arises; you address it somewhat on automatic pilot so your attention can go to bigger and better things.

Similarly, experienced salespeople recognize patterns in client situations or selling opportunities and can crank out success with their eyes closed. Really good sales people recognize more complex patterns-situations filled with nuance-and they stickhandle with ease around all the obstacles and the details.

Some salespeople are better than others at recognizing patterns and responding appropriately. How come?

Basically, smarts, experience, and training. There is ample evidence that somebody with a high IQ is faster at recognizing patterns and more able to detect complex ones. It’s self evident that experienced people have, well, experience going for them. And when a salesperson is well trained on the patterns of client situations, in terms of what they are, how to uncover them, and how to address them, that salesperson will be more effective.

For example, a salesman who “gets it” might recognize through a quick conversation with a prospective customer exactly what features and benefits of his products he’ll need to highlight in a formal proposal in order to differentiate himself. He’ll also, from that one conversation, be able to predict what objections the buyer is going to get from her own organization and what it will take to equip her with ammunition to counter those objections.

Of course, recognizing patterns is also the root of bias. When we too quickly judge something to fit into one pattern, we might miss critical details. “Oh, I’ve seen this before,” our unconscious minds quickly conclude. And bingo, we screw up.

When sales trainers go to cocktail parties and get a little tipsy they are known to chat with each other about the trade. One might ask another, “Do you teach salespeople to go looking for certain problems or d’you teach ’em to go in with an open mind?” The other might reply, “Upsides and downsides, my friend; upsides and downsides. But it sounds like you’re new to the game. Hey Billie,” he hollers across the room, “this guy’s a newbie!”

Sales Success Key #7 – Work Ethic

If the Platitude WORKS…

Work, tactics, strategy: A bicycle does its thing when effort turns the pedals, the back wheel actualizes the energy, and the front wheel steers the way.

Omphalopsychites (naval gazers) violate their wonderment via their sustained inactivity.

Requisite for work: work.

Knowledge is only half the battle.

Steam is to heat, as success is to industry.

Sales Success Key #8 – Building Rapport

Twenty-five years ago I was on a canoe trip pondering a name for a new sales model. I came up with “One Mind Selling”. It was meant to highlight the need for a salesperson to establish such finely tuned rapport with a customer that the two of them would become one. Their values would be aligned, their conversational direction would be mutually satisfying, and their pacing would match up perfectly. They would hum right along with the tune of the transaction.

Ultimately I dropped that name for the model because it sounded like hooey.

But it’s been in my heart ever since.

I think I also gave it up because of a deep frustration that when you teach someone a beautiful way of “being”, and it sings for them, it eventually gets normalized and devolves into a simple technique. That’s a real problem.

It’s one thing for rapport to flow naturally from multiple dimensions of commonality; it’s another thing for somebody to be “doing” commonality on purpose. I have the same problem with the notion of “making friends”; if you try to make friends, then it’s just not natural.

I swear on my life the resolution of this problem in the world of sales comes from integrating – not balancing – one’s self-interests with a genuine interest in helping the other.

Not that scientists can actually touch motives yet, in terms of motives being measurable, observable thingys, but it seems to me that motives define one’s integrity. For what it’s worth, this notion gives me hope in the possibility of commercial authenticity.

Sales Success Key #9 – Memetic Mastery

The best salespeople are what I would call natural ‘memeticists’. They package ideas and spread them like mad.

The system of thought that explains how ideas spread is called “memetics”. Thinkers in that field (e.g., Dawkins, Hofstadter, Dennett) use the word ‘meme’ to refer to an “idea that spreads”.

Salespeople “position” their products and their pricing. A position statement is a meme. Leaders provide followers with a “frame” or view of how to see a situation. A frame is a meme. Slogans are memes. Memes are, well, memes (after all, we both know that, as of at least now, they’ve spread all the way to your awareness).

Genes are to genetics, as memes are to memetics. Genes are not fussy about whose genes they get paired up with (intra-species, at least); any genetic pattern will do. They just want to reproduce. Neither are memes fussy. And they too just want to reproduce.

Yup, ideas spread, especially when they’re nicely packaged and exposed to lots of people.

For example, you don’t want your kids introduced to drugs or sex or, darn it, even rock and roll, because even exposing them to the notion might start them on a path of no return. You KNOW those particular memes are nasty. On the other hand, surely you’ve packaged up a few favourable memes for the kids around you: “do a good deed for somebody every day”, or “let’s use our ‘inside voices’ please!”. Just this morning I heard someone at my office spread a client’s meme: “profitable volume”. Memes are everywhere.

Salespeople are one medium through which (hopefully) commercial memes spread. Really good salespeople spread memes like wildfire via the frequency, consistency, clarity, and allure of their utterances.

When you’ve come up with the right response to a price objection, and it seems to work for you, you’ve created a meme. When you and your colleagues say it again and again, it jumps from person to person and thereby reproduces itself – customers believe it and they even learn to justify your price to others.

When a customer is playing “hard to get” (that’s a meme), highly skilled salespeople know the most powerful response (another meme). When a customer complaint scenario arises, it too is a meme. And there is undoubtedly a series of memes to deal with it. “Been there, done that”.

So why are some salespeople better at meme spreading than others? The best salespeople seek, practice and master the phrases that work, the conversation steps that push the right buttons, the responses to challenges, the multitude of magnificent memetic maneuvers that make merriment and money for the masses. Mmmm good. That’s what Campbell’s soups are.

Sales Success – Key #10 Genuine Stewardship

If you want to sell to me, don’t put your interests in front of mine. It’s that simple.

Most salespeople wrestle with this “whose team am I on?” issue. It’s built right into the job description. They must sell, but at the same time they are somehow supposed to be stewards–taking responsibility for their customer’s interests.

Some ask themselves, Am I being too pushy? Others wonder from the opposite perspective: Am I forgetting my job? Many go back and forth depending on things like the pressure they are under and how well they get along with the customer.

Self-managing which of your motives is front-of-mind is a skill. The idea is to know and embrace your goals, but in conversation, and even during some of your planning time in advance of conversation, put your noble intention first. Serve. Nature does take its course.

As my grandmother, who didn’t like the way I buttered toast, once said: “Arthur, Arthur, Arthur-when you butter the toast, just butter around the edge; the middle will take care of itself.”

Art Horn, founder and president of HORN, is a highly regarded educator, consultant, speaker, and coach.

Art is the author of four books – Skills for Sales Success (used by colleges and universities across Canada), Gifts of Leadership (distributed in different languages across North America, Europe and Asia), FACE IT: Recognizing and Conquering The Hidden Fears That Drive All Conflict At Work ( published in 2004 by the American Management Association), and BEYOND EGO, released in April of 2008 by ECW Press. He has helped thousands to make valuable, meaningful improvements to their personal and professional lives.

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