I don’t have the seller’s gene in me, and I’ve always understood sales in a basic, and basically wrong, way - cold calls, reading off scripts, almost predatory persistence.
I’ve spent the last year still not selling, but in close proximity with really talented people who do. I’ve listened to their calls, talked to them through their deals, and learned lots about identifying strong, thoughtful salespeople through the hiring process.
It’s completely changed how I look at what salespeople actually do. I’ve also found it to be a useful lens to look through my own work. Everything is selling, after all.
On good salespeople
Long story short, sales is about identifying and controlling the variables at your disposal.
The end goal is for the prospect to commit to a purchase. Working backwards from that end goal, there are so many pieces of the puzzle that go into that decision to purchase:
- Whether or not the product delivers value (and how much)
- Whether or not there’s sufficient budget
- What types of approvals are required by other stakeholders
- How urgent the problem is
- How the company adopts products
- What success looks like for the primary point of contact
Amazing salespeople know how to identify which variables are important for their product and a particular prospect, how to control these variables as they move through a sales process, and how to control the process as a whole.
They ask well-crafted questions to tease out answers while building rapport.
They position their product and brand in ways that augment the on-the-paper value that’s delivered.
They understand which sales process they’re running, why, where they are in that process, and what the next steps are.
They have objectives and intention for every interaction they have.
They sometimes assign work to their prospects.
Learning from good salespeople
Salespeople feel pushy because they exercise a degree of control that most of us are vastly uncomfortable with.
Social interactions are a balance of give and take. So are most internal discussions and decision-making processes at work. We don’t get practice with this type of control.
But what if we got comfortable with this level of control and thought about our work through the salesperson’s lens? What if we:
- Asked well-crafted questions to identify overarching priorities for each individual or team we interface with?
- Devoted some attention to positioning our own brand and skillset, beyond the level demonstrated by our work?
- Thought clearly about the process of influencing decisions and driving outcomes, especially in larger work environments?
- Had clear intention for each meeting we participated in?
- Assigned work to your manager and other teams to make us and our projects successful?
If done correctly, I think these as means to greater individual, team, and company outcomes. Some people will call this office politics, which I think would be a misnomer. I call this smart and effective operating.
To rely on solely your work to impress others, to passively wait for others above and around you to promote you and extol your accomplishments, to let projects move forward at whatever natural pace they take on - this is like letting a product sell itself. Doable, but a prospect’s investment in a product, left unguided, always has more ways to go wrong than right.
Rather, choose yourself. Put yourself in front of others. Make it easy for others to choose you and help your work succeed.
Bad salespeople vs. good salespeople
Why does the sales stigma exist?
Because it’s real. There are a ton of bad salespeople out there. They are a result of not demonstrating the same level of ownership over their own work as they do with their deals.
Bad salespeople join a sales org that gives them a set of scripts, a rigid playbook, and a list to email. Bad salespeople read off the page. Bad salespeople take what they’re given and execute blindly. Bad salespeople treat their job as a plug-and-play process - the more prospects they talk to, the harder they shove, the faster they “crush their quota”.
No surprise! This is how executive leadership views a sales force. As a leader in most companies, you plan headcount by taking the revenue you want to hit, dividing it by how many deals you need to get the number of people you need. You hire those people. You give them the set of scripts, the rigid playbook, the list to email. You watch the money come in.
Good salespeople take control. Good salespeople want to understand what part of the process they fit into. Good salespeople want to understand why the script and the playbook are the way they are at a very fundamental level. Then, because they’ve learned that every prospect is different, good salespeople put their own spin on things every time.
If you were to tell a salesperson to give you a demo, a bad one would blindly jump into a script that they’ve memorized. You can hear them read off the notes section of their Google Slides. A good one would say, “Sure, but let me ask a few questions first.”
Good salespeople teach you to take control. Bad salespeople teach you what it’s like when you don’t.