The Advisory Career

Informing The Uninformed

Eight Ways to Give Yourself a Sales Edge

by John Graham

Mr. Graham is a marketing and sales consultant and business writer, and he regularly contributes to our Marketing Edge feature, which examines the advisory career and the challenge of selling today’s financial products. Connect with him by e-mail:

Ironically, at the very moment when consumers and business buyers are better informed than ever, there’s also a greater need for competent salespeople. That may seem like a contradiction since the traditional role of a salesperson was to inform the uninformed.

While that is long passed, there seems to be confusion about what it means to be in sales today. Is it to provide “solutions,” to be a “facilitator” or to serve as a “customer resource”?

With such confusion, it’s easy to understand why an increasing number of those in sales feel a need to practice obfuscation when it comes to letting others know what they do. “Sales” is the one word they do everything possible to avoid using. LinkedIn profiles, for example, are filled with exercises in creative writing when it comes to titles that are designed to cover up what people really do.

The challenge of sales

It’s easy to understand why an increasing number of those in sales feel a need to practice obfuscation when it comes to letting others know what they do...
There’s everything right about being in sales. To try to hide being a salesperson from customers is self-defeating because it creates distrust and undermines credibility.

The major issue today in sales is how to get ahead of the competition. Here are eight ways to give yourself a sales edge:

• Relaxed customers buy more

There’s a lesson for every salesperson in a recent study in the Journal of Marketing Research. It reveals that relaxed shoppers behave differently. They will pay up to 15% more for their purchases than customers who are stressed, which suggests that the right buying environment can make a difference.

• Willpower focus

Salespeople aren’t alone in having trouble staying on track. Yet, success in selling requires careful planning, excellent organization and efficient follow up. All of which require willpower. Should you check your email or finish the sales report? Should you go see a prospect or call on a “buddy-type” customer? Should you play a computer game or draft the proposal?

Psychologist Roy Baumeister, the author of Willpower, says we can train ourselves to be more disciplined. “People exert less self-control after seeing a messy desk than after seeing a clean desk,” he says. “You may not care about whether your bed is made and your desk is clean, but these environmental cues subtly influence your brain and your behavior, making it ultimately less of a strain to maintain self-discipline.”

You might even call it tending to business.

• Stop reading sales books

Salespeople are drawn to anything that promises to make them the “greatest.” Since it never happens, it’s time to stop buying sales books. Most never get read, anyway.

This doesn’t mean to stop learning. What you need is the stuff that gives you something to think about. Here are three: Eat People and other unapologetic rules for game-changing entrepreneurs by Andy Kessler, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo and You Are Not So Smart, you have too many Friends on Facebook, your memory is mostly fiction and 46 other ways, you’re deluding yourself by David McRainey.

If they sound like fun, they are. They have nothing to do with selling and everything to do with closing more sales.

• Talk to yourself

The one problem that keeps salespeople from greater success is listening to everyone else. What someone else thinks tells more about that person and nothing about you. The only conversations that count are those you have with yourself.

It’s all about asking yourself the right questions: “Why did I freeze during the presentation?” Probably a lack of preparation. “Why am I afraid to apply for the job I really want?” Probably don’t want to be turned down.

Don’t let junk fester. Talk to yourself about it –and see what happens.

• Go out on a limb

This may not be one of the “Top 10” sales ideas. But that’s why it’s important. After being CEO of JC Penney for only six month, Ron Johnson, Apple’s retail genius, announced a total makeover that knocked the breath out the nation’s retailers. Others acknowledge this his plans are bold, brash and brilliant. His view is that nothing less than a total transformation can make the grade. He even had the audacity to suggest that spending $2 billion on advertising and promotion was too much!

It only took a day or so for doubters and naysayers to come out from under the rocks, skewering his plans with their tin swords. It’s true that ideas need testing, but thinking small and tinkering won’t do the job today. Remember, the same folks who said Apple wouldn’t be successful with retail stores are at it again with JC Penney’s plans.

Going out on the proverbial limb can be liberating– for salespeople, as well as everyone else.

• Be impatient for your customers

Everything in sales is about urgency, a quality that’s measured by what an individual customer expects. The day after the Neiman Marcus package arrived by FedEx, the robo call confirmed that it had been delivered. A Kindle book is ready to read in less than 60 seconds. These are the type of experiences that are transforming customer expectations and dare not be ignored by salespeople.

Customer decisions are made on factors other than price and quality, although both are important. Staples gets it right, which it has for years. “Easy” is their magic word and they deliver on the promise, so why take a chance elsewhere? That’s the way your customers, think, too. If it isn’t easy, they’re gone. Being impatient on their behalf should be a top priority for every salesperson.

• Know where you’re going

This includes this afternoon, later tonight, tomorrow, as well as next week, next year and far down the road. A few people do it, but many salespeople don’t. A life insurance agent who had been in the business for 30 years said, “This morning, I did the same thing I’ve done my whole career. I get up and try to figure out who I can talk to today.” Too many salespeople work the same way, opportunistically. They wait for something to happen; sometimes it does, but most of the time it doesn’t.

The challenge is how to get from here to there. And is “there” the right goal? What’s the upside and what would keep you from getting there? What’s realistic and what’s fantasy?

Many event plans fail, not for a lack of enthusiasm but because no one spent the time to do a simple SWOT analysis. They never bothered to look at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. It takes work to think about what can go wrong. It’s what we don’t anticipate that gets us in trouble.

• Stay skeptical

When the owner of a small company announced that the doors were closing, the employees were shocked. Ironically, their reaction was equally shocking to the owner. In the same way, salespeople are often incredulous when they lose an account or fail to land the one they said was “a sure thing.” They can’t figure out how it happened.

The only way to grasp situations is to stay skeptical, something that demands effort and isn’t as much fun as staying blithely naive. Controlling your destiny in sales and everything else depends on continuous questioning: What am I missing? What don’t I understand? What do I need to find out? What’s not clear?

New solutions and keener insights come from doubt from an always questioning attitude. This is the stuff that makes for greater success.

A competitive advantage in sales has less to do with your drive, the clothes you wear or who you know than it does with taking total charge of yourself. The eight ways to gain a sales edge can help you get there.