For the last handful of months we’ve been discussing marketing as a function of the conventional “sales process” – starting with lead generation, lead capture and lead nurturing. As per the steps in the process I described a few months ago, the next stage is “conversion.”
Conversion being the actual buying/selling of your product/service – i.e. the part where your lead becomes an actual customer and you both exchange value.
Now, I am not going to claim to be a sales expert or the best sales person out there. Far from it. I am still pretty inexperienced when it comes to selling and I know I still have a lot to learn.
But, I have learned a lot about this topic over the last two or so years, and, for this month’s post, I’m going to stray a bit from the marketing part of things, to discuss some of what I have learned about how to sell.

A little about my sales background…

All of the content in this post is coming from personal observations, experiences (both buying and attempting to sell/negotiate), courses/seminars and books.
For your info: two of my favorite books on the subject are: “To Sell is Human” by Dan Pink and Jeffrey Gitomer’s Little Red Book of Selling.
Some of the workshops I’ve taken include Sandler Sales Training (geared specifically toward photographers), Entrepreneurial Excellence (a local meetup group), the Chamber of Commerce, trade specific conferences and E-Myth webinars.
But, mostly, I’ve learned from being on both sides of the fence – both as a buyer and as a seller, attempting, failing (a lot) and sometimes successfully selling. For the last year, in addition to working on this photography business, from planting seeds on the value of the services I offer to negotiating with prospective clients (and occasionally converting some), I’ve also been working part time as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble.
Believe me, it’s hard to publicly admit this because working there sometimes feels like a failure in itself. (But it gets filed under “do what you gotta do.”)
But, honestly, working there has taught me A LOT about how to approach selling and about the mindset it takes to be even halfway decent at selling. (Here’s a hint, selling is hard because you are asking people to part with valuable resources and often asking them to make a change to their current behavior – two things which people typically want to avoid doing.)
Anyway, here are some things I’ve learned from those books, workshops, having to sell myself/my work, AND, finally, from a year of selling Barnes & Noble memberships (a $25/year discount card) and in doing so, maintaining an above average “year-to-date” conversion rate.

6 Lessons from my first few years in sales.

So, here we go, in no particular order…

1. Understanding your offer… Backwards, forwards and sideways… AND believing in it

I’ve learned that it’s really hard to sell things if you don’t know what you’re selling or if you don’t believe in what you’re selling.
This may seem pretty basic and obvious, but it really is essential. And, I don’t just mean knowing what your offer includes (such as the deliverables). What I’m really talking about goes deeper than knowing your products, services and “benefits.” This is really about knowing the effects of what you’re selling, and how it will impact the lives of the people who buy it … and then, believing in that.
It’s about the hidden or added bonuses which really motivate people to act (i.e. to buy) – or their deep pain or desire that they are trying to solve or quench. (And if it’s a business that you’re selling to, it’s about figuring out how what you’re selling impacts how the business functions, the day to day job function (and impact on life outside work) of the person you are selling to, and profitability… i.e. what can they do after purchasing your offer that they couldn’t do before?)
For example – with the B&N membership, yes, it’s a discount card, yes it costs money. Yes, I know all the points on what comes with a membership and I believe it’s right for some people. But… this isn’t about knowing how much someone will save or what coupons they’ll get… this is about really understanding what it’s going to do for people. It’s not just saving money. It’s understanding what that saved money means to them – will it help them pay for a hospital bill, go on vacation, spend more time with their family, or simply buy more books?! How does having that saved money make them feel? It’s sometimes a challenge to get to this place with people, since I have a limited amount of time with them.
Alternatively, if you are selling a service to a business, what is the real ROI? Is it efficiency? What does that efficiency really mean for them? The employees can go home on time and spend more time with family? Or the business can finally upgrade some other system because they are more profitable.
For example, when I sell event photography for corporate events, it’s not about the photos, per se. It’s sometimes about them having the confidence in knowing they will have a reliable and professional person who actually shows up and does what they are supposed to do. It could be able impressing other people at work with their ability to bring on quality vendors. It could even be to have the confidence of knowing that when it comes time to design the annual report, that they will have high quality photos that are going to impress donors and investors – thereby leading them to want to give more money.
It’s the after-effects that we’re talking about here.
If you’re not sure what they are, ask. It’s your job to find out. (And it may not be easy to get people to open up to you about, and you may need to ask in creative ways.)

2. Knowing and Accepting that Whatever You’re Selling Is Not For Everyone

This is a big one.
It’s something that I see a lot from network marketing folks and small business owners, in particular. (And don’t worry, I’ve had my fair share of this too… It’s hard to accept.)
Basically, this problem stems from being so passionate about what you’re selling that you believe so hard that it is so obvious that whatever you’re selling is DEFINITELY RIGHT FOR EVERYONE. Please trust me, even if it could help everyone, it’s impossible to do so because it won’t be right for everyone. And you know what, that is OK, because there are more than enough people out there who you are right for.
If you are feeling that way, that your offer is definitely right for everyone, then you’re probably also skipping the step of defining a target market or ideal client/customer.
It’s key to know who you are targeting – and equally as important to know who you’re not targeting.
And, just because you have a target market, doesn’t mean you can’t sell to someone who isn’t a part of it. It just means that you have a good idea of who strong potential buyers are likely to be and that you can then better understand their situations and how to interact with them.
But, let me reiterate.
Whatever you’re offering (and by the way, whatever I’m offering) is NOT right for everyone. And, that is fine, because it frees us to pay more attention to the people who we can help.
Also, this is part of what I am calling “ethical selling” because accepting and being ok with the fact that whatever you’re selling will not be right for everyone allows you to stop trying to sell people who will not actually benefit from what you’re selling. It makes selling more ethical, in my opinion, and less uncomfortable, if I know that I’m not just out to make every sale, regardless of whether the sale actually benefits my buyer. (Think of the stereotype of selling ice to an eskimo – I wouldn’t feel good about selling ice to an eskimo, I’d feel like I was taking advantage of him and wouldn’t even want to try.)
I learned this concept from the B&N membership. It’s really not right for everyone. BUT, it is right for some people. It’s only right for people who spend past a certain threshold at B&N stores or who order a lot on the website and always choose express shipping (or some combination). And, I made an agreement with myself that I wouldn’t try to sell the membership if I didn’t truly believe it would actually benefit the person – i.e. if they only come in once or twice a year and by one small item – for example.
That is how I approach my photography business too.
And that, I think, is how businesses and people in general ought to approach sales.
Well, because, if this was how everyone approached sales, selling would likely get a better reputation.
So, instead of people wanting to avoid salespeople, as they expect the salesperson’s only motive is to get the buyer’s money, buyers/people might be more open to listening and sharing their true thoughts and feelings in a buying/selling situation, leading to buyers feeling good about buying and spending money, rather than feeling stressed out, anxious or even swindled.

3. Making it about them, not you.

This leads right into my next lesson – making it about them and not about me (you).
(Ironically, this post on selling is all about me and not so much about you, but if you can forgive me for being self-centered for a moment and hear me out…)
We’ve all experienced sales situations where it felt like the sales person was just talking non-stop about why the thing they were selling was so great. (I’m guilty of this too…) The sales person didn’t take a second to stop and find out anything about our situation or if or how what they’re offering would actually benefit us specifically.
That’s really annoying. (At least for me.)
And, when you’re a customer at a store, passing through the check out line, you probably just want to pay and leave (I get it)… but the cashier starts talking to you about all the promotions and things that are not relevant to you.
I know. I’ve been on both sides.
And, as a result, I’ve learned how to read people better and to say things that relate to them which might pique their interest.
So, instead of just telling them why they absolutely have to get a membership (because they can save 10%… blah blah blah – i.e. talking about “me” or “us”), I can say something that relates to something I observe about them, their behavior or their purchases. It works best if the statement or question also has a relationship with a benefit of the membership (supposing they don’t have one) (or whatever you’re selling). But the trick is to not make too many assumptions and just let the person tell you about themselves rather than assuming and being wrong.
By taking this approach – making a statement about them or asking them a relevant question, rather than assuming they are automatically a good candidate for benefitting from a membership and being very general in the approach – we actually can learn the truth about the person and make a better assessment of whether whatever you’re selling is a good choice for them.
And besides, people usually love to talk about themselves (especially when they are comfortable with you and you truly listen). Everyone is an expert on their life and self. No one knows about it better than they do. (Especially not a presumptuous sales person.)
Especially not a sales person only out to make sales and personal gain.
Success in sales is not about you “getting the sale,” or even the commission you may/may not get. It’s not about whatever bonus or consequence will occur as a result of your sale or lack there of. Success in sales is about the buyer making an empowered decision that benefits themselves – regardless of whether that means buying or not.
Sure, if they buy, you’ll have a positive result (most likely), but if they don’t buy, not only are they probably not right for you (which is fine!!), there are plenty of other people out there who are right for you and who will respond to your way of being and who you can help. But if they do buy, you’ll feel more deeply satisfied knowing that you helped someone. (Or, at least, I do.)

4. Being Authentic and Ethical

Related to this idea of “not being right for everyone”…. I’ve found that I’m most successful when I first accept that concept, and then, really go with it. What I mean by “going with it” is that I am more successful when I just am myself and go about things in my own way, rather than going by some script or using someone else’s personality because the people that are naturally open to my communication style, and who I believe will benefit, will be more likely to respond positively and take action.
I can’t force people and I don’t want to manipulate people.
If you’ve read sales books or taken traditional sales trainings, they will often talk about mirroring, or using similar mannerisms and speech patterns as the person you’re engaging with. Of course, there is definitely something to be said for this, but, you still have to be yourself in the process. The purpose of mirroring is to build trust and rapport, but you don’t want to come across as fake, because people can tell. They will know that something is off. So, if you can mirror and still be authentic, then go for it. But, until you can master being yourself, try to just work on being you before you try to mirror.
And yes, I know, you probably need to be able to sell to more than just the people that are already like you and already respond to your natural communication style. But if you’re reading this because you’re having trouble converting any sales, start by mastering your regular communication style and then, practice reading people, how they respond to you and interacting in different ways, to find your groove.
Personally, I’ve found retail to be really helpful for this because you have no choice in who you must deal with, and customers come in large quantities and at high frequency. So, I am able to test things out very quickly and figure out what works for me and for the people I am interacting with. And, yes, sometimes it will be awkward, but it’s ok. It’ll be over quickly. 🙂

5. Persistence, Objections and Knowing When to Push and When to Let Go

“Success” in sales has a lot to do with not giving up regularly and not giving up too soon… or rather, being able to “overcome objections” and know when to push and when to not.
This is something that definitely comes with experience, because it is very much based on correctly reading situations and people. And I definitely have some more work to do in this area.
I’m not an expert on this, but I’m getting better.
This concept is about knowing, or being able to anticipate, whether the excuse (reason) someone gives you is “legitimate” or whether their “no” is simply a cue that they will say yes later. It’s difficult. But, you can use other cues, such as body language (are they agitated or looking to leave, are they comfortable and relaxed, are they trying to be alpha, etc.) and other conversational cues, such as things they’ve said, intonation or words (are they aggressive, are they speaking quickly or slowly, are they friendly, do they seem truthful in what they say, are they interested or distracted, etc.) to determine what they are really feeling and whether they might be worth pushing or if it’s definitely not the right time.
But, this is also about knowing how to push people’s buttons in an acceptable way, in a whay which gets them to take an action that they would have wanted to take anyway and which benefits them, but which they needed a little help to get to, for whatever reason.

6. Improvising and “Listening for opportunities” or Being Present and Observant

This is an idea I originally heard in Dan Pink’s book that I mentioned above. Improvisation.
Basically, the main principle is to be present with the person you’re dealing with and observant of their behaviors, mannerisms, interests, etc. When you do this, you can be open to different outcomes and possibilities.
You can respond naturally and empathetically when they say something.
You’re not on a script.
You’re treating people as individuals and listening to what they tell you.
You can hear nuances in their voice or see them in their body language. On a deep level you can understand the person and respond appropriately, in a unique way that the person will appreciate… or not, depending on what you’re going for.
Again, it’s about being present and going with it. And testing out your approaches, but not getting so set in your ways that you expect every interaction will go a certain way.
I’m not saying you can’t use a script in the beginning, but take a risk and go off book, and see how people respond to you when you’re on book versus off book.
I have found, at least for me, it feels way more normal and calm when I just act like me and respond in the moment, rather than recite specific lines. (And that comes back to the point about being authentic…)

Bringing it all together…

There are definitely other lessons I have learned about how to be successful in sales. But, if you want to be successful in sales (whatever that might mean for you), what I’ve learned is that it really comes down to is your mindset and people skills. It’s not about having the best thing for sale or having the best price. It’s about people and really helping them and being yourself in the process. It’s about caring more about the wellbeing of the person you’re selling to (i.e. caring more about how they feel about buying) than about “getting the sale” and respecting the buyers’ right to say no. If we all approached sales from the perspective of the buyer rather than “OMG I need to make this sale to eat dinner tonight,” we’d likely all be a lot happier and be making more sales in the process.

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