Traits of a successful salesperson

Sales performance coach Phil Lee shares his insights into how successful salespeople engage with today’s consumers.

In 1980, I was hired by a large US technology company as a graduate sales trainee. My seven colleagues and I were placed in a 12-month training program that was designed to teach us how to successfully sell mainframe computer systems.

The reason for this was that there was a shortage of high-calibre salespeople in the marketplace. The salespeople that were working in this relatively new, high-tech environment were either technically oriented engineers, who mostly were not great at dealing with people, or salespeople who had been successfully selling photocopying equipment or some other commercial product and were not considered technically proficient enough to sell successfully in this environment.

In 1980, the investment for a mainframe system started in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and went to several million. The market comprised government departments and large corporate organisations.

The equipment did not sit on desks and laps but was housed in substantially large, specially air-conditioned and tightly secured environments.

Coins raining downTo put this in perspective, you could have bought a house in Bondi in Sydney at that time for about $100,000! I sometimes joke that I should have entered the real estate sales business, as a house in Bondi now starts at about $1.5 million and a computer with exponentially more grunt than the million-dollar mainframes we were selling is about $1,000.

Most of the training we undertook was focused on the technical aspects, features and benefits of the hardware and software. I found much of this training to be quite dull and uninteresting, as the teachers were technical specialists who knew their technical stuff but could not teach very effectively.

The sales training, which for me was a completely unexpected eye-opener, was mostly of the motivational variety. This was the type of training that we now know gives you a short motivational boost and then wears off as the real work starts. We were placed on a Xerox professional selling skills three-day program that taught us about asking closed and open-ended questions, handling objections and closing sales.

We were also exposed for about a week to some videos of American sales trainer Tom Hopkins. Watching and listening to these videos changed the way I thought about sales psychology and skills.

Hopkins’ techniques were not too dissimilar to the Xerox strategies (they were presented with more 'show biz') and were a copy, by his own admission, of the strategies taught by his neighbour, J. Douglas Edwards. Edwards was the leading sales trainer in the US in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Hopkins became an avid student of Edwards’ and went on to assume his mantle.

A few months later Hopkins visited Australia and I attended one of his sales boot camps. He was a great presenter and I was convinced to invest in his recorded training material after the event.

I literally wore those cassette tapes out over the next few years learning the many rehearsed closing lines, the strategies for overcoming objections and “porcupine” questioning strategies.

I didn’t know it then, but although this was the best sales training available at the time, those strategies and tactics were really not suited to the high-value sales environment we were in.

They were more suited to a transactional or 'one-call close' sales environment, where the salesperson presses to get a decision. Ours was a complex sales environment. We were selling million-dollar pieces of equipment to organisations that had complex requirements and complex buying processes.

Fast-forward some 35 years and I am now a successful sales trainer and coach, who has spent countless hours studying and practising sales methodologies and training and coaching salespeople. My observation is that many things in the sales world have changed, and yet some have stayed the same.

A collection of notes from $5 to $50Among the things that have changed dramatically is that buyers are now far more sophisticated than they have ever been.

The internet allows them to gather information from many sources so that they often know as much as, if not more than, the average salesperson. What has also significantly changed is that buyers have grown used to the overused and predominantly seller- and product-focused sales tactics that were the norm of the last century.

With the greatest of respect to Mr. Edwards and to the many other sales trainers who are still preaching a variation of these 1950s strategies, I have to tell you that they are sorely out of date. For example, today’s buyer knows that the mandatory bonding and rapport (friendly chit-chat) at the start of a sales conversation is a tactical 'softening-up period'.

Most salespeople do it and just about all buyers (particularly commercial buyers) expect it. In many cases this strategy is trust-eroding rather than trust-building.

The overriding legacy of the sales training from the last century is that the focus of the sales conversation has been on the product and its features and benefits, while the salesperson has been working hard to be liked and obtain a positive result from every sales call; i.e. to make a sale.

Among the things that have changed dramatically is that buyers are now far more sophisticated than they have ever been.

Because of this, and unknown to many sales managers and salespeople, an imbalance has occurred. This imbalance manifests in the buyer having the upper hand in sales discussions and an unhealthy control of the sales process.

Subsequently, the sales process is often unsatisfactory for both parties – buyers are all treated the same way and are viewed as 'trophies' by salespeople, and salespeople find it hard to maintain buyers’ respect and trust, and are treated as less than the valuable resource they can possibly be.

Today, professional salespeople and managers have realised that they must change their approach if they are to thrive and stay competitive in an often-overcrowded marketplace.

They have become aware that the costs of sticking to the old and outworn methods are many. They have been clearly identified as the hidden costs of selling the same way it has been taught for the last 70 years.

From a salesperson’s and manager’s perspective, these are the culprits that have become the norm and that result in much wasted time, frustration and anger as business growth becomes tougher and more competitive:

  • A dramatic erosion of trust between the buyer and the seller;
  • An over-willingness on behalf of the seller to discount, in an almost desperate attempt to differentiate their product or service and win the business;
  • Far too much costly and unproductive 'unpaid consulting', which often does not result in business;
  • Buyers being unwilling to be honest with the seller, bleeding them for information and misleading them with positive 'buying signals';
  • Buying decisions taking longer to be made, and often never being made, while unwitting salespeople continue to follow up mercilessly, often being made to feel like 'stalkers'.

21st-century salespeople are problem-solvers and trusted advisers. They help prospects make decisions.

What is clear is that a completely different and more effective way of engaging potential buyers is needed, which moves away from this traditional sales focus on the product or service and on the salesperson securing a sale from every buyer-seller interaction.

Multiple $100 notesThe 21st-century antidote for these frustrations, and the replacement for last century’s product-focused selling approach, is a trust-building, buyer-focused approach.

The salesperson who adopts a buyer-focused approach immediately positions him/herself as a potentially valuable resource. Much like a medical doctor, the emphasis is on diagnosis before prescription.

We would all be horrified if it was any other way. Unfortunately, sometimes it still is.

A 21st-century buyer-focused sales approach means that 'closing' the business is no longer the main focus of the sales conversation. 'Shock, horror!', I can almost hear some of you exclaiming as you are thinking, 'What other focus is there, numbskull!?'.

A 21st-century sales discussion is about a collaborative agreement between buyer and seller that they are engaging to determine whether or not a suitable match exists between them. In life, potential marriage partners spend some time getting to know each other before deciding to marry.

Ideally, both are equal partners in the process. We all accept that this is a useful process to minimise the chances of the union not working out.

In business, there can be a considerable investment of time and resources expended by both parties to determine this potential match. Therefore, it is vital that the salesperson has the professionalism, posture and skill to position the discussion in this way.

21st-century selling is about trust and mutual agreement, not about 'closing'. In fact, most buyers are totally dissuaded by salespeople who use these irritating tactics. I clearly remember the single mantra of the director of sales from the US technology company mentioned earlier in this article. It was simply, 'Did you ask for the business?'. It wasn’t, 'Do they have significant business problems that we can help with?' or 'What’s the reason for them wanting to do business?' or 'Why would they leave their incumbent supplier to go with us?'.

No doubt I embarrassed myself many times trying to follow his advice and continued to blindly 'ask for the business' at the most inappropriate times.

In doing so I was led astray by positive buying signals that were really untruths, designed to extract a lengthy and costly proposal, a demonstration and a price. Often this information was desired because it enabled the prospect to compare us with other vendors. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was just being used.

20th-century, traditional selling places you at the risk of being viewed as just another vendor or supplier and very much just like your competition (who are mostly also using traditional, 20th-century sales tactics).

Of course, if the buyer is unable to effectively differentiate one vendor from the other then the only way to separate them is on price!

This is hardly a satisfactory outcome for either party. To avoid this undesired outcome the seller must take control. 21st-century salespeople are problem-solvers and trusted advisers. They help prospects make decisions.

They use a proven selling system to help them do this. They are aware that their biggest adversity is not their competition but the time and resources spent with the wrong prospects.

They know that at least 50 per cent of prospects they are engaged with will not make a decision and will stick with the status quo.

Phil LeeSubsequently, a well-qualified 'No' from a prospect does not phase them – they quickly look to either 'close the business' or 'close the file' and move on. They are no longer prepared to 'wing it' and rely on the law of averages and mindless closing techniques.

They know that, just like the number of fish in the ocean, in the vast majority of cases there is plenty more potentially profitable business in their marketplace.

Phil Lee is a professional speaker, trainer and sales performance coach.

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