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Watching salespeople evolve from bungling to best-in-class, Toronto-based sales manager Douglas Cole has noted they pass through three stages: likeability, mutuality and then objectivity.

Often they begin emotionally conflicted about their role in persuading somebody to buy something they may not really need. The newcomer manages that discomfort by being as likeable and charming as possible.

At some time, they overcome their shyness about having a commercial agenda and embrace their own material self-interest, counterbalancing that by an equal emphasis on the benefits to the client. They talk of a win-win.

A small percentage move on to objectivity. They still have terrific relationships and are adept at creating mutually beneficial outcomes. But they enhance their trust by becoming more detached about the factors that influence a sale. “From the client’s perspective, a plausibly objective seller is the most valuable seller one can work with. From the seller’s perspective, it’s also the most difficult mental state to achieve,” Mr. Cole, a part-time lecturer at the Rotman and Schulich university programs and a sales leader at LinkedIn, writes in The Sales MBA.

When selling to businesses, it’s essential to understand the business fundamentals of the prospect company. He notes that in your initial contact with an executive from that company you might have 60 seconds to capture their attention as they wonder why your pitch might possibly matter to them. You need to connect in some ways to their strategy. “It is the cardinal responsibility of a sales professional to understand their client’s business,” he stresses, adding that for your most important client that’s even more essential.

That means understanding the economic terrain on which they compete and how they can win. Those strategic decisions involve choices and tradeoffs. You need to understand the decision variables they are confronting. “Even if the client is unclear on these choices, you should aspire to be,” he says.

He borrows from Wharton Professor Jonah Berger’s book The Catalyst to highlight that changing humans is more like chemistry than physics. In physics you overcome resistance by applying more force. In chemistry you alter the process by which chemical compounds transform by adding a substance, or catalyst. It’s the same with humans.

To get your client to change and use your product or service, you must accept that you can’t force it. Instead, you must remove barriers, allowing change to happen. Look at your client’s organization and ask two key questions: Where is the energy for change coming from, and how can I feed that energy?

As a salesperson – and change agent, helping the client company to improve through using your offering – find the dominant motivation for change and tap into it. That means narrowing your focus. “The mindset of a change agent is to seek out and select the few birds that influence the overall flight pattern,” he writes.

If this sounds highly analytical and rational, accept that you may also be grappling with irrationality in the client organization. Purchases can be emotional, impulses prevailing. He says a general rule of thumb is that the bigger and more complex the decision, the more susceptible humans are to these sub-rational forces. We are more rational in the choice of a new stapler than a new spouse.

As well as being change agents and catalytic chemists, top salespeople must be decision architects, presenting their case in a way that illustrates the value of what they are offering. You must present a comprehensive view of their options, showing you are thorough and objective. But you also must help to simplify and clarify what might be a mountain of information on their purchase. Often bundled offers make the difference, bringing things together into a clear, convenient, comfortable choice.

As you’re doing that, try to maintain an objective mindset.

Quick hits

  • HR consultant Sharyn Lauby says when you’re considering repairing a work relationship, the first question to ask is “Do I want to make this relationship better?” Sometimes the honest answer is no. If you decide to fix it, the next question is either “what happens if the other person doesn’t want to?” or “what happens if the other person says I need to do all the work to fix things?” Think about their possible objections beforehand and how you might respond.
  • Don’t get stressed about being stressed, advises executive coach Dan Rockwell. Beating up on yourself for being stressed is like pouring gas on a fire.
  • Author Michael Crichton tends to be busy all the time on books, screenplays and other pursuits while another best-selling and prolific author, John Grisham, limits his activities to the point he no longer has an assistant. Productivity expert Cal Newport says that there are two types of ambition: Busy, in which the person craves activity and feasts at the buffet of opportunities that success creates, or a second type in which the individual craves simplicity and autonomy and sees success as a leverage to reduce stressful obligations. He thinks different people are wired for different ambition types.
  • The observant person finds many teachers, says author James Clear.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.