Confessions of an Old-school Sales Professional
When I look back over my sales career, I realise that I mainly operated as a relationship-based seller. I had my share of successes with this approach, but I also saw a number of opportunities vanish just as they should be closing.
In one particular instance, I invested 18 months in building a great relationship with a client. At the eleventh hour, as the deal was set to close, it was pulled out from under me. Why? My main contact wasn’t the one who made the buying decision; it was her boss. I had been so embedded in my relationship that I developed a blind spot about considering other people who might ultimately be the decision-makers.
My biggest mistake was believing in old-school sales training, which taught the value of creating a connection with people, because, “if they like you, they will buy from you.” Today, with the knowledge of hindsight, I offer this addendum: It’s not enough to rely on just your interpersonal skills, staying in the opening phase of the sales process, when establishing relationships are key. Too many things can happen to derail the sale, so don’t put all your eggs in the one basket of relationships.
There are several other baskets of sales approaches and, as I’ve come to learn, those that are too narrowly focused can create undue risk of lost sales.
Sales ApproachesCharismatic: This is the relationship approach. If you’re a people person, it can be the most rewarding in terms of creating great connections and establishing real rapport. You like your clients and feel liked in return. But, just as in the case of my lost sale, you can easily develop a false sense of security. You may be connecting on an emotional level, but the decision is being made on economics, scalability, or a global master contract. There’s also a risk in trying to make friends if you’re not being authentic. Fake smiles and glad-handing are hallmarks of old-school sales approaches — ones that never really worked, even when they were new, because they were recognised by clients as being forced and disingenuous.
Technical: Knowledge can be power, but it can also be powerfully overwhelming for clients if you launch straight into a data dump. “Hello. How are you? Nice to meet you. Let me tell you everything that you need to know about our products and services.” Sales professionals who stay with a technical approach tend to download all of their information and go straight to the proposal stage. They put everything in front of the client and hope something sticks. The advantage is being seen as knowledgeable and credible. The risks include boring the client with an information overload and missing the opportunity to engage in dialogue and conduct a proper needs analysis.
Aggressor: Some sales professionals take a more aggressive approach, pushing new concepts at the client and moving quickly to try and close deals. When this works, new opportunities are created. When it doesn’t, it’s often because clients are uncomfortable with confrontation or being pushed. There are times when pushing an agenda forward is effective, but it takes a certain skill set to know when and how to push appropriately.
Consultative: A consultative approach can be most effective because it draws on the best traits of many styles while adding a level of depth. It stems from a more evolved understanding of the sales process, with the ability to navigate the sales dialogue to fully understand client needs and opportunities, offer insights, and help shape solutions that clients value.
At this point in my career, I have evolved my approach to be more consultative, adding new skills to my toolkit to delve deeper into the sales dialogue. There’s less risk of being blindsided by lost sales, as when relying solely on relationships, and more likelihood of making on-target recommendations that can accelerate the sales cycle, based on a clear understanding of client needs.
I find that consultative selling to be a more inclusive style, allowing me to blend my relationship-building skills with technical knowledge and, at times, pushing forward new information to clients. In moving beyond my old-school training, I expect my clients to find greater value in my insights while I travel further down the path of becoming a trusted advisor.
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