Becoming better at sales: 13 lessons learned in ten years of selling

Selling can be difficult for new entrepreneurs; it can be the one factor that prevents people from becoming entrepreneurs in the first place! However, people who truly need our service or product will be more than happy to hand over money for it.

Selling can be difficult for new entrepreneurs - in fact, it can be the one factor that prevents people from becoming entrepreneurs in the first place! This can be especially true for women. We are afraid of rejection and we don't like to ask for money.

We need to acknowledge that the product or service we worked on, and spent so much time and effort making just-so, is very valuable. Our time and our expertise are valuable. We deserve to be justly compensated - and we have to ask for it. People who truly need our service or product will be more than happy to hand over the money for the solution we provide!

So I thought I would revisit my experience of selling (and buying!) in order to dispel common myths and misconceptions about it, in Q&A form.

(You can also listen to my podcast on sales and selling)


1. What is a common misconception about sales?


That you need to be pushy. You don't.

If somebody doesn't need your product, then don't bother them but keep a light connection, through LinkedIn or via your newsletter. (Read: 7 best practices for a successful email newsletter)

Prospects who are overly cynical are more trouble than the sale is worth. They will plague you with customer service demands as they want to get the most value in exchange for the money they begrudgingly spent.

As soon as I recognise a person who puts up a number of barriers to the sale, I wish them well and send them politely on their way. They wonder what's wrong with you then. If in fact they had a need for your product, this reverse psychology often brings it out!


2. What is an easy tweak that people can make to immediately improve sales?


Ask for the sale. Often people do all the hard work of opening the lead, having the meeting and following up with information, but don't ask the question if the lead wants to buy and deal with the final issues Women in Sales Susan HayesCulleton. 80% of effort is done and yet, this 20% of final action yields 80% of the results.

Too many salespeople don't ask for the sale because they think it's obvious - it's not. You need to say the words "Would you like to buy?" (or something equivalent!)


3. What is another, more difficult or time-consuming tweak that people can make, that will bring much bigger rewards?


Phase One is to make sure you ask for the sale from your current leads. 

Phase Two would be to go through your existing client book, put together a plan for a catch-up call, pick up the phone and offer to take action: send a proposal, take existing clients out to lunch, invite them to an event, etc. People who have bought from you in the past are far more likely to buy from you again in the future, than people who don't know you at all.

You don't always need to have a sales objective when contacting people as you don't know what's changed in their life. They may be absolutely delighted to hear from you, since you might have just the solution they were looking for! Be open to possibilities and to just having a nice chat, too. (Read: 11 steps to create your own opportunities)

Phase Three - invest in a CRM (Read: 5 things that my business could never have done without a CRM), set targets according to a marketing plan, group contacts and prospects into categories (time, geography, industry group, etc.), input data and be held accountable to follow your plan.

The data is very important as it reveals what strategies are bringing results. Instead of letting the chips "fall where they may", you can put Pareto's principle in action: once you know the 20% of prospects or strategies that bring in 80% of your results, you can focus on what will truly bring you a return on your investment.

There are many, many other strategies that you can pursue to open up sales opportunities.


4. What was one "A-ha !" moment you had in relation to selling?


That the easy bits can make a huge difference!

For example:

- Following up promptly with a thoughtful message that adds value to your contact, after you have gone through the hard part of getting and navigating the meeting. (Read: The non-exhausting networking solution that bears generous fruit)

- Logging the data so that you can follow a systematic process to chase leads with all of the information that you need at your finger tips. (Read: My 3-step framework for selling with confidence)

- Rewarding your champions who sell on your behalf: some of your clients will give you good reviews and recommend you to their friends. Express your gratitude!

This is all so much easier than the groundwork of opening leads and revealing the need (if it's there at all), and addressing objections or barriers to the sale. Of course you can't focus on the easy bits only, to the exclusion of the hard bits. But the small things will help you gather momentum: don't underestimate their power.


5. What other aspects of your business feed into better sales? (networking? The newsletter? Any special kind of marketing?)


All of the above.

I am a big believer of giving something of value. Typically this doesn't have to cost anything: if you are really listening empathetically to your potential clients, you can do something for them that will be really valuable, even if you're just starting out and don't have the funds for something expensive.

Taking the time to find and share valuable information for example is one key way to add value: I often let people know of a business opportunity suitable to them (like a tender or new training programme), or I send them a thought-provoking blog post based on a conversation we've just had. You can also leverage your existing networks: I invite ten people to each IIBN event as my guests; I make an introduction, I tweet about them, etc. (Read: The 5 secrets of effective networking that built my success)

All of these are the extra mile when it comes to following up to a networking event. Usually people don't do anything at all, send a LinkedIn invite or a "just a quick note..." type e-mail. At HayesCulleton we put together a tailored newsletter with a variety of resources. This is different. (Read: How I turned blogging into the ultimate follow-up strategy)


6. What are different parameters that people need to take into account when selling?


You need to take totally different actions when selling to other businesses than when selling to general customers.

As I've learned from my small number of B2C ("business to consumer") experiences (the books, VectorVest, #SavvyTeenAcademy), marketing is a much bigger part of the puzzle in B2C as you can't go around to everybody yourself when the item you are selling might be €15.

An effective way to market to consumers is to leverage the trust consumers have in others, until you earn it from them yourself. To advertise the #SavvyTeenAcademy we worked with companies (Davy), with organisations (Leinster Senior College), with websites (myKidsTime) who were already in contact with our target audience.

We had built rapport with them over time and so they were happy to recommend us to their own customers because they knew we were trustworthy. Building this rapport takes time but again, it's essential.

Each contact, whether a person or an organisation, is a relationship that you must tend to.

Also, you need to have customer support structures in place to react very quickly and promptly: this is what makes or breaks sales. (Read: Create a business strategy and assess your business with this insightful tool)


7. What is something that salespeople repeatedly get wrong, and how can they improve it?


Neglecting to recognise the value from the data: what efforts yielded results and why? Based on the data, how can you improve conversion (the percentage of "visitors" who actually end up buying)? What are the sources of your business efforts? Are you putting enough effort into retention of existing customers, or into new sales?

Following up - promptly, comprehensively and focusing primarily on the other person's needs. Invest time in helping as many people you can, irrespective of whether they can help you back or not. Karma will take care of that for you. (Read: 5-minute business strategies: Be of help)

If a sale doesn't work out, politely ask for feedback. It shows that you care and you get the best type of market research available. You put forward your offering and asked for money for it; why didn't they buy? This is free consultancy. Don't neglect it.


8. What is your best sales experience as a seller? And your worst?


Best: Getting referred - it's the best type of sale there is!

You can be proud that an existing client liked your service or product so much they recommended you. This is an efficient sale as well, since people trust word of mouth above all, so you have less work to do. Still, when getting a referral don't take the sale for granted and treat your new client with as high a level of attention you would treat any other client. Don't rest on your laurels!

Worst: Not quite knowing the difference between persistence and being taken advantage of.

I've got this wrong sometimes. Should I make contact one more time with this person, or are they just using me for free advice? There are times when I thought I was getting nowhere and suddenly the client is ready and eager to buy.

On the other hand, if I feel I'm taken advantage of, then it's often my own fault: I've done too much for free, or undercharged, or forgotten some variable in the equation, or I didn't define the scope of a project with enough clarity.

All you can do is learn from those. You have to be extremely honest with yourself, accept your part of responsibility and analyse the failed interaction for red flags you should have heeded and for cues to which you will react differently next time: "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me".


9. What is your best sales experience as a customer? And your worst?


Best: I'm left wondering what I could do to help them.

One time in a family-run café, I met a young entrepreneur who had just launched his own range of biscuits. I happened to walk into his café one day for a coffee and a scone, not knowing anything about him or his enterprise. He had seen me speak, came over and chatted for a while before telling me my bill was on the house. I instantly introduced him to ten key contacts.

The best sales happen when you want to give more than your money; you're happy to tip, leave a review on TripAdvisor, tell your friends etc. Whenever you feel that way, take the time to reflect and take notes: what made the sale so pleasant for you the customer? How can you offer the same experience when you are the seller?

Worst: I'm ready to spend my money and it's difficult to do so.

When you're selling, think in detail of all the steps you ask your customers to go through before they can buy from you. (Read: Is your online shop actually shooing customers away?). Online for example, you might be asked to painstakingly fill in a detailed profile and come up with a password when you just want to buy the thing already.

It can also be that the seller wants me to buy their way, the way that is more convenient for them, and not the way that is more convenient for me. For example I call the company and tell them that their website only allows me to buy one of their products, but I want to buy five of them for clients. They say "Oh we will have to get somebody to call you back about that" and they never do. They just lost five sales...

If somebody is coming towards you with their wallet open and they ask "How do I buy from you?", don't turn them away - unless you have ethical reasons to do so, of course (for example the product isn't for them in some way and they wouldn't be helped by it). Make sure your sales process is simple and straightforward, and reduce the number of hoops people have to jump through.


10. If you only had two minutes to brief a random person who is NOT a salesperson, before they go on to sell something for the first time, what is the absolute most important thing you would tell them?


Ask for the sale! Yes, it's that important, and too often overlooked. (Read: Could this simple mistake be costing you a lot of sales?)


11. If you met somebody who has been in sales for a while, what question would you ask them to gauge how good they are?


How much time do they spend on new customers, vs. existing customers?

If they're established, I would expect a significant amount of time to be invested in taking care of their existing client book. Don't take your clients for granted - they have trusted you enough to spend their money with you, so reward that trust and always be trying to find out in what ways you can help them more and better. Make it easy for them to buy from you again. 


12. If you were "talking shop" with a fellow salesperson, what would you want to talk about? What would you be curious about, in their way of doing things?


This is what I would ask them:

Why do you love selling?

When done in the right spirit, selling can be highly enjoyable because you are helping your customers and answering a need they have. It's linking up supply and demand beautifully! Salespeople all have stories of sales that went well because the customer was happy, bought again, told their friends, etc. Listening to these stories is inspiring and motivating - it helps you see that rejection in selling is not a rejection of you, but just a mismatch. The person didn't need what you could give them, so just move on to the person you can really help.

What comes naturally to you that other people see as "the extra mile"?

This is great to uncover sometimes very simple thoughtful actions that few people think of but that make all the difference. For example I recently sent a customer a hamper of gourmet food on the occasion of working with them for six years. It comes naturally to me because I want to express my gratitude, but customers often tell me I'm the only one to do that. So it also happens to be an easy way to stand out and be remembered.

What habits do you practise every day?

This is crucial: what you do regularly matters more than what you do once in a while. Sales and networking are very much accretive processes: you have to build your success step by step, layer by layer. If you study people who appear to be "overnight successes", 99% of the time you will realise that their success is anything but. They took months or years to build relationships of trust and mutual help - that is the only way they were able to leverage success once it came.

That's why I'm really interested in the daily habits that build the foundation of business success. I personally make sure I take three "sales actions" every day: it might be following up with a new contact, calling an existing customer to see how they're doing and how I can help them (even if this doesn't result in a sale), mining my data to uncover trends and patterns to make my selling more efficient, etc.


13. What would you tell your 20-year-old self about sales?

Selling can be learned and is quite systematic. It's a skill that can be honed and cultivated.

Rejection is just a stage in the process.

The more effort you put in, the luckier you become.

Enjoy selling and don't be afraid of it!

Selling is vital to the success of your business. It is what will make any good business idea sustainable and create the space to work on projects close to your heart.

People love to spend and they're very happy to give money in exchange for value.

They don't expect something for nothing: that's why they often don't value something they get for free or cheap.


Listen to the #SavvyWomen podcast on sales and selling.

I'd love to hear your feedback by email email or on twitterTwitter

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