The reluctant salesperson

Friday, 01 February 2013
Common mistakes in client acquisition.

Do you love your profession, believe passionately in your product or service, but hate having to sell it? Did you qualify as a professional and develop your current skills and expertise, only to discover that professional expertise is no longer enough, now you have to actually acquire clients? Do you wake up excited about your ability to help people, only to sink back when you remember that first you have to find people willing to pay you to help them?

If so, you are probably what I call a reluctant salesperson. Someone who qualified as a professional and woke up one day and realised that if you are going to enjoy work, make money and help people or businesses as you know you can, first you have to sell to them. Yes, you woke up as a salesperson.

If this is you, here are some mistakes you might be making with client acquisition.

1. Procrastination or the lack of systematic prospecting

It is the things in life we least like that we take the longest to do. Putting off calling a fairly cold lead, not following up a client or avoiding attending a networking event does not work. Ultimately, it saps our energy and feeds our negative self-talk. If you wait to feel ‘up for it’ you will never do it. You need to just do it (act as if you can), and your belief that you can will grow. Even better, the more you do it, the more your technique will develop, and this, too, will increase your success and confidence. Behaviour (doing it) drives attitude (believing that you can) and not the other way round.

You never have to like prospecting – you just have to do it. Prospecting is about finding and separating out the prospects (people who need what you do) from suspects (people who don’t need what you do, or don’t wish to benefit from what you can offer them). People who fail at sales either do too little prospecting, stick with just one approach, are not consistent or do not set and monitor their prospecting plan and targets.

If you work out the metrics carefully (how much of each activity leads to a sale) you can predict – to a level of accuracy that will astound you – the sales you will achieve.

2. Emotional attachment

Most of us are in business because we are committed to what we do, do it well and know that it can help people. Reluctant salespeople are often caught up in their product or service and feel emotionally attached to it and to the sale, and thus sell its benefits rather than listen to the needs of the potential buyer. This does not work. People love to buy but they hate to be sold to.

Think about this – you walk into a store and a salesperson enthusiastically rushes up to you and says: ‘Can I help you?’ For many of us, our instinct is to say: ‘No thank you, I’m just looking’. Read this response to mean: ‘I feel that you are trying to sell to me and I am uncomfortable.’ When selling, we need to separate ourselves from the product or service and become a trusted advisor, facilitating a discussion about whether or not this is right for both the buyer and the seller.

There is an interesting dynamic going on here. Ultimately, we are engaged by prospects because of their confidence in our expertise, but during the sale itself an over-reliance on expertise can be counterproductive. This can complicate or prolong the sale, or lead us to do too much unpaid consulting. As a rule of thumb, when with a prospect you should aim to talk no more than 30 per cent of the time.

There is a point in the client acquisition process when we need to move into the expert role, but this is much later than we usually think. We absolutely need to differentiate ourselves from our competitors, but this is better achieved through asking better questions than through telling people what we can do to fix them.

3. Following the buyer’s system

People have been buying for as long as people have been selling, and over time they have developed a system for dealing with salespeople. This system will be experienced by anyone who has been involved in business development or client acquisition.

Do any of these sound familiar?

‘Sorry, I am in a meeting, can you send me an email?’

‘Can you send me a proposal?’

‘Your presentation was great, we just need to think it over and will get back to you.’

‘I would love to buy but just don’t have the budget.’

‘That sounds expensive; can you do me a better price?’

If so, you are probably deferring to the buyer’s system and need to take more control of the sales process.

We need to bring parity into the client acquisition process. Our role is to facilitate a decision; the buyer’s role is to make the decision that is right for them.

4. Spending a lot of time not working rather than networking

Networking is the one area of business development by professional practices that is considered legitimate. Unfortunately, familiarity and relative comfort (you might not like it, but it beats making calls) can mean a lot of time is spent on this activity with little focus on measurement and tracking of returns.

The dedicated networker in any city can easily find six to 15 networking events a week to attend. Few professional practices, however, have a well-developed strategy for networking, consistently evaluate the results or take the time to build mutually beneficial personal relationships. All of this is, however, essential if networking is to be an effective part of your business development.

5. Not asking for referrals or not knowing how to

Have you agreed with your current clients to ask for referrals at regular intervals? If not, this is something you need to start putting in place. Well-qualified referrals from happy clients who know you and have gained business benefit from working with you are probably the best source of new business.

Try setting yourself a weekly target for the number of referrals you will give and ask for.

6. Not continually learning

Developing client acquisition capability is a process, not an event. It needs to focus not just on technique but also on behaviours and mindset. Your goal should be sustained incremental growth over time, which is measurable, allowing you to predict your business revenue and grow your practice or firm.

Having the confidence and skills to acquire clients effectively and efficiently with some degree of predictability puts you in control of your business – your pipeline, your prices and your income.

The sales process

Client acquisition is a process; nothing more and nothing less. Two parties are effectively investigating the suitability of a barter arrangement. They have money and you have a product or service. Neither is better than the other. Does it make sense to trade? If so, let’s do it; if not, let’s part friends. Unfortunately, when in a selling role the reluctant salesperson feels inferior – at the mercy of the buyer. This is not so, and for both parties to do well you need to maintain an adult-to-adult relationship at all times. If you come off as needy you will not build confidence in your product; if you come across as a know-it-all you will not build confidence that you understand or care about their business. Either way, no sale.

The image most of us have of a salesperson is pushy, does not listen, interrupts what you are doing, does not understand your business and so on. The US economist Theodore Levitt claimed: ‘Selling focuses on the needs of the seller and the need to convert product to cash. Marketing focuses on the needs of the buyer and the need to satisfy the customer through the products produced.’

While I can’t say I agree with this definition, it does support the widely held idea that a salesperson is selfishly motivated, potentially manipulative and only interested in money. Furthermore, they talk a lot, mostly about themselves, their products or services, or why people should buy; they rarely listen. How many people do you know who want to be viewed in this way? It is almost enough to make us all reluctant salespeople.

Understanding the reasons for the generally negative perception of selling is critical to understanding how to fix the problem – selling and buying has been going on for hundreds of years and both sides have long-established behaviour patterns and expectations. I have found that these do not serve the best interests of either the buyer or the seller. To sell effectively while maintaining our dignity we need to adopt an approach where the expectations of both sides are openly shared, allowing a genuine exploration of whether or not the buyer had a need and the seller can best meet that need.

Reluctant salespeople recognise that to acquire clients they need to sell; the trick is to sell in a way that maintains their self-respect and dignity. Achieve this and it becomes much easier.

Author block
Lisette Howlett

Lisette Howlett is MD of Sandler Training.

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