Selling is a tough job. Anyone who doesn't think so is not in sales. If you sell, you're never finished; there is always the next customer, a problem to solve, a crisis need or a meeting to attend.
By its very nature, selling can produce enormous stress, particularly when deals are falling apart, take longer than planned to conclude and change at the last minute.
There's little opportunity for a salesperson to check out. The "antenna" must be up at all times, ready to detect the slightest indication of the unexpected. The strategizing never ends.
If sales is essentially a task of carefully identifying customer needs and meeting them, then much of the folklore and images surrounding selling is nothing more than useless baggage or myths passed from one generation of salespeople to the next as if they were sacred—and infallible—truth.
In current business and consumer environments, such myths inhibit salespeople from closing more sales. They impede performance. Salespeople can be far more successful if they free themselves from the constraints of worn out and outdated beliefs. A place to begin rethinking selling is with these nine myths:
Sales myth No. 1: "It worked then and it will work now. Our sales people just need to work harder."
Sure, some don't work very hard and others don't work smart, but most salespeople want to be conscientious and successful. The major problem is not with salespeople. Far too often, sales managers fail to recognize that today's environment is quite different from the way it was when they started in business.
That probably was a time when face-to-face contact was essential. The primary means of relationship building was to get in front of the customer. This was necessary because it was the most effective method of communication.
While there's value in continued personal contact, the customer has far less time today to "see people." This is why wireless communication is everywhere and always on.
Sales myth No. 2: "Just give us something new to sell."
Not having something new and exciting to sell is a major complaint of salespeople. If they only had something new to sell, they could break records. Translate this myth into everyday language and it comes out something like this: Selling something new or different is easy.
Don't tell that to Stephanie and Bonnie Brenner of Brenner's Fine Clothing & Gifts in Sitka, Alaska. Their 3,000-sq.-ft. store sells thousands of pairs of French Dressing jeans to tourists each year!
They recognized that women over 35 were not wearing jeans because of poor fit. When they began featuring French Dressing jeans, a Canadian brand, and talked about fit, sales zoomed. Because they understand what women want, they aren't asking for something "new and different." They just want more shipments of French Dressing jeans!
Sales myth No. 3: "Selling still takes the personal touch."
It does, of course, but it all depends on what is meant by "personal." In the past, salespeople talked about having "a great relationship" with their customers. Whether this meant taking them to lunch, dinner or a golf outing, or getting them tickets to a sports event, making the sale depended on some type of "bonding." Salespeople always have wanted their customers to like them, whether they happened to like the customer or not.
A significant shift has taken place—and salespeople sense it. While the old trappings linger in some industries more than others, the best way to define "personal touch" today is being good at what you do, taking a personal interest in the customer's success and serving as a resource for the customer.
Sales myth No. 4: "A good salesperson knows how to push the customer's `hot buttons.'"
Anyone adept at selling focuses attention on the customer and listens carefully for buying cues.
Unfortunately, that's all many sales people do. They don't attempt to probe and develop a larger perspective or a deeper understanding of the situation. They go only as far as they feel is absolutely necessary—and no further. Rather than working to meet the customer's needs, they stop with wants.
More often than not, these turn out to be "one-time" sales.
Selling is not about "finding the hot buttons." That only blinds a salesperson from using his or her talents, experience and knowledge to serve the customer.
Sales myth No. 5: "My customers know where I am. They call me when they need something."
Some salespeople can actually boast that they have their customers call them when they are ready to buy. They see no need to do anything more than be available for the next order.
Again, times have changed. Today's customers are far more aware of the available options than in the past. The Internet lets them search for other suppliers and sources.
Sales people who do not actively cultivate all customers by demonstrating the extent of their knowledge and serving as a helpful resource stand to lose business. It isn't enough for customers to need what you sell; they need to need you as well.
Sales myth No. 6: "I know my customers like I know the back of my hand."
Yesterday's sales people often viewed themselves as "gatekeepers"—as intermediaries between the company and the customer. They were the only ones permitted to make direct contact. When they said "my customer," they meant it.
While knowing customers is essential in selling, it is extremely dangerous to assume that knowing implies having a hold on the customer. You may know your customers, but you may not know what they are doing and thinking.
Salespeople no longer are their only source of information for customers.
The most dangerous assumption is to act as if a customer is satisfied, loyal and not looking elsewhere. While salespeople like to think that they have the customer "under control," it is far more accurate to view today's customer as a "free agent," who is constantly making new discoveries, getting information easily and who does not feel beholden to a salesperson.
Sales myth No. 7. "When it comes right down to it, it's always price," or "Let's face it. Customers are only interested in price."
While there always is some price sensitivity, what customers really want is value for their dollar. However, that doesn't not mean their only interest is price. If that were true, no one would be writing with a Mont Blanc pen.
Bob Mulrooney is successful in selling dealers on Agway equine feeds against lower priced competitive feeds because he educated them as to the differences in the products.
Customers want value for their dollar. They expect to pay for the results they need. If they cannot differentiate one product or service from another, it only makes sense to choose the one with the lowest price.
Saying that price is all that matters is an indication customers have not been educated.
Sales myth No. 8. "Successful sales is a matter of overcoming objections."
Sales trainers jump on this one. They see selling as overcoming one objection after another. "When the salesperson has exhausted every objection, it's time to ask for the order," they say. There are variations, but that's the theme. After all the objections have been wiped away, the customer has no alternative but to buy.
That isn't the way the owners of Pools for Pleasure make sales. This suburban Indianapolis pool and spa company sells nearly 300 in-ground swimming pools each year. Surprising as it may seem, they don't focus on the pool itself or the equipment that goes with it. They take time to figure out why the customer wants a pool. Listening to that company's owners describe the way they sell, one comes away realizing they focus on the experience that having a pool holds for each individual customer.
If anything, objections are an indication that the salesperson has missed the experience the buyer is seeking, whether selling to consumers or businesses. Just answering objections does not necessarily lead to the sale.
Sales myth No. 9: "Selling is a game. The goal is to outsmart the buyer."
Here's the most pervasive and perhaps most destructive myth of all—describing sales as a game. "Winning" is a matter of the salesperson outsmarting or outmaneuvering the customer.
As one sales trainer expressed it: "It's getting the customer down on the floor and putting the gun to his head." That's the game.
Is it any wonder sports figures are the most prized speakers at sales meetings? It's a vicarious experience for an audience to hear the exploits of a great ballplayer, to picture themselves running across the goal line, making the winning basket or getting that illusive hole-in-one.
While all that may make everyone's heart go pitter-pat at least for 45 minutes, it can't mask the myth that selling is a game. It isn't. It has nothing to do with winning and losing or gaining some so-called "advantage."
Selling is more serious than a game. No rah-rah. No hype. No posturing. No macho madness. Sales is a process of aligning the resources made available by the salesperson with the needs of the customer. This takes skill, knowledge and competence.
Without question, the cynics will suggest that to strip away the myths takes the adventure and excitement out of selling. Adventure and excitement for whom? The salesperson? If so, then the crucial point has been made: Selling isn't about salespeople—it's about customers.
Demythologizing sales may be the beginning of selling in the "new economy." Getting rid of dysfunctional myths sets a salesperson free to meet customer needs.
Mr. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm in Quincy, Mass.