09 Feb 2017 19:24 IST

Always be the salesman-in-chief

Selling is about listening, gaining trust and positioning things from another person’s point of view

In 2014, a study revealed that B-school students at both tier I and tier II colleges in India, were missing key skills that industry needed. It revealed that 35 per cent of students in tier I colleges and 60 per cent of students in tier II college scored below the industry standards in sales acumen.

Moreover, 40 per cent of students in tier I colleges and 48 per cent of students in tier II college scored below industry standards in terms of customer focus. Additionally, at least 50 per cent students in the tier II colleges scored lower than industry standards on people understanding, helpfulness and smart problem solving, the report noted. (The study was conducted by Jombay – a talent assessment and analytics company. Around 2,500 students across more than 80 B-schools were covered)

Wake-up call

That was a wake-up call on an important skill that all leaders need irrespective of their role or industry — the skill of selling. Whether you become a CFO who needs to internally sell an outsourcing transformation programme, a CTO who needs to sell a switch to a new technology platform, an HR manager who needs to sell the company’s value to a candidate you are keen on hiring, or a research head who needs to get your formula from the lab to the market, you need to learn how to sell.

A leader will come to see that it is a big part of her everyday job. So, how do you get it right? While volumes have been written on salesmanship, let’s pick three important aspects.

Sell benefits, not features

A mistake we make while selling is to focus on features, instead of the benefits. A car may have a great new engine technology, but as a customer, I’m interested in its fuel efficiency that saves me money. The engine technology is a feature; the money saved is the benefit. Even today, companies and agencies end up with ads and sales pitches that highlight features. But we need to focus on what the customer cares about — the benefit to her.

This applies to selling not just products but also ourselves, services, or a transformation programme. In our work at TalentEase, with university students ahead of placements, we run mock interview sessions, in which they often talk about their karate black belt, their achievement of managing a college fest or a prize won at a competition.

But all these are features. What are the benefits to your future employer? A black belt in karate is actually about a disciplined person who is capable of pursuing a goal with focus, and is able to balance multiple projects. So that’s what you need to sell; not the black belt itself.

The same thought carries into our future lives as leaders in the work world. I may have to sell the need for a merger or acquisition to the team, I may have to sell myself for a promotion or a role I’d like, a product or service to a customer. In all these cases, I must learn to focus on the benefits to the other person, rather than on features.

Be a trusted advisor, not a peddler

In the pressure of selling, we can sometimes be so focused on closing the deal, on pushing our service or product, or driving through an initiative or programme, that we don’t think in the customer’s best interest. United India Insurance used to have a great tagline — “At UI, it’s always U before I”. That should be at the heart of successful selling as well.

I used to have a relationship manager who handled my account at one of the leading banks. He sold me an insurance product that I later discovered wasn’t the right one for me. But it had a hefty commission for the bank. As a consequence, I never trusted him again and took most of my business away from that bank to another one where the relationship manager would often ‘un-sell’ a product if he believed it was not in my interest.

The first guy must have thought of himself a great salesman; and I’m sure he beat his target that year, but his organisation lost my business. And he lost a potentially life-long customer. The second person became a ‘trusted advisor’ and the business with his organisation kept growing. In the process, he gained a life-long customer.

If we keep the customer’s interests at heart, it eventually becomes a win-win situation. Customers fear the glib-talker who pushes a product or service. They are suspicious of his agenda. While some may fall for his clever lines once, they rarely make the same mistake twice.

Shut up and listen

One of the biggest misconceptions about the successful salesperson is that he is a smooth-talking charmer. But really, successful salespeople will tell you that it is quite often, the opposite skill that matters more — the skill to shut up and listen.

Instances of the salesman who aggressively pitches a child education plan to a couple who have no children, or of the CEO who pushes a foreign assignment to an employee who isn’t interested in going overseas because he has aged parents to care for, are examples of the tone-deaf salesman.

Real selling starts with listening to the customer, discovering her needs, problems, desires and aspirations. Once that is done, a matching and fit-for-purpose solution can be crafted.

In placement interviews, candidates who do all the talking without asking any questions do themselves a disservice. The better they understand the needs and challenges of their prospective employer, the better they can position their strengths for the job. CEOs who embark on leadership initiatives without having a finger on the pulse of the organisation or listening enough to employees, customers and other stakeholders, risk seeing their balloon deflate before it even takes off.

Ultimately, selling is about combining all these aspects — listening, gaining trust and positioning things from the other person’s point of view. As the little child who was getting tired after a long walk with his Dad said, “If you ask me nicely, I’ll let you carry me”.

Who says selling doesn’t start early?

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