In 2016, I had the opportunity to present a keynote address at a major sales conference in New York City. I was asked to share my thoughts on how the key characteristics of an outstanding leader correspond to what it takes to be a great salesperson. Having spent the last two decades of my life teaching both leadership and consultative sales, the comparison seemed rather clear to me. These are the five major leadership factors that correlate to success in sales.
The foundation of sales excellence relies on building a strong level of trust with your customer. Character, therefore, is fundamental. Without honesty and integrity, there can be no trust. It’s easy: Tell the truth, all the time.
To demonstrate a high level of professional competence, there are five levels of knowledge required to be a truly consultative salesperson:
1. General business acumen. This means keeping up with local, national, and world news, as well as studying the fundamentals of business, such as marketing, finance, strategy, branding, and other core topics.
2. Expert on your products and services. I am very careful about the words I use, and “expert” is exactly the word I want to use here. To be successful in sales, it is necessary that you know everything you possibly can about every aspect of your products and services. If every now and then when a customer has a question you tell them that you’re not sure and will have to get back to them, that’s fine. If you say that more than once or twice in a conversation with a potential customer, they will begin to doubt whether you know about what you are selling.
3. Expert in your competition. To sell your products and services effectively, you have to understand on a deep level exactly what your competition is offering so you can compare and contrast your offerings directly against what your competition brings to the market. These first three items are merely table stakes; it is expected that you do these things and being very good at them gets you no extra credit at all.
4. Expert on your customer. This is especially true in B2B sales situations, no matter what you sell, it is critical you understand what is important to your customer, how they plan to use your products and services, what benefits they will derive from your offerings and everything else you can learn to help your customer make a wise buying decision.
5. Unique solutions. Once you have a strong foundation of general business acumen, you are a true expert on your products and services. You know your competition extremely well and you understand your customer deeply. This is when you can recommend unique solutions, sometimes for problems your customer did not even know they had. Here is where a salesperson adds real value: being proactive in helping the customer, not reactive in just taking orders. It’s at this level that you become a “trusted adviser” and create a strong competitive advantage because of the level of trust and respect you have earned from your customer.
Not only do you need to demonstrate that you are highly competent, but you must also show that you understand your customer as a person and will do what is in their best interests. A phrase that sums this up very well: “I’m good at what I do, and I do it because I care about you.” In other words, you must consistently communicate that you are competent, and you care.
Although salespeople must be good at explaining information and telling a compelling story, it is more important that they’re intense listeners who ask excellent questions. The best salespeople ask a lot of questions and write copious notes before they even begin talking about their products or services. Seek first to understand and then to be understood if you want success in sales.
This is one of the most important things I’ve learned in my sales career, it is not me versus the customer; it is us together as a team trying to find the exact right solution. I need to sell them the right product, at a reasonable price, that delivers exactly what I promised, on time.
So, to summarize all of these thoughts:
A great salesperson tells the truth, has integrity and character, is extremely competent in their job, and has true compassion for their customer, is an excellent communicator who listens intently and asks great questions, and works closely with their customer as a partner and peer to be seen as a trusted adviser. These key factors will give you success in sales.