“Salesman puts skills to use building aspiration” – a recent FT article recommended by a thoughtful client of mine in the City. Centred on the idea that sales skills are critically important for any self-respecting educator or teacher.
From social entrepreneurs to charity fundraisers, from technologists to academics, we work with a very broad cross-section of professionals, in addition to mainstream business. Mention the word ‘sales’ and, perhaps unsurprisingly, eyebrows often furrow and people get a bit nervous. After all, isn’t “being a bit salesy” rather insulting?
Earlier in my career, I certainly thought so. I felt very far from comfortable with the idea of sales – it sent shivers up my spine! Needless to say, now in my late thirties, I emphatically do NOT have a sales background. My career began with a junior research role at crack headhunting firm Russell Reynolds, three fabulously challenging years in politics (both parliamentary and grass-roots) followed by consulting in the world of brand strategy and innovation. Most recently, I embarked on a career in professional speaking, coaching and facilitation in August 2008 (good timing!)
To clarify: I do not have a sales background.
Or do I?
The more professionals I coach, the more groups I work with and the more audiences I speak to, the more convinced I become that each and every one of us IS in sales. Experience co-delivering a Personal Impact 1-day masterclass for CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) with former hostage negotiator, Richard Mullender, and executive image expert, Lynne Cantor, has only reinforced this view. We may not realise it at the time, of course. But when we engage someone in conversation, conduct an interview, present our ideas to colleagues or even pitch up for a hot date, the reality is: sales skills are vital. At the very least, that’s because we’re competing for our listener’s attention… particularly in a world where there’s any number of possible distractions.
Having read History at university, I’m tempted to conclude that, at least as far as the English are concerned, antipathy towards sales skills is a cultural thing. Sullying oneself with something as mercantile as selling is just… well, a little bit ‘vulgar’, I hear my college professors saying.
But I rather wonder whether discomfort with sales skills is a broader human anxiety. Speaking to audiences, I’ve met plenty of capable professionals from outside the UK who also struggle to articulate true value – from Pakistan, Japan, the UAE, Canada, Finland, India and Ukraine. Especially when it comes to personal experience, it’s all too common for people to underestimate their true value.
This makes it tricky to see how what you have to say/offer might be of real value to another. It all becomes a bit self-centered and one-sided – ‘How could anyone else possibly be interested in what I have to offer?’ Surprise, surprise, with that assumption in mind, ‘selling’ the value becomes rather difficult!
Truth is, effective sales relies on the potential for mutual benefit. Fail to appreciate the true value from another person’s point of view and the prospect of ‘selling’ anything will feel very uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong: I’m as anti- the “hard selling” tactics of the ruthless timeshare flogger or second-hand car dealer as the next man. Seeking to impose a value proposition where none is sought is, to my mind unpleasant, misleading, aggressive and downright wrong.
But what makes the world go round is people’s ability to forge connections with one another, anchored in an appreciation of sincere, mutual interest. I, for one, feel comfortable with that. For that connecting to continue, surely ‘sales’ has rather an important role to play. So get stuck in!