What Kind of Salesperson are you?

Not long ago, a client of mine asked me how he could identify a successful sales person, and what kinds of sales people he should try to avoid. This question has since come up repeatedly in training sessions, and not just by managers trying to evaluate their team, but by sales people who are looking to improve their results, despite what others see as a soft economy.

As often as not, the question is followed by: “Is it even possible to be successful in sales today?”

The answer? Absolutely. How? Simple – stop blaming the economy. It’s not the economy that’s the problem. If you’re not making enough sales today, it’s because of one of two things:

1. You’re not working hard enough; or
2. You’re perceived poorly by your customers.

The first is easy enough to fix. If you’re not working hard enough, work harder! Get out and make those extra calls. If that doesn’t work, make five more.

The second problem is more difficult. To solve it, you first need to answer two questions: How do your customers perceive you? And how should they perceive you?

How do your customers perceive you?

Based on my research, sales people are generally perceived by buyers in one of four ways:

1. Purely transactional.

Purely transactional sales people are in for the kill – always. They love “the deal,” and once a deal is done, they immediately move on to the next one. Most transactional sales people work in high volume but low price environments, where they can close numerous transactions each day or week. Traditionally, they don’t excel at building long-term relationships with their customers, and if the customer isn’t looking to buy right now, the transactional sales person quickly moves on.

2. “How do you like me so far?”

These sales people rely on humor to get them in the door, and get customers to like them. They try to charm their prospects into buying. They tell jokes, dish great gossip and are always everyone’s favorite water cooler companion.

3. The Ginsu knifers.

This category represents the majority of sales people – those who use greed to convince their prospects to buy. I call them “Ginsu knifers” in honor of the old infomercials where a slick announcer would constantly tease prospects with the line “but wait… don’t order yet!” and then proceed to tell us about all the great discounts, special offers and additional products we could expect to receive. Today, we see greed being used a little more subtly, but still in the same familiar ways, whether it’s through offering free samples, special discounts, money-back guarantees – or simply the lowest price.

4. Honesty sells.

Finally, a small but exceptionally successful group of sales people simply focus on being nice to – and, yes, honest with – their customers. They genuinely care for their customers, feel empathy or compassion for their problems and sincerely want to help them. Honest sales people don’t “pitch” prospects or sell features and benefits. They don’t pressure with limited-time offers and discounts. Most importantly, they do little talking (25%) and a lot of listening (75%).

Maybe P.T. Barnum was wrong…

So, between these four main types of sales people, who really finishes last – and who finishes first?

Transactional sales people may close lots of deals up front, but because they don’t create a memorable customer experience, their customers will eventually feel used, as if their value to the company is solely determined by the size of their last order. Customer service issues will go ignored, because solving them has no immediate impact on the bottom line. As a result, the customer begins to shop around. Sales managers beware: if you’re paying your sales reps more to close new business then you are for add-on business from existing customers, you risk creating a department full of only transactional style sales people.

You can only be the life of the party for so long, and let’s face it, how can your customer take you seriously when you don’t take yourself seriously? You’ll probably close some smaller deals because people like you, but will they trust you when it comes time for the big deal? Plus, being the jokester is a difficult role to maintain, and you could end up offending someone important. If you were one of those rare individuals who is so gifted and so well informed that they can hold the interest of a large group of people over a long period of time through humor alone, chances are you’d already have your own sitcom deal with NBC.

Unless you’re Wal-Mart, Price Chopper or Costco, playing to people’s greed is not a good way to differentiate yourself or your company in the long term. Why? Far too many companies are already trying to occupy this space, and eventually, all those discounts will lead to eroding profits, unprofitable sales and bankrupt organizations. Your customers soon learn that you can’t be trusted, and when that happens, they start holding out for lower and lower prices, or playing you against your competitors for more features, freebies and faster delivery. In the end, playing low-ball puts your prospect in the driver’s seat of your career. If you want to stay on top of your profession, you need to regain control.

Nice guys finish first, because nice guys understand that closing business is not about them. It’s about the customer. Nice guys focus on creating a positive customer experience that is based on trust and honesty. As a result, 98% of their customers don’t look elsewhere when they need to reorder. This means that “nice” sales people do 70-80% of their business each year with their existing customer base, proving that being honest is the true secret to working less and selling more.

8 steps to a more positive customer experience

Success in sales depends on creating a positive customer experience. How can you make yourself more likeable, and create a more positive experience for your customers?

1. Be empathetic and compassionate. Truly care about your customer (no matter how good an actor you are, faking it won’t work). Ask questions, take notes and lean in to show that you’re engaged in their answers. When you take an interest in people, they remember you – and when people remember you, it’s good for business.

2. Observe their eyes, handshake, body language and tone of voice. Try to capture the physical impression your prospect makes, then do your best to match it. (Read our previous sales tips on using body language to build rapport at Building Rapport: Style Before Substance).

3. Make eye contact. This is especially important when you walk into a room full of people. Eye contact is also essential after we get to know people, because it cements our existing relationships and lets them know that we’re still interested in their well being. So few sales people ever look their prospects directly in the eye. By simply smiling and making eye contact, you’d be surprised how much you will set yourself apart.

4. Add value and give first. Share your network of contacts with your customers, and don’t expect them to give you their business without you giving them something first. I don’t mean give away free product in the hopes they will buy more. Instead, look to give away things that increase your value. Perhaps they need a referral to a partner of yours, or help finding a new dentist. Or maybe they have a business problem that can be fixed with a new idea you read about or heard from someone else you’ve met.

5. Express your true intent. Tell customers upfront: “I don’t know if there’s a fit between what you need and what I have right now, but I’m hoping we can explore that in more detail during this meeting.” Or: “I only have your best interests at heart, and I promise to be honest with you throughout our conversation. In the end, I hope that we can mutually decide if there is a reason to move forward. If not, that’s fine too, and I hope you’ll feel comfortable telling me so.” Does this make you uncomfortable? I’m not surprised – this advice runs counter to 90% of the approaches I see being used in the field today. But then again, maybe that’s why only 10% of sales people are top performers. Try it yourself a few times, and you’ll be amazed at the response you get.

6. Don’t go for the big decision all at once. In our personal lives, we don’t propose to someone before we’ve been on a first date. The same is true in our business relationships, so get approval from the customer to move ahead in increasing increments. The first approval might be just to agree to speak openly with each other, as outlined in Tip #5 above. The second could be an agreement on a follow-up call or meeting date. The third might be gaining agreement on the decision making criteria, then a commitment to have the “big boss” present at the demo, followed by an agreement to a “go/no go” decision date. All too often, I see sales people jumping way ahead of their prospect’s buying curve. This puts the buyer and the seller out of synch. When the sales person is trying to close while the prospect is still evaluating options or determining risk, trust is broken, the prospect feels pushed and the sale comes dangerously close to disappearing.

7. Use friendly, warm words instead of formal business speak. When you use simple language, people respond better and trust you more. So limit your words to three syllables max. And don’t try to impress prospects with your extensive vocabulary, or you may end up just sounding fake.

8. Use people’s names. When it comes to using names, there are just two rules to follow: first, be aware of whether they’re more comfortable with first name only or title + last name; and second, never overuse their name – this only sounds corny and false. Dale Carnegie once said, “nothing is so beautiful to a person as the sound of their own name.” Just use your discretion.

Remember: your success is directly determined by the way you are perceived, and the amount of effort you put into your career. Changing either of those variables will have a huge impact on whether you succeed or fail when the going gets tough.

In other words, in good times or in bad, the type of sales person you choose to be is 100% up to you. Chose to be “nice” – by which I mean honest, open and empathetic to your customers’ needs – and you will experience consistent sales growth, build an excellent reputation and become a leader in your field, regardless of the market you sell in or the state of the economy.