I wrote The Not So New Principles Of Sales, identifying some of the underlying and enduring principles of great selling. I thought I’d dive into each of the principles a little more deeply. I’m still formulating my thinking in these areas, so I’d really like to stimulate a discussion.

The first principle I identified was:

Selling is about an interactions between people. Yeah, we can’t take them out of the equation. So there are messy things like relationships, trust, communicating, engaging, and collaborating with people–customers, teammates, and others.

Technically, you might nit-pick and start talking about web-based shopping carts, electronic trading exchanges, and so forth–those are revenue producing activities, but let me categorize them as “commerce.” No doubt, a lot of revenue is created through commerce. It has its own disciplines and needs for success, but let me set it to the side.

But selling–in fact business–in fact life– is about interaction between people. It always takes at least 2, otherwise we’re talking to ourselves.

So if we want to improve our abilities to sell, we have to improve our abilities to engage people, to understand what drives them, to understand how to connect with them, to create meaning for everyone involved in the relationship.

There’s a lot of stuff written about relationships, books written about relationship selling, other books claiming that relationships are not critical in selling, but I think they often lose the point. Going back to the dictionary, relationship is some sort of connection–that’s it. It doesn’t have to be a deep, enduring connection. It doesn’t have to be an emotional connection.

I think there are a couple of things important about the concept of connecting. First, I think connecting is really about shared or aligned self interest. In “sales speak,” we talk about WIIFM–What’s In It For Me? While it may seem crass, or we don’t like to talk about it in polite social circles, it’s an important concept. Connecting is a choice each person makes. They make that choice based on their own interest and their assessment of how the person they are connecting with might serve/enrich those interests.

So If I want to connect with someone–a prospect, customer, colleague, it’s critical that I understand their “WIIFM.” As sales people, we tend to focus too much on our WIIFM–getting the deal, making the number. But then we struggle to connect. It may be early in the cycle, when all we do is pitch, without understanding what drives the customer, and how what we sell might align with their interests. We force the customer to make that connection themselves–and usually, they don’t care enough to take the time to do so. Or later in the cycle, we focus on our own self interests in pressing for the order–before the customer is ready, often when it’s in conflict with their own self interests.

The second thing has to do with the quality of the connection. I think that is all about Trust. I won’t spend time on trust here, but instead point you to Charlie Green’s work on trust–he’s the most articulate of anyone I know. The quality of the connection we make is critical, but is related to the commitment we expect from each party involved in the interaction. Clearly, if I’m buying a meal in a restaurant, the level of trust for the interaction is different than if I’m committing to a change that puts my job at risk.

Let me move on, another aspect of our interactions with people has to do with the quality of communications between people. While we might have aligned self interests and trust, the quality of how we communicate may simply get in our way. There are lots of things that impact the quality of communications–our ability to express ourselves/ideas clearly, our ability to listen without an agenda, our ability to change our point of view, our ability to empathize or see things from the other person(s) point of view. Our own behaviors, attitudes, and motivations impact our ability to hear and be heard. Our communications or behavioral styles impact the quality of communications. So what we say and how we say it has to be tuned to how the person we are saying things to hears it. Likewise, what we hear and how we act on it may not be what the speaker was intending. So understanding communication and behavioral style is important to improving the quality of our communications.

Today, when we talk about interactions between people, the word collaboration is tossed around a lot. It’s a cool word, it sells books and blog posts (and I toss it around a lot too), In some sense, it’s today’s version of “works well with others.” To be effective, to accomplish what we want, we have to collaborate, but I really thing this is still about connecting and the quality of the communications.

But I think there’s a richer dimension to collaboration that’s really critical to sales people. It’s about “getting others to work well with each other,” or collaborative leadership. If we are selling to one person, the connection and interaction is relatively simple. It’s a single two way connection. As the size of the buying group increases, the connections skyrocket. If four people are involved, there are 6 connections, and the number goes up, based on this equation n(n-1)/2, where n is the number of people involved. We know the size of decision making groups is rising, consequently the number of connections and interactions between participants gets more complex. Overlay that with the group dynamic–there’s something different that happens in the group than in the individual interactions. The complexity of aligning/sharing self interests, having high quality communication becomes virtually impossible. These are the things much of the very thoughtful work on collaboration addresses–and why it’s important for us to understand these. This is where the facilitating skills of the sales person may make the difference. The ability to help the customer facilitate their process, align their interests may be the most important thing in getting things done.

So what’s this mean for our own development as sale professionals? A lot of the things that impact our ability to connect, the quality of our communications, and collaborative leadership may be traits that we have. As sales managers or even team leaders, recruiting people, identifying these traits as part of our recruiting or competency profile helps set ourselves and the individual up for greater success. Yet too often, I don’t see these explicitly defined in a recruiting profile.

A lot of these things we can train and coach. Developing people further or providing new skills. Yet very little of our “sales training” focus on these. What does, tends to focus on very narrow aspects of the skills. For example, there’s a lot about presentation skills, but very little about listening/empathy/understanding. There’s a lot about closing skills, but very little about discovery. So as we look to developing training programs, we need to look deeply at these skills and capabilities, developing them. Without them, many of the classic sales training skills can’t be effectively leveraged.

What have I missed? Where am I off base? I’m still fleshing these principles out in my mind, so I’d love your feedback.

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