A few weeks ago my manager asked my to tell a few people who were newer to sales what the “secret sauce” was that helped me achieve goal the vast majority of the time. I didn’t have an answer at hand so I reassured them that I had been working at selling advertising of one form or another for over twenty years so they shouldn’t feel badly if things came less naturally to them.
But I think it’s important for top salespeople who want to mentor others to understand what makes them exceptional. If you can’t explain it, you can’t teach it.
Here are some tips that should help advertising directors make better hires and make salespeople better at their jobs.
The Traits of a Great Salesperson
1. Great salespeople consider themselves salespeople. They aren’t trying out sales until something else comes along and they didn’t get into it just for the money. When they call someone and are asked if this is a sales call, they should be able to proudly say “Yes!” and not have negative feelings toward working in sales.
2. They should be lifelong learners. There is always more to learn about sales. If your company does not provide sales training, there are many good books and courses on improving your sales technique.
Learning can come from strange places. When I was in my early twenties, I sold newspaper advertising for a weekly newspaper called Willamette Week. It was my first full-time job and I really wanted to make a good impression on my manager and coworkers.
Our boss took us to see Zig Ziglar and I was enthralled. Ziglar integrated Christianity into his motivational work, is a staunch Republican, and at one time owned a Multi Level Marketing (MLM) company, which was extremely controversial at best. But Ziglar, with whom I had very little in common, produced ground-breaking sales training material.
My manager at the time bought a set of Ziglar’s Secrets of Closing the Sale on cassette tapes. I went into his office and borrowed each one. And as I drove around Portland, OR on sales calls I listened to them and became a more polished and successful salesperson. I didn’t understand why any of the other ten or so salespeople on the team never listened to the tapes, but I did start to feel a little differently about how I was approaching the profession compared to my peers. I was there to win, and I knew that learning was the key to winning.
At my next job, as Chapel Hill sales manager of The Independent Weekly (now IndyWeek), when the national sales manager resigned, I asked to take over his duties. I was given the green light and then started to try to sell brand advertising into The Independent. I quickly learned from national advertisers and agencies that the Raleigh Durham market was too small to rate national ad placements. I tried a few things, like grouping all the similar weekly papers into the state as one buy and trying to market all the similar weekly papers in different college markets as a “college buy” but met with little success. I knew getting advertising agencies interested in my paper was part of the issue, but I had no idea how to call on an ad agency.
I went to an Association of Alternative Weeklies convention. Both Willamette Week and The Independent Weekly were members. As we were sitting around the pool I started listening to the man who would become my husband explain to the national sales manager of the Village Voice how he had sold a national ad campaign to Absolut Vodka. I edged my pool chair closer and closer and picked up a few tips. I also learned that at the time, only three member papers of the Association of Alternative Weeklies were selling much national advertising, The Village Voice, The Advocate, and NewCity in Chicago.
By that time, I was dating the man who had expertly sold an advertising campaign to Absolut Vodka. His boss used to work at The Independent Weekly, where I was working at the time. In a strange twist of fate, he told my husband to recruit me to The Advocate. We told him we were dating and he had us both report into him and the next thing I knew, I was living in Norwalk, CT and going into NYC on a regular basis to pitch The Advocate and The Alternative Weekly Network to agencies and clients.
Sometimes, the only way to really learn how to do something is to do it. It may seem intimidating or confusing, but for every client that is unpleasant because you are learning, if you listen, many more are happy to talk to you about their processes, how they like to buy, etc. Learning by doing is incredibly valuable. Learning by doing while your manager can act as a safety net if you make an error is even better.
3. The next step on your road to success as a salesperson is not being willing to accept failure, and when you do hit the skids, to learn from it and get right back up and try again. There are many ways to think about this, ranging from ego-drive to fear of failure.
Once you decide that you are not going to let yourself fail, you start to take action to prevent it. You make sure that you are making enough phone calls or in-person visits to develop enough pipeline that if some of your deals don’t close, you will still have enough to make goal. You may have some anxiety. Let that anxiety force you to imagine every negative outcome imaginable and take action to prevent them.
That drive will prevent you from resenting working long hours and make you feel like you won the lottery when you do exceed your goals. If you don’t feel like you hit the jackpot when you succeed, sales may not be the profession for you. Something needs to keep you going as person after person decides not to buy your products. You need the ability to understand that everyone goes through slumps and not take it personally when people say “No.” They are not saying no to you as a person, they could be saying no for a variety of reasons, like they haven’t been properly qualified as a customer, they don’t have the budget for your offering, or they are loyal to a competitor. Helpful people will tell you why they are saying no, and that can help you better qualify your next potential lead.
Once you have decided you are a professional salesperson, developed your own curriculum of training that is a mixture of studying sales and stretching yourself to try new things, and decided you have to be the best, you need to realize that the client is listening to one radio station called WIFM. What’s In It For Me. Clients don’t generally care how much you know or how much you want to win. They care about how you can solve their problems.
4. So, how do you learn which clients to approach and who has a problem your product can solve? You ask them and then you listen. Then you ask more probing questions to discover what issues the client has that you can resolve, and whether solving those issues is enough of an issue to allow the client to change what they were doing an adopt your services. Make sure you understand the entirety of their problem before you start to tell them how your solution can fix it. Get their buy-in at each step that your solution would make things better for them.
It’s best to get a read on your client’s problem from a variety of people at the company. Anyone from the owner to the receptionist may have a take on the issue. If they don’t, it’s great information to have because your client may need their buy in to make a change in what they purchase.
Knowing what your client has the authority to do is key. Ask them who else participates in making buying decisions about what you are selling early. The last thing you want to do is find out at the last minute that the CFO has vetoed what you have been pitching to another member of the company. If that CFO can say no, they should be involved earlier in the discussion.
Have empathy for your client’s problems, but don’t have sympathy. If your client needs to hire an engineer but doesn’t want to invest in your hiring solution, a sympathetic salesperson would suggest something less expensive, knowing it might not work. An empathetic salesperson will work with the client to understand the cost of having that position open and the value of making an investment that gives them the best chance of success at filling the open role.
5. And finally, you need to sell a product that it is a good fit for you as a salesperson. I’ve heard some people say that a good salesperson can sell anything, but that has not been the case for me. It has to be something that interests me, that has a good reputation in the business community, and that solves a legitimate problem for my clients. For me right now, that’s recruitment advertising and SAAS, for others it could be cars or real estate or a number of other things. If you can’t see yourself as a brand ambassador for the product that you are selling, your clients will feel it and it will make it harder for you to win.
That’s my philosophy about how to succeed in sales. View it as your profession, never stop learning, drive yourself to victory, be empathetic to your clients, and sell something you believe in. It’s also helpful to be intelligent, and there are many different kinds of intelligence. I think emotional intelligence is the most helpful in sales, allowing you to more quickly assess what they client thinks abut you and your product. Critical thinking will help you come up with creative solutions that may not have occurred to the client, and help you walk your client smoothly through the sales cycle. When you think of selling as helping people solve a problem that they really do need assistance to solve, any negative connotation that some people associate with sale people will never stop you again.
Jessica L. Benjamin writes about workplace culture, leadership, academia, tech & politics. Reed English BA, Loyola JD.