Authenticating imperfection at MoMA in front of Jackson Pollock’s One. Photo by author.

social impact sales

This Monday, I stopped by Impact Bazaar, a project organized by Impact Hub NYC. The Bazaar brings together an ecosystem of products and services, mentors and encouragers, to support the social entrepreneurs, nonprofiteers, and freelancers of NYC. For $10, anyone can stop by and access these resources.

I paid a visit to give a lunchtime talk on the subject of salesmanship (read: social impact salesmanship). Here is a written version of the tips I shared to develop a good sales sense in pursuit of making our convex areas of the world a bit better.

  1. a question demands a question

Don’t assess by guessing. Assess by asking. Anytime a person questions your product, service, skill, or vision, there’s only one question that should come next: why is this person asking their question? All of your next questions and comments should unearth this information. Consider it an opportunity to gather more information about the thing driving your passion or curiosity.

Timing is important. If it doesn’t make sense to dig into a person’s curiosity and motivations right away, provide an answer, and return to your questions later to learn where the person was coming from.

That said, always ask the questions you want answers to. It’s an easy thing to say and a bit harder to do.

2. the phone is better than many things

We respond to the emotional undertones running behind our words when we hear someone speak. In this respect, email is for coordination, phone is for decision-making.

Moreover, phone sometimes beats an in-person meeting as a pure communications tool. The information carried in-person adds appearance and mannerisms to an interaction. Depending on who you are, an in person meeting might overwhelm with unfocused information. Keep this in mind when scheduling meetings.

Lastly, if you have an important piece of information to convey, do so by voice. Use spoken language to request direct acknowledgment from whoever you are speaking with that he or she is on board, is not on board, understands next steps, timeline, expectations, whatever information you need validated in order for the relationship to evolve.

3. your mindset will come through your voice

Your voice — whether in person or over the phone — represents you, your idea, your product, your service. Our voices are among our oldest communications tools. We’ve evolved to respond to them as a result. If you are annoyed, distracted, bored, feeling down, this will come through, no matter how well you think you’re masking these states of mind.

One of the best tips I’ve received to eek out a few solid phrases of writing has been to imagine one person who I want to understand my message. This helps me to calibrate my statements and make the practice of writing feel more personal. Likewise, before a big meeting, consider calling a friend, or a family member, or connecting with a teammate in the office. Connect with someone that will make you feel whole. Take time to calibrate your state of mind and voice to match your enthusiasm or hope.

4. identify imperfection and ways to grow from it

An effective salesperson will know the holes in their own pitch, the weaknesses of their product, the shortcomings of their service better than anyone else. Salesmanship turns that imperfection into an opportunity for growth for the entrepreneur and the company, and the products, services, and skills that need improvement. Once a salesperson identifies a gap, not only in a customer’s needs or in the greater market, but in the effectiveness of a product or service, they can articulate how the investor, customer, or donor can grow into that product or service gap and create real value.

Take grant writing. Every grant defaults to presenting a program in its most positive light. Because of this, many grant writers do a poor job of articulating how the awarded funds will allow their programs to grow beyond whatever achievements they have already produced. Identifying the imperfection of the program and turning it into an opportunity for funding to make an impact helps to authenticate why the grant reviewer should literally buy into the opportunity to make a difference.

Similarly, entrepreneurs and for-profit salespeople must think about how they orchestrate their value prop so they can boost the agency of investors or customers to fill gaps in the market or gaps in their desires or needs. The salesperson authenticates this imperfection — hopefully for the better — by being upfront about what the product or service can or cannot do. This acknowledgement and accounting of imperfection helps all of the stakeholders build a more resilient, trust-based relationship. It doesn’t need to be a heavy, just authentic.


Some afterthought context.

The above reflections assume that salespeople are genuinely curious, if not always passionate, about whatever it is they are selling. I’ve spent seven years on the phone and in the hot seat talking to people who might benefit from products or services that I believe in.

Not everyone has this luxury. The people I’ve had a chance to connect with range from customers, to donors, to teenagers, to investors, and I’ve found that I feel most satisfied when I make an honest effort to learn if my perception of the world around me resonates or aligns with someone else’s.

In the cases when perceptions don’t align, my goal becomes to learn something more about the realities lived by my fellow person, realities that many of us take for granted. It’s hard. Sales can represent a way to uncover these inconsistencies of experience by focusing on the capabilities and capacities of whatever it is you are selling. The product or service becomes a reference point that highlights similarities and differences in world view and behavior. Lastly, there are loads of books on the subject of sales traditionally defined. As a starting point, I recommend Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, Bruce Patton.