Paula Barbary Shannon of Lilt: How To Be Great At Sales Without Seeming Salesy

Authority Magazine
Authority Magazine
Published in
9 min readJun 10, 2021


A solid salesperson should know when it will be impossible to close a deal; either due to a misalignment of needs and services or products, or an untenable or intractable set of terms.

As a part of my series about how to be great at closing sales without seeming pushy, obnoxious, or salesy, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paula Barbary Shannon

Paula has had a career in global sales that has spanned 35 years and been centered in the language industry. She speaks six languages and has managed teams in over 26 countries and helped to grow revenues at Lionbridge from $38M to just under $600M in her 18 year tenure there. She currently works as Chief Evangelist at Lilt, the leading human-powered, technology-assisted translation provider.

Thank you for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this career path?

I was getting ready to do an MBA at INSEAD in France when I was hired by the language industry legend, Berlitz. The opportunity was as a management trainee, and included exposure to finance, operations, sales, and marketing. I jumped at the chance, and after my initial stints in management at sites across the US, I wound up helping open sales in the field of software localization, first in Canada and North America, and then globally.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I travelled a great deal in my career — many years traveling more than 150,000 air miles. I would often be dressed in a suit if I had a meeting right off the plane. In addition, I frequently had my hair pinned up for overnight flights. It became a running joke among my colleagues how many times people approached me to come help them onboard — with a food spill, luggage bin, or other task they deemed in the realm of the flight attendant. I learned that it was actually easier to help them than to point out their errors.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am working on a book, together with the team at Lilt, about the new Playbook for Localization. It will feature interviews with industry challengers and hopefully inspire some new thinking about career paths and opportunities.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I began at Berlitz, my boss was a charismatic and successful leader, Anita Komlos. She mentored me so selflessly and taught me so much of what powered me to succeed. The most important lesson I learned from her was a tactical selling tip: to allow uncomfortable silences. The most helpful information came from those moments.

For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit why you are an authority on the topic of sales?

Authority is a strong word! I believe I have something to say because I have had a seat at the table as the entire transformation of needs satisfaction selling and customer centric selling took place. I evolved many of these approaches to work in varied cultures and was awarded the International Stevie award for “Best Sales Executive” in 2004. As important, I have also missed my number and had to “own” that failure and recover in the demanding public company arena.

Let’s shift a bit to what is happening today in the broader world. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the COVID-19 pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty and loneliness. From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to our families and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Life is not a linear progression and career plans should never be. While we have all struggled with isolation and anxiety during COVID, career concerns should not add to this. Focusing on experience over titles, and allowing for horizontal moves, and even reversals, is a crucial part of developing a career path that enhances your life. COVID has created a new lens for many people, and a way to consider self-worth in their own, non-performative terms.

Ok. Thanks for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. As you know, nearly any business a person will enter, will involve some form of sales. At the same time, most people have never received any formal education about how to be effective at selling. Why do you think our education system teaches nearly every other arcane subject, but sales, one of the most useful and versatile topics, is totally ignored?

I absolutely love that you have asked this question. I have always been perplexed at the lack of formal training, even in the best undergraduate business programs, on the subject of sales. That is changing. In the past few years, we have seen the addition of curricula at Penn, Baylor, NYU, Bentley, and more. This is needed more than ever, as the foundational training long funded by industry giants in tech and pharma are less universal. What is exciting about the new approaches is that it combines an understanding of business, finance, and management with sales and is designed to create better leaders.

This discussion, entitled, “How To Be Great At Sales Without Seeming Salesy”, is making an assumption that seeming salesy or pushy is something to be avoided. Do you agree with this assumption? Whether yes, or no, can you articulate why you feel the way you do?

You have hit a nerve with this one. Understanding clients’ needs, objectives, challenges, and concerns is the only way to sell successfully in the long term. While pushy salespeople can sometimes succeed in short-burst, transactional selling, this strategy is alienating and off-putting. This is not to say that the professional sales leader is not pushing a prospect or client out of their comfort zone, it may be necessary to challenge status quo behavior or institutional beliefs, but if this is done with good insight, sincere goals, and respect, it will win every time.

The seven stages of a sales cycle are usually broken down to versions of Prospecting, Preparation, Approach, Presentation, Handling objections, Closing, and Follow-up. Which stage do you feel that you are best at? What is your unique approach, your “secret sauce.” to that particular skill? Can you explain or give a story?

I really love the entire phase of researching, proving and understanding and presenting. I would have to say that I am probably best at the presentation. I take pride in trying to share true insights, and make the time that we have invested in the presentation meeting, typically attended by many stakeholders on both sides, worthwhile and valuable. It is a delight to uncover some learning about a brand, target demographic, or audience, and share that with a client in a presentation. I have had some amazing presentation moments; advising Google to allow for users to search in their language of choice, not just default to IP address (as it did in the early days), and tough insights on an Apple ad campaign that was going to feature mistletoe in South America, which would have been culturally incomprehensible. These moments create trust and with that you can accomplish a tremendous amount.

Lead generation, or prospecting, is one of the basic steps of the sales cycle. Obviously every industry will be different, but can you share some of the fundamental strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

I trust my marketing partners. If you are the Chief Sales Officer and partner with a CMO, respect them and their organization. Work to create alignment so that your departments have a shared view on staging and qualification values. If you own the entire process as Chief Revenue Officer, ensure that you have modern demand gen professionals in your team and give them the resources they need to create outstanding content.

In my experience, I think the final stages of Handling Objections, Closing, and Follow-up, are the most difficult parts for many people. Why do you think ‘Handling Objections’ is so hard for people? What would you recommend for one to do, to be better at ‘Handling Objections’?

I love to teach Handling Objections and agree that this stage is often dreaded, or rushed through. It can be the most important and most productive part of the selling process, if you have a strategy and work to understand the customer’s specific objection. I was trained in my first job using the Xerox professional selling skills and used to carry around their laminated objection handling cards! It reminds the individual to take a step back, clarify the issue, support or acknowledge the client’s perspective, and then work to create a different path forward. It is never about arguing or disagreeing.

‘Closing’ is of course the proverbial Holy Grail. Can you suggest 5 things one can do to successfully close a sale without being perceived as pushy? If you can, please share a story or example, ideally from your experience, for each.

Closing always sounds like it happens at the end. Nothing could be farther from reality.

  1. The goal of closing should be transparent and overt from the initial discovery discussion.
  2. A client can only be “qualified” if you are both aligned that your proposition has value for them.
  3. A good salesperson will describe what the successful outcome and closing looks like.
  4. Contracts have very little to do with closing. Paperwork should be reviewed and prepared along the sales process. You should be “closed” before you are finalizing POs and contracts.
  5. A solid salesperson should know when it will be impossible to close a deal; either due to a misalignment of needs and services or products, or an untenable or intractable set of terms.
  6. (a bonus) You will not close every deal! Use that knowledge to build confidence when you need to disengage, withdraw, or walk away.

Finally, what are your thoughts about ‘Follow up’? Many businesses get leads who might be interested but things never seem to close. What are some good tips for a business leader to successfully follow up and bring things to a conclusion, without appearing overly pushy or overeager?

Follow-up that is triggered by a future event the customer highlighted, or changed circumstances, is golden. Follow-up for the sake of tripping a time stamp in your CRM, or to show quantity over quality, however, is useless and counter-productive. In fact, if you have not established a need that can be met by your service or product you should not be following-up, but rather you should be nurturing with content and campaigns.

As you know there are so many modes of communication today. For example, In-person, phone calls, video calls, emails, and text messages. In your opinion, which of these communication methods should be avoided when attempting to close a sale or follow up? Which are the best ones? Can you explain or give a story?

Text is very intimate and I would find it invasive to use text to pursue a deal to closing. Email can be ignored or be too passive — I have seen many people send “closing” emails that all but let the customer off the hook! I think in-person will always be best, but a voice call or video call is appropriate for closing a deal. You are owed at least this, and it is the only way to have an exchange and truly understand your position.

Ok, we are nearly done. Here is our final “meaty” question. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would create some form of a multilingual, digital, message-in-a-bottle to allow people to have random, but meaningful, contact with total strangers.

How can our readers follow you online?


Thank you for the interview. We wish you only continued success!



Authority Magazine
Authority Magazine

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