The case for an introverted salesperson
A few weeks into my first job, I remember being handed over a list of contacts (Channel Partners) whom I had to call and set up appointments with (and eventually meet).
The thought of making a phone call to a stranger made me extremely nervous. Note that these weren’t cold prospects. They were channel partners who already knew my company and were quite engaged. However, they were new to me and that’s what mattered at that point in time. The fact that most of them were at least twice my age did not help.
I started an argument in my head. Why on earth did I choose sales?! But the truth was, I had not chosen sales. I just took the first job that came along my way after graduation. I should have seen this but now it was too late. On the other hand, what was I so nervous about? These weren’t cold calls, I was not asked to call people and sell them something on the phone. I was merely setting appointments with known people. This debate didn’t seem to end.
Finally, after contemplating and several back and forths, I made that first call.
Fast forward 4 years and I found myself in a similar situation again. This time around, it was a different location and country and the list in front of me was actually a list of prospects who probably had never heard about my company, leave alone me.
My first job had equipped me to hold a decent conversation with known and unknown people. However, here it was a problem of a different magnitude. I was about to make, what would have been my first cold sales call.
I was about to interrupt someone and make a sales pitch. The fact that I was in a new country where I was struggling to understand their accent and them, mine, made matters worse.
Over the years, there have been multiple occasions where I’ve questioned my choice of career and if I had what it took to be a good salesperson. Yes, I liked solving problems and understanding how people behaved. But did I box myself in a wrong profession when I chose that first job as a Business Development Manager? Was sales suited to my personality type?
What was my personality type?
It turns out I am a Myers Briggs INFJ.
Yes, I was an introvert. That did not come as a surprise to me. I always knew I was one but not the type that we traditionally think of introverts as.
Before getting deeper into this, let’s clear some popular myths about introversion and understand this personality type better.
The terms ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ were introduced by Carl Jung. These are two ends of a continuum of personality traits. All of us fall somewhere on this continuum and none of us are at either end. Our personalities are complex and one cannot categorize someone as a pure introvert or pure extrovert. Those simply do not exist
For example, someone who keeps to himself at work might be categorized as an introvert. Whereas, if you see the same person with his friends and family, he wouldn’t stop talking. Similarly, someone who is considered as an extrovert and socially outgoing might actually enjoy his or her downtime.
As such, there is no simple definition. However, there is one characteristic that you’ll find in all introverts. It is their ‘rich inner life.’ Introverts are inward facing and tend to look within themselves rather than gravitating towards outer forces.
It is not that they dislike the company of others. It’s just that by nature, they prefer the safety of quiet environments where they can recharge themselves. Some of the prominent personalities who do not quite seem to be introverted are actually Introverts. Oprah Winfrey is one and so is J K Rowling.
If you are interested to know more about Introversion and Personality types, I highly recommend reading Quiet and Quiet Power by Susan Cain. This is also a great resource if you are confused about your personality type and feel conflicted (we all do).
Coming back to my situation. I wasn’t really shy or afraid to speak. On the contrary, I could discuss my favorite topic for hours with my friends (at times, boring them with my discoveries). I did not always run away from the limelight. In fact, when it came to highlighting some important findings and observations, I loved the limelight (kind of what I am trying to achieve here).
However, going to a conference and walking up to a stranger wasn’t something that I was comfortable with. I could not get myself to make small talks and tangential discussions easily. I struggled with cold calling which I felt was akin to confronting someone. I got exhausted after spending a day talking to strangers and I would cringe at the thought of appearing very friendly to someone I just met.
So I was an introvert trying to make a living by selling stuff. Did I choose the right profession and made the right decision? Every salesperson around me was an extrovert comfortable being surrounded by strangers. They were people’s person. I, on the other hand, would run away from people (strangers, to be precise) given any opportunity. I felt as if my entire day was a staged drama and wanted to run back home to my solitude once the day was over.
I kept ruminating. Is sales a good choice for introverts? Did I have any advantage at all?
3 years down the line and I think I might have found some answers.
First, let’s take a step back and see how sales has evolved over the last few decades. That can help us understand the skills needed to succeed in the profession.
- Prospecting — Earlier, the most popular way to get someone’s attention was a telephone call. You did not have a whole lot of information about an individual and would dial the numbers in the hope of getting to the right person and then making your pitch. It was more a game of hope and luck. Today, however, this has changed drastically. Emails have bypassed phone calls as the default medium of prospecting. People have gone to the extent of saying that cold calling is dead. (I strongly disagree!). Nonetheless, it is difficult to ignore the impact of technology on prospecting. Today, even before you reach out to someone, you have a ton of information available about them at your fingertip. You know exactly the people who are decision-makers in an organization. Warm calls or warm emails have replaced cold calls. There is so much information available out there that the stranger you plan to reach out to no longer is a stranger. You do not really need to have an outgoing personality to be good at prospecting. An inward focused analytical bent of mind at times is better suited for this role.
- Client meetings — Today, no matter what you sell, you are eventually selling solutions to your clients. Solution-based selling has replaced product or service selling. That requires a shift in the way you approach a sales meeting. Sales meetings are to be used to understand clients’ requirements better. This includes understanding the stated and more importantly, exploring and understanding the unstated needs. While this has always been the case, it is more important than ever in today’s sales environment. The sales pitch, which historically, has taken the center stage of a sales meeting now needs to go to a corner and come out only when needed and that too in the context of clients’ problems. Client, more often than not, can find your pitch on your website. On the other hand, the most important skills needed by a seller to ace a sales meeting are: Listening (to understand rather than respond), Questioning and, Empathy. Your solution statement then becomes your sales pitch.
- Thoughtfulness trumps (misplaced) confidence — Confidence is an important personality trait and definitely one in sales. However, today, a salesperson may not necessarily possess the information advantage as they had earlier. So, it makes no sense to be confident about something you aren’t sure of. A client will value your thoughtfulness and hesitation more than your fake confidence. There are times when an “I am not sure about this. Let me get back to you after confirming.” is a better answer than “Of course, that’s totally doable and we/our product can do that.” Most importantly, a lot of times, “No, we can’t do that.” is a better answer for the seller and the buyer than a yes. It might hurt you in the near term but will reward you handsomely in the long run.
If you look at this shift in the sales process, and the skills needed to ace it, you’ll appreciate and see how introverts are not only equally placed for success but they actually might have an advantage.
The ability to sit quietly for an extended period of time and find solutions to the client’s pain points is equally important if not more important than having great social skills and a likable personality.
Having a likable personality helps. It will ensure that the client takes you up on the happy hour invitations. But will they give you the business if you aren’t able to solve their problems? I have my doubts
So, if you are an introvert and have similar doubts, introspect and figure out if you have the skills needed to excel in the new sales environment. More often than not, the answer will be yes. Work on improving those like a woodcutter sharpens his axe. Do not get bogged down by your personality type and give up on what could be a rewarding and lucrative career.
This is not to say that extroverts are now at a disadvantage. This essay is not about taking sides and claiming one personality type is better than the other. It is an attempt at highlighting the changing selling environment and the need for sellers to adapt to it, modify their approach and learn the skills needed to survive and thrive. Irrespective of the personality type.