Coming out of college I was a nervous wreck — and one with little to no direction. Two things were certain, though:
- I had no money.
- I needed a way to make money, and fast.
At the time, jobs in my field of study were difficult to come by. I was looking for anything and everything. I spotted a commission-based sales job that lured me in. It was mainly the ‘commission’ part that got my attention, to be honest.
I landed the job by preparing extremely well for the interview. I was desperate. And that meant I was exceedingly thorough.
The job was working at a business finance company that compared finance options for SMEs. Before the interview, all the applicants were given some pre-reading to do. I was required to read up about two of the products I’d (hopefully) be selling — purchase order finance and invoice discounting. Instead of doing just that, I researched all 22 products that the company listed on its website.
During the interview, I slipped in a few casual lines in my faux sales pitch about the other products and I got the job right there. They didn’t interview anyone else.
For the next 4 months, I made between 80 and 120 sales calls every single day.
From our call-center software, I spent over 680 hours on the phone in that period. I was doing one thing only: selling.
It was the sharpest learning curve of my career to date. And the most valuable one.
I started as a nervous, introverted, engineering graduate and turned into the most valuable asset of the sales team. (I’m not just blowing my own horn here, I was repeatedly the highest earner in our team.)
So why did I stop after four months? I got promoted to head of business development.
This is what that journey taught me.
#1: Always Follow Up
Starting off with the most important thing I learned: Be persistent.
It is too easy in today’s world to be distracted by things that want your attention. The same is true for potential customers. If a potential customer has shown even a hint of interest in your product, it probably means that with little effort, you could coax them over the line.
If someone said to please send them an email with more information, I’d do that, and then make sure I followed up with a phone call before the end of the business day (or the very next morning if I sent it late in the day). Even if it was just to check if they’d received the email — I made sure I touched base with them.
You might be thinking that’s super annoying if you’re on the receiving end. Sure, it might be. But it also shows the person you are keen on their business and you’re serious about helping them. There’s nothing worse than dealing with salespeople who expect your attention one moment but take two days to reply to an email.
You have to reach out and get what you want — there are no two ways about it.
There was never a delay in contact of more than 24 hours until either the client realized what we could provide was not for them, or they were closed.
Tread the line between being persistent and annoying carefully, though. You can be persistent without being aggressive. For example, if in your first interaction, you notice the client keeps coming back to a particular pain point they need solved, don’t try and sell them on a solution that isn’t guided towards that. And if you don’t have a solution, say so promptly and clearly and move on. You’re not going to win any friends by trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. It’s bad for you and your company.
#2: Be Direct
One of the biggest mistakes I made in my early days was trying to fit a product to a customer that clearly wasn’t suitable.
This comes from not being direct in your approach. You have to know from the outset that you’re not going to get a yes from everyone. And that’s fine. But you need to expect that so that when you get a ‘No’, you can accept it and move on, rather than wasting time on a lead that doesn’t want to be pursued. You should be spending that time finding the next person whose problems you can solve.
By being direct in what you’re offering, and not trying to fit your product to the problem, you’ll quickly get to the bottom of whether it’s worth pursuing a relationship with the prospect.
Here’s one way I quickly gleaned whether or not to continue the conversation with someone, and did not waste their time or mine:
Kate (K): Hello, it’s Kate speaking.
Me (M): Hi Kate, Simon here. I’m calling from Kabbage (example). We provide finance comparisons to help businesses like yours overcome cash flow issues, make acquisitions, or just provide funds for general day to day working capital. Is this something we could do for you?
K: Interesting you say that, we’re looking to acquire a few new delivery vehicles, is that something you can help with?
M: Absolutely. We have a number of clients who have successfully used our vehicle finance partners to finance vehicle acquisitions. Can I take you through the different products we can offer you and we can go from there?
The first question is the most important one. By mentioning the business I was representing and what we can offer as a solution, the person on the other end of the phone immediately knows whether it’s something their business needs.
Being direct is always the best.
This ties in with the next step but deserves its own mention.
Set your ego aside and listen. Listen properly, too. Listen to gain a true understanding of what the person on the other end of the phone is trying to tell you.
Most important of all: Don’t listen to respond, because then you’re not listening at all.
Without listening properly, you’re not going to know what questions to ask. In my experience, asking the right questions is the most important step in selling someone successfully. The next section is going to show you why.
#4: Don’t Sell, Sympathize
Fact: No one wants to be sold.
People do, however, want their problems to be heard.
We’re all intrinsically narcissistic beings. We all think mostly about ourselves. The easiest thing to talk about then is ourselves. When you try and put your wants/needs onto someone without first giving them some air-time, it’s a slap in the face to their ego; “Woah, what about me?”
There was no sweeter moment for me than when I used to ask people about the problems their business was facing and their answers aligned directly with what we were offering.
Here’s an example conversation (without the preamble that got us here):
Me (M): So, Katherine, what are some of the bigger challenges you face when it comes to running and growing your business?
Katherine (K): Well one of our biggest issues is cash flow. We have big corporate clients whose payment terms are often 60 to 120 days and that leaves us with orders to fill on a big cash deficit.
M: *GRIN* That’s a common problem among a lot of businesses I’ve spoken to, you’re definitely not alone there. We’ve actually got a specific product that helps businesses like yours get that cash paid quicker than you would otherwise. Can I briefly run you through that and then we can get back to some other issues you might have?
K: Sure, I’d love to hear about it, but I don’t really have the time right now, can you send me an email?
M: No problem at all. Please can I have your email address?
K: Sure: firstname.lastname@example.org.
M: Thanks Katherine, I’ll pop you through an email right away and follow up with you by the end of today. Thanks for taking the time and I look forward to working with you further.
By asking the right questions, you’re bringing the person to the conclusion themselves. That way, when you offer your product as a solution to their conclusion, it seems like it’s the natural progression — they’re solving their own problem — all you’ve done is helped them do it.
Once you get to this point, you’re 90% of the way to the close, and it’s downhill from there.
Sales experience is a great people-skills teacher. I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking to start their own business, or just become a better business-person. I don’t think much equates, in terms of time spent for the value return, to sales experience. It gives you invaluable skills in handling and managing people that come in handy in a huge array of situations.
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