Ending the Sales Struggle

Selling and Breathing, Simultaneously.

One of my very first jobs was as a cashier for SAAN department store (the small-town version of a Walmart or Zellers). I was great at many aspects of the job, but every now and then management would throw in a sales challenge. They would put something arbitrary on my counter and tell me to encourage impulse purchases.

sellingFew demands could be in greater conflict with my personality. I’ve always had a severe aversion to imposing on people and would fall behind all of the other cashiers with my sales “successes” every single time. In fact, I can’t think of anything up to that point in life that I had been so embarrassingly horrible at (except for maybe dodgeball in gym class).

I re-encountered sales later in my marketing career, but was always part of a team and, luckily, never really had to initiate a sale.

But when I started my business three years ago, I felt myself once again, sweaty palmed, feeling silly on the sales floor. Any time I felt a potential sale coming on, I would inadvertently see myself transform into a squirming, wishy-washy mess, grossly discounting the value of my services because I was so afraid of getting a “no”.

It was truly embarrassing, because I wasn’t representing myself accurately at all. I missed out on some great potential clients as a result (and ended up with some less-than favourable deals, too).

This didn’t change on its own. There were some deliberate actions I took and lessons I had to learn to become a better seller. Here’s what really helped me out:

Lesson #1: Not everybody is a potential client.

When you’re new in business, you’re bound to hear that “everybody you meet is a potential client.” For me, freedom came when I decided to throw that out the window.

New contacts are not potential clients, they are potential conversations.

Those conversations can lead to an array of things: friendship, collaboration, helping them on the spot, or even you hiring them. Leave space for all possibilities, and the pressure to sell evaporates. If you do get the chance to help them on the spot, they may be primed to want to stay in touch and sign up for your mailing list. That, right there, is a very successful “sale”.

Lesson #2: Structure the conversation.

My friend Majeed introduced me to a sales tool called the Opportunity Audit by Tom Stoyan. It involves creating a checklist of all of the potential issues that are a) on your customers’ worry list, and, b) fit your value or expertise. You start it off with a key question related to their ultimate desire, and have them select which issues are most relevant to their current situation. Here’s an excerpt from the audit I developed for my brand consulting sales conversations:

Where do you think your business could use some improvement?

  • Improved decisiveness about the direction of the business
  • A clearer definition of our greater business purpose/mission
  • Differentiating more drastically from our competition
  • A clearer definition of our ideal customer

Simply going through the process of itemizing all of the issues in this way was a big deal, but I’ve put this work into action as well by turning it into a mini-assessment that I ask potential clients to fill out prior to a virtual coffee date.

There are three benefits to this. First, it reinforces what I do in their minds so they can do a preliminary self-assessment on whether they actually need my services. Second, it gets them clear on where they’re really stuck so that they are more ready to take action. And finally, it gives me what I need to structure our call in a way that removes a lot of the unknown and allows me to start delivering value immediately.

This has been a game-changer for my business.

Lesson #3: Gift Yourself Some Confidence

There is, no doubt, going to be an individual element to how this needs to happen. For me, there were two big factors in finally gaining the confidence I needed to enter these conversations with a healthy heart-rate.

First, practice!

I was so lucky to enlist the help of my friend Jason Billows on overcoming this sales wall, and he challenged me to do 10 pretend sales conversations in one week.

Simple, but scary and absolutely necessary. Equipped with my sales opportunity audit, I embarked very hesitantly on this task.

The first call was still pretty painful, though the structure of the opportunity audit really helped. The second call was much better. By the tenth call, I was unintentionally closing sales!

“No” is not a bad thing.

The second confidence-booster was overcoming the big fear I alluded to earlier: hearing a “no”.

I learned to appreciate the word instead.

What helped was the hard-earned lesson that the wrong “yes” can be worse in the long run than getting a disappointing “no”. It was when I started dishing out a few of my own no-thank-yous that this really sunk in, and I stopped seeing a lack of sale as a failure.

My guess is that most business owners wait too long before getting particular about who they work with or sell to. Embrace this earlier, even in the face of discomfort and lost sales, and you’ll more quickly start getting to a “yes” with the right people.

Your Sales Training

Want to put some of these lessons into action so that you can start selling your services like a pro? Here’s what I suggest you do:

  1. Turn off your default “everyone is a possible sale” setting. Each new contact is a possible conversation. (Tweet that out!)
  2. Create a structure to follow for calls with potential clients, and have them self-assess their suitability as much as possible. Start by listing out what their ultimate desire is and the individual issues that your customers are facing that you can help with. You can see my full audit for inspiration on my Virtual Coffee Date page.
  3. If confidence is an issue (and if you’re struggling with sales, it very likely is), set up some fake practice sessions with friends.
  4. Figure out what you’re really afraid of. It might take some time to overcome the fear, but looking it in its face is going to be a worthy first step.
  5. If you have all of this down, there’s potentially a disconnect in your brand message, your credibility factor, or the structure of your offerings. Take an objective look at what’s going on, talk to your potential clients for added insight, and get experimental. Don’t hide away for a month trying to perfect your sales copy. Instead, do some quick and dirty experiments to validate the value of a new idea that might resonate better with your target market.

Selling is a reality for business owners, but, when you overcome the common fears and misconceptions, it stops feeling like selling and starts being just another way to help people.

Help continue the conversation in the comments below. What have been your biggest hang-ups with the sales process? What’s caused your breakthroughs?