I have a colleague. She’s an amazing market researcher. She has an uncanny knack for locating the key opinion leaders in certain sectors and interviewing them. As a result, she delivers real insight to her clients. Sharp, game-changing kind of insights.
She’s a geek, with low interpersonal skills. She’s also really good at what she does. I believe those two are connected, because of the sector she works in.
My firm offers these types of research services too—as an ancillary offering. But compared to her abilities, we’re still in high school. So there are synergies between our firms, and we bring her in when the situation requires, like we did on a recent project. She’s been looking to “return the favor,” and introduce us to one of her prospects.
So yesterday, I flew to Philly to meet with one of her prospects. “They’re ready to buy,” she said. “I need you there, and they really need your services.” I asked her some questions. Yes, the decision makers were going to be present. Yes, the project was scope-able. They needed some deep insight from her research, and they’d be ready for the services of my firm. They just got bought by a venture capital firm, had lots of money, and needed to make some strategic decisions quickly about M&A. According to her, the situation was clear.
The situation looked very different when I got in the room. I’m not sure the prospect saw her as the expert. And my colleague wanted to show her deep expertise, but apparently didn’t know how to do this except by talking in overly broad generalities about her (poorly communicated) process or by giving away specific insights into the prospect’s current situation, which she, rightfully, didn’t want to do. So in the meeting, she flopped back and forth, first seeming a little desperate and then clamming up.
I tried to help, but it was her meeting, and I didn’t feel comfortable wrenching the steering wheel out of her hands.
On the way back to the airport, she mused, “I wonder why they didn’t ask for my presentation deck?” I was explaining why I would never leave my deck when two insights hit me.
First, sales ability is not innate; however, it can be learned. Even by someone who is (more than a bit of) a geek. Sales ability rests on some foundational principles and core attitudes. Then you can layer on some behaviors and language.
This first insight sounds so obvious, particularly coming from someone who is a sales coach. But it’s true: these principles, attitudes, behaviors, and language can be learned. You don’t have to be a “born salesperson,” as if such a person ever really exists.
Second, sales prowess is really hard to learn by yourself. My colleague is an expert in her field. But the prospects she meets with have no interest in training her how to be better at sales. In fact, they do everything they can to keep her in a position of low power. So she invests too much in the sale. She hasn’t positioned herself as indispensable. She undervalues and underprices her services. But she’s a true expert; there’s no reason she couldn’t be closing more work at higher prices.
Sales prowess can be learned. I know because I learned it. I identify with my colleague because, in many ways, I’m her. Or I used to be. Years ago, when I brought a new business consultant into my firm to improve my skills, he told me, “With your personality profile, you have no business being in sales of any kind.” He agreed to teach me anyway. Years later, when that consultant turned his Win Without Pitching consulting practice into a training company and began hiring coaches, I was the first one he hired. If I can learn to sell, anybody can. But I couldn’t have done it without help, and I suspect my colleague won’t either.
Without help, you’ll stumble, too, just like my colleague did in Philly, with no clue why the prospect “didn’t ask for my slides.”
With the right support, anyone can learn to sell. Even if you’re a geek. Even if you’re not a natural born salesperson. Even if you’re told, “you have no business being in sales of any kind.”