10 Tips for Being Great at Sales Without Being Sleazy

More than 40 years ago I spent a miserable summer trying to sell encyclopedias door to door. I hated it. I was terrible at it. And I hated the whole mystique of it: There were trainings on how to get through the door and how to trick people into buying what they didn’t need. And there were sales pep talk sessions where we were supposed to cheer on the success of the best liars. 

Then I started my own business. And, lump in my throat or not, nervous sweaty palms or not, I had to make the sales. My business depended on it. And so I did. And, over time, I discovered all that’s good about selling well, and how to sell right. And I had a serendipity moment: it turns out that the right kind of selling is good for you, for your customer, and for your business. Do it right and everybody wins. Here’s how: 

  1. Shut up and listen. This is by far the most important point. The secret to good selling is real listening. Your conversation should be 95% listening. Find out why Joe or Mary contacted you, what they want, what problem they want to solve. Understand their situation. See it through their eyes. 
  2. Don’t ever sell what you don’t believe is good for the buyer. That’s a tough one, I know, in some circumstances. Still, selling something you don’t believe is good for the customer will hurt you and your career on the long run. If you need the job, be careful about it, but start looking for a different job. 
  3. Empathy. Care about the other person. Great sales, put simply, is understanding what that other person wants and helping him or her get it. You care enough to actually want to solve their problem, or point them in the right direction, rather than just tricking them into buying something. And that means caring enough to not make every transaction a sale. Sometimes what you have to sell isn’t what that person needs.  
  4. Know what you’re selling very well. Understand its guts. Understand who wants it, why they want it, what it’s good for, what it isn’t good for, and especially what people might think it does that it doesn’t do. 
  5. Know the substitutes and near competitors very well. For example, as Business Plan Pro was growing up about a decade ago, I’d ask callers whether they really wanted a business plan for their business, or just a use-once-and-throwaway document to put on the banker’s desk in two days. If they really wanted just the cynical document, regardless of content, I’d recommend a competitor’s product. Most businesses have similar situations, people wanting what their own product/service doesn’t do. Know your territory. 
  6. Make your goal helping the other person. Long term, this makes you better, makes you feel better, gives you and your company credibility, and ends up as a win-win situation. 
  7. Look for how your product can solve their problem. See point #2 above. If you’ve got a job selling a bad product, change jobs. If not, then most of the time the steps above will lead to helping somebody buy what you’re selling. This is how sales are made, customers are won, and healthy relationships with customers start. 
  8. Now tell the truth. If what you have to sell solves the problem, hooray, everybody wins. But what if it doesn’t? Here’s where you have to honor the truth and share what you know about solving the problem to help the person you’re talking to. Sending them somewhere else is way better than just making a quick temporary sale. You already know they aren’t going to be a happy customer now, because that’s the way I set this example. So making the sale anyhow just creates a future unhappy customer. Helping them find something else doesn’t hurt your business and might even (long shot, but still) generate a sale later on, because you were credible today. 
  9. Never send people to bad-faith competitors. Just to clarify my example in #5 above, I’m not suggesting you should send somebody off to your competition unless you respect the competition, and it’s clearly differentiated, and you aren’t building up a competitor for no reason. If they’re Thai food in Miami and you’re Thai food in Seattle, no problem. If they’re Thai food next door and offer better food than you, then sales aren’t your real problem. I especially don’t recommend sending people to bad-faith competitors or sleazy substitutes. 
  10. Don’t bad-mouth competitors either. No matter how tempting, even when somebody asks you straight on to compare your offering to your competition, don’t do it. Say you don’t know the competition, or you haven’t tried it, or you think it’s bad business to make comparisons because you love your business too much to be objective. Telling somebody what’s supposedly wrong with the shop next door has too many risks. 

Will this work? Yes. You’ll sell more, you’ll like yourself, you’ll live your company’s values, you’ll build better relationships with customers from the beginning. Everybody wins.