In Real Leaders Don’t Follow, author Steve Tobak explains how real entrepreneurs can start, build, and run successful companies in highly competitive global markets. He provides unique insights from an insider perspective to help you make better-informed business and leadership decisions. In this edited excerpt, Tobak offers his take on the five skills that will make you a super salesperson.
Let me start by telling you there’s no magic to selling. It’s just a critical business function that, for better or worse, has gotten a bad rap. So I’m going to destigmatize it, shatter some popular myths, and share some useful insights learned the hard way, on the job.
After all, selling isn’t rocket science; it’s just a skill set, honed through experience. Most of it’s pretty intuitive because it’s consistent with behavior you’ve learned over the course of your life, although you may not realize it.
The most important thing you need to know is this: Businesses exist for just one purpose, and that’s to win and keep customers. Here’s how real sales leaders build long-term relationships with key customers in competitive markets.
1. You’re not selling used cars.
I remember the day I called my parents to tell them I was transitioning into sales after a decade in engineering management. There was dead silence on the phone, and then my dad said, “You mean like a car salesman?”
“No, Dad,” I said, “I’m going to sell semiconductor chips.”
“What’s the difference?” he asked.
Again silence, but this time it was mine. Not only did I not know the answer, but I’d also been wondering the same thing myself. It turns out there’s an enormous difference.
We all have an image of a salesperson as a fast-talker who will stop at nothing to close a deal, which is usually selling you something you don’t need for more than you can afford.
Today, I see sales in a completely different light: as the fulfillment of a successful business relationship — providing products customers want at a price they are willing to pay. Both parties should be satisfied. If they’re not, you’re doing something wrong.
2. Selling is a marathon, not a sprint.
Selling is a process — an often long and arduous one. The bigger the opportunity, the more strategic the relationship, the longer it takes to make something happen, and the more committed to the effort you need to be to win over the long haul. If you think about it, that’s exactly as it should be. After all, none of the best things in life are ever easy to attain.
On the plus side, big, lucrative long-term opportunities allow more time to build a solid foundation for enduring customer relationships. The risk is bigger, but so is the reward. If you’re a people person who’s good at building relationships and you have the capital to hang in there over the long haul, you’ll have a competitive advantage. Selling is very much a game of give and take. You give a little; you get a little. Rinse and repeat.
Selling is a lot like your career. Come to think of it, it’s a lot like life. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Take your time and do it right. It’ll pay off in the end.
3. Never turn down a paying customer.
The latest feel-good advice making the rounds is that you should be highly selective about the clients you want to engage with. After all, if you have to focus, and you should, then why not focus on the kind of people you want to work with?
Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? It does … if you don’t mind living hand-to-mouth for the rest of your life.
Now when I say never turn down a paying customer, I don’t mean it literally. Of course you need to focus, and there’s obviously more than one criterion for doing business with a customer. That said, you should always be open and flexible for a very important reason: Customers typically know their needs and how you can serve them better than you do. They’re often aware of new trends, and sometimes they come up with market-making breakthroughs.
That’s why the vast majority of successful startups don’t make it big with their first idea. They learn from their customers. They learn from the market. And if they’re smart, they adapt.
4. You’re always selling.
I’d be willing to bet that every single one of you has used persuasive means to get what you want over the years, starting with influencing your parents, siblings, and friends to do your bidding. In all likelihood, you’ve never really stopped.
Whether you’re pitching investors on a new concept, a potential partner on joining you, your board on a risky strategy, or your spouse on supporting your new venture, business owners are always selling something to somebody, more or less.
Think about it. All your stakeholders are customers, in a way. And just as your relationships with stakeholders are not adversarial, your relationships with customers shouldn’t be either. That’s why it’s important to truly believe in your product. You’re actually trying to fulfill your customers’ needs, to do what’s best for both you and them. And you’re probably much better at it than you think.
5. Be your genuine self.
When it comes to selling, most people try too hard. They try too hard to be something they’re not. They try too hard to appear smart. They try too hard to relate personally to customers. They try too hard to make things happen and close the deal.
That’s the opposite of how you should be selling.
Business isn’t about you, what you want, or how fast you want it. It’s about customers: what they need, and when they need it. And customers are real, genuine people. So if you want to engage, connect, and build long-term relationships with them, the best way to do it is for you to be your genuine self.
If you’re too pushy or try to get too personal too quickly, you risk invading their personal space, coming across as slimy, offending them, and turning them off. Instead, pay attention and react to their cues, tone, and body language.
And whatever you do, don’t show off how smart you are. Customers don’t give a crap about how much you know. They just want to know if you have a solution to their problem, if you can fulfill their needs, and whether they can count on you to meet your commitments. That’s why it’s so important for you to find out what their problems and needs are. And you can only do that by asking questions and listening, not by filling the room with the sound of your own voice.
Remember that selling is nothing new; you’ve been doing it your whole life. Just believe in your product, research and prepare, listen to your customers, learn from experience, and have a little common sense. You’ll do fine.
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