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Parkin Space: Selling Skills for All


I was asked recently if I could turn a selling skills workshop into a ‘persuasive skills for non-sales professionals’ course, targeted mainly at people who do in-house presentations. Such people need to persuade others to accept budgets, endorse plans, change their views on strategy, and so on. At first glance this seems like a trivial task, and I have run many ‘persuasive presentations’ courses in the past. But the more you get into it, the more you realize that a simple transformation of a sales course is fraught with assumptions. Core principles hold true, but the contexts and learning environments of non-sales people vary widely.

Sales people are driven. Their jobs, and their income level, depend on their ability to sell. They have reasonably clear, observable objectives. Their job is to sell their defined product range to their defined target market, over and over again. They live in a finite bubble, and have the luxury of being able to get to know the features and benefits of their products, and of their competitors’ products. They have the time and focus to get to know the needs and circumstances of their customers. They know what constitutes a closed sale, and what constitutes a milestone on the path to that sale. They get to develop a specific set of skills that helps them navigate a potential customer from indifference to enthusiastic commitment. And every success or failure has lessons that can be applied directly to the next sales encounter.

Training salespeople is relatively easy. Training a non-salesperson to think like a salesperson is tricky. You have to start by tearing down false perceptions of what selling is, and building an understanding of how an accountant, say, or a product manager, can be more persuasive without becoming unbearable. It’s astonishing how many people I have talked to about this still think that you have to be a ‘fast talker’ to be a salesperson. It’s equally astonishing how many people’s first reaction is to emphatically announce that they could never sell anything.

I have worked in both the US and the UK, and, at the risk of stereotyping both cultures, I have noticed some broad differences between them in the way successful non-salespeople go about ‘getting their way’ within corporations. In the US, it’s all done with assertiveness; in the UK it is done with lobbying. Americans push to get their way, and if there is resistance, they push harder, dominating the conversation and getting the support of fence-sitters by looking like they know what they are doing. In the UK, there is more often a bottom-up momentum gathering, using informal means to get enough decision-influencers on-side before the meeting in which the case is to be made.

Both approaches work. But the proportion of people in a company that can use them successfully is small. The lone crusader can get shouted down by colleagues who are working on their own assertiveness. And it’s not easy to be an effective lobbyist. But the instinct to lobby reveals a far more professional approach to selling than the urge to bully.

As anyone who has ever done any sales training knows, persuasive communication involves asking questions and listening to the answers, rather than talking about your product. It requires you to want to get inside your prospect’s head and see their situation through their eyes. And it involves a gentle process of leading them to talk about the issues that you know your product can address, getting them to anticipate or visualize a situation in which the problem has been resolved or the opportunity exploited, and having them tell you that such a situation is preferable to where they are today.

Only then does the salesperson talk about his/her solution, and only when the prospect expresses a desire for the solution does the salesperson talk about his/her product. And, from a selling strategy perspective, a good salesperson finds out about the decision-making process, and “lobbies” all of the relevant influencers to build support for the sales case.

The salesperson helps the prospect to clarify the relevant issues, instead of blundering in and pushing the product. That process is universal to consultative selling, and it is extremely effective.

The approach can be taught to non-salespeople, and is applicable to persuasive communication within a company. But how to teach it? The learning model would be similar to that used with a group of salespeople – cycles of concepts, examples, testing, application, and role-play. But there would be one major difference. Each participant would have to create much of their own content, because, unlike in a “sales course”, all participants will typically have different things to get persuasive about, and different target audiences to persuade. The core skills and conceptual part will remain the same, but the preparation and application of the skills will vary widely.

Do we really want people in our organizations who are more persuasive, who listen to our situation, who probe to understand where we are coming from, who try to tailor a recommendation to our needs, and who seek to make decision-making easy for us? That, to me, would be heaven.

Read more of Godfrey's columns at his TrainingZONE Parkin Space


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