Thought Leadership Resources

#78 What working in sales taught me about thought leadership

Are you working hard on being recognized as a subject-matter expert or thought-leader in your field? And you haven’t yet been invited to address the Davos conference, write an opinion piece in The Economist, or give a TED talk?

I know what that’s like. I’m on my own journey towards being recognized for my area of expertise, and it’s a long climb up the hill.

Along my business career, I’ve always been glad of the time I spent in business-to-business sales. Not that it was easy. Many people give up on sales work, particularly at the start, when the learning curve is steep and the amount of rejection is discouraging.

This post is about lessons I learned from selling, that you can apply to building your profile as a subject-matter expert.

This came up when I was asked to respond to a request on Quora, which is a sort of wiki of questions-and-answers on a huge range of topics. The question was, “After finishing my MBA from a top business school and leaving a job after a year stuck in a sales job, what should I do?

I replied that, I know that feeling. I graduated with an MBA from the University of Toronto, Canada in 1991, when the economy was near the bottom of a recession. While some of my friends in the program slid smoothly into jobs with banks and packaged goods companies, some of us floundered.

I’d taken the MBA program to get out of the sales work I’d been doing, and here I was, going back to doing the same kind of work as before. Eventually, I was able to get some clarity around my way forward, and used that sales experience as a springboard to move into marketing, and now a consulting practice of my own.

Now, I’m scrambling up a whole bunch of learning curves at once – social media, content marketing, online learning and a few more. Maybe you feel the same. If that’s the case, I hope you can learn from some of the life lessons I picked up through doing sales.

Invest in continuous learning

When I was thinking of going into sales work, I consulted with a friend in the business. He suggested picking a company that offered a good in-house training program for new salespeople. It was good advice.

I found a company selling office equipment – photocopiers and what was at the time the leading-edge technology of fax machines, which offered a month-long training package along with mentoring of new salespeople. There were six of us in the training program, taught classroom style, with a generous amount of role-playing and practice. It made a huge difference. Some beginning salespeople just get handed a stack of business cards and are told to go forth and prosper. Not surprisingly, many of them produce dismal results, and don’t last long.

With the training program, the early months were hard, but at least I knew what steps I needed to take in order to succeed.

Some of what we were taught in the program didn’t mesh with my personal value system (see below for more on that), but I gained a great deal from my investment in learning. During the rest of my time in sales, I continued to learn – through books, videos and presentations by sales superstars held in hotel ballrooms.

I’ve continued to invest in learning – finding out what knowledge I’m missing, and then finding ways to close those gaps.

Your learning: Take the time to determine what you need to know in order to succeed, and then invest time and money in learning those skills. This could include earning a designation you don’t have now, such as a PMP, or a certification around a specific type of audit. If it’s self-directed learning, take a realistic look at yourself to see how you learn best – perhaps it’s online courses, in-person classroom settings, or printed books. It may be a combination. But invest in learning what you need to succeed, and don’t make it a one-off event – make life-long learning a reality for you.

Focus on the process, and the outcomes will arrive

One of the most durable lessons I picked up from my first sales training program was around the power of dogged, determined application of what works.

We were told about the power of implementation – that once we’d determined the right steps to take, it’s important to start taking those steps. Just keep pushing along, and eventually we’d start to see success.

It wasn’t easy — cold-calling companies to sell office equipment never is. But as our instructor said, I just focused on making those calls, and eventually I started to make sales. Then more sales.

This was a valuable lesson, and I still use it today. Focus on the input factors you can measure. When in sales, I was counting my number of cold calls a week. I learned that for a given number of cold calls, I’d get a given number of appointments. Of those appointments, a given number would turn into sales. But it all hinged on making my target number of cold calls each week.

Now, I’m more likely to look at trends in my Google Analytics, the number of blog subscribers, the “open” rate on the e-mails, and other such data. I just go on putting in the work that I’ve determined will lead to success, and ignoring the outcomes.

I touched on this idea – that what matters is dedicated slogging, not brilliance – in Post #75 about how to get a book started. One of the tips is to “blog your book,” which means writing your blog or other content in a way that the text can be incorporated into your book.

Your learning: Find out what works for you in developing your expertise and being recognized for it. Maybe that includes picking projects based not on what you’ll “earn” from the work, but from what you’ll “learn.” Or, it could be that you’ll chose to work with certain people based on what skills and experience they can provide, rather than whether you enjoy their company.


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It gets better

In my first week of sales, I made 26 cold calls, and got just ONE appointment. The next week, the same number of calls but, TWO appointments, eventually, I was getting one appointment with a customer for every four calls I made. That still means getting turned down three-quarters of the time, but it’s a big improvement over one in 26.

That’s true in all of business. The starting-out is the hardest, because that’s when you know the least, so your effectiveness is the worst it’ll ever be. You can become more successful with time, but the key is that you need to use that time wisely. You need to learn from your mistakes and apply the learning. In a similar way, you can learn from what works, and you can learn from other people. Many companies will pair a newbie salesperson with a more experienced salesperson, and this is a big help.

One company I worked with had, as part of its culture, a rule that after every encounter with a customer we’d find a quiet place to make notes on “Three things I did well, and one thing I’d do differently.” I still do that.

Eventually, you learn more, you build connections with people, you find shortcuts and discover what doesn’t work, and, yes, it gets better.

Selling teaches you to not put much attention on your current reality — to understand that where you start out is not where you end up. That is, if you continue to focus on implementing the right process, in order to build that better future.

Your learning: With time and application, your success rate will improve. The key factor is analyzing your performance, learning from other people, and diligent skills development from formal sources in order to apply the lessons learned.

Find out what works for you, and focus on that

As part of the sales course, we were taught “closing.” That’s getting the customer to agree to the purchase. What I found disturbing is that the assumption was that the customer didn’t want to buy the product -- that they had to somehow be manipulated into agreeing. And in office equipment, that’s sometimes the case – these can be big-ticket items for a small business, even if the equipment is leased.

In the training program, I duly learned fancy closes such as the “puppy dog” close. It’s based on the idea of a pet shop that tells the parents in a family, “Take the puppy home for the night. If your children don’t want it, you can bring it back.” Of course, nobody wants to pull a puppy out of their children’s arms – so the dog had a new home.

One of the closes we were taught was the “order form close” – if the customer seems even slightly interested, the salesperson just pulls out an order form and starts filling it out, explaining that this is the best way to keep the information straight. Then, when the form is completed, hand it to the customer along with a pen – in hopes that they’ll just sign it.

When I got close to my first sale, I brought my sales manager along for what I hoped would be the meeting at which we’d make the sale. I’d worked hard to build a relationship with the members of a family business, and felt that there was a strong level of trust there. So I was horrified when my sales manager just calmly pulled out an order form and proceeded to fill it out, in front of the office manager. I felt he was abusing the trust I’d carefully nurtured.

When he was done, he handed the form to the manager, who actually went ahead and signed – just like we’d been taught. Well, I had my first sale, but I resolved that in future, I’d do my work in a way that actually matched my values.

I don’t do any fancy closes in my business now. I just work with my prospective clients until we agree that it makes sense to work together. That was a lesson I learned – learn what you can, but then adapt it to what works for you.

I use this now in thought leadership content. Some people have great success with webinars, live video via Facebook Live or Periscope, or Twitter. I find my best way to present ideas and serve my community is with a blog. I use other platforms too, but blogging works for me.

Your learning: Think of what works for you in terms of building your profile. Consider what others have to suggest, but be true to what works for you – your values and your skills.

Keep your skills up to date

It used to be that business-to-business sales could be done by salespeople “calling on” prospective and current customers – just go to the customer’s place of business, and the salesperson could reasonably expect to get a meeting right then (or maybe after a short wait) with someone in charge.

That way of working is long gone. That was the case even when I started in sales in the late 1980s. We were calling on small, one-story manufacturing and service businesses, the kind with a receptionist in front. Our strategy was to go to the desk, announce ourselves and then try to get the business card of the office manager, leaving ours with Reception. Then, we’d call back by phone to try to set up an appointment. Only rarely would we be able to get a meeting right then.

Now, I sell more by building my own reputation online as someone with solutions to offer, so that when I talk with a prospective client, there’s a good chance they’ve already heard of me and read something I’ve written. Social media are also a big part of success.

About five years ago, when I realized how important some of the new social media tools were to my business, I decided to take steps to update my toolbox. So I talked with a young woman in my church, asking her if she knew of anyone who could provide some one-on-one instruction in social media. She recommended some of her acquaintances, and that’s how I ended up working with a twentysomething I’ll call “Janet.”

She came to the meeting well prepared, with notes in big loopy schoolgirl handwriting. Janet coached me through the steps for setting up profiles on several new platforms that she determined would be where my prospective clients would be found.

I still work with a Virtual Assistant, as well as a coach/business manager who make recommendations on platforms such as Instagram and Facebook Live. I also read a lot, and watch webinars on current best practice. I’ve discussed in greater depth the kinds of writing professionals who can help you along your way, in Post #73 of my own blog.

Your learning: No matter what your age, you need to take the steps necessary to make sure your business development skills are up to date. Do this however you can – hire someone to help, as I did; take courses; avail yourself of the huge range of free information available on sites such as Social Media Examiner and the Content Marketing Institute. Then, be sure you apply that learning.

To conclude…

Anyone in business for them is going to have to do some selling. So, what have you learned about the sales process, that you can apply to building your expertise as a thought-leader? Please share your ideas in the comments section.

 

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Carl Friesen

Carl is the Founder of the Thought Leadership Resources and helps business professionals gain the skills they need to build their profile as subject-matter experts and thought leaders.

You can connect with Carl on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter

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