Overcoming Stereotypes and Redefining the Sale

“I could never be in sales”

I play a word-association game with new clients all the time. I ask what the first few words are that come to mind when I say the word “salesperson.”

I hear things like “manipulative,” “not trustworthy,” “fast talker,” or “commission.” 

Do a Google image search for just about any term, and you’ll get a literal picture of the collective unconscious on the subject. Salesperson is no different. Not surprisingly, you see photos of people with prominent smiles, big handshakes, and suggestions of hidden motives. No wonder…

The predominant thought, though it is definitely changing, still exists that a salesman is out to take your money, give you something far less valuable in return, and convince you that it’s the other way around. It’s no wonder that people don’t aspire to associate themselves with people like that. If that’s what it takes to be in sales, then I don’t want to be in sales either.

I’ll defend the stereotypical used car salesman, or at least his motives, briefly… If you walked on his lot, his only goal was to get you to drive off it. He knew you were never coming back, regardless of your experience. That’s how he fed his family, nefarious tactics or not.

The truth is, those kinds of approaches aren’t very effective anymore. Used car dealerships like that are almost as difficult to find anymore as pay phones. The advent of technology has rendered most of them obsolete. You’ve undoubtedly updated your phone and your car over the last few years. Sales professionals have greatly updated the way they sell too- they’ve had to.

Most salespeople, particularly in business to business (B2B) roles, rely on repeat business and customer retention. Sales are more than transactions, they’re relationships. You certainly can’t foster a relationship with the underhanded tactics mentioned above.

Another conflict likely exists in your mind too… You personally know some salespeople. You have a friend, a neighbor, a family member in a professional selling role, and you like her. You trust her. You’d even buy something from her if you were in a position to do so. That conflict means there’s more to selling than you may be able to appreciate right now. I think it’s time to dig a little deeper, and explore what it means to sell.

To redefine selling, we need to redefine the sale. Brian Tracy says that “a sale is nothing more than a transfer of enthusiasm from one party to another.” This is my favorite definition. There really isn’t a whole lot more to it than that, and most sales that are made don’t even involve money.

Ever recommend something to a friend? When they go see that film, or listen to that song, or try that restaurant, you’ve made a sale. You probably didn’t earn a commission, but when they told you that they loved it too, you smiled. It feels good to have a happy customer.

Maybe you were 17 and asked for the car keys on a Friday night… Maybe you asked that guy or girl to go out with you… Maybe you asked for a raise at work… These kinds of interactions happen all the time, but you don’t think of them as sales calls, even though they fit this new, broader, more pragmatic definition of selling. It turns out, we’re all in sales, even if we don’t do it professionally.

If a sale is nothing more than a transfer of enthusiasm, then selling is connecting with and helping people with your enthusiasm. You’ve got a solution that solves a problem or creates a better state for the kind of people or companies you serve. Yes, I said serve. It’s your job to get the word out and help implement these solutions that make others successful.

The more consistently you act in this regard, the more trust you’re able to build with your customers. The more trustworthy you are, and the more valuable your service, the more likely your customers are to do business with you again and refer their friends. That’s how a successful business grows.

I was reluctant to begin a sales career. I had all of the same superstitions mentioned above. When I looked a little harder at what it takes to be successful, I saw a lot of the same character traits that I already identified with. Instead of “self-interested, manipulative, and slimy,” I saw “intelligent, problem solver, and service-oriented.” It’s funny what happens when you look at something through a different lens.

Selling is not something you do to somebody. It’s something you do with somebody, for somebody. Redefining for yourself what selling is, and using broad a umbrella like “a transfer of enthusiasm” keeps the spirit of the action intact while giving you the freedom to do it in a way that makes you feel good about it. If you don’t feel good about what you do, then you’ll never be able to do it well.

Maybe it’s true that you could never be in sales. What’s more likely is that you’ve been selling all along, but didn’t know to call it that.