Why is “selling” such a loaded word? Why is it that to some people, the word borders on an insult: a term denoting a base form of human activity, while for others it’s a job done by losers who can’t get a better one? People with those attitudes can often justify their prejudices, yet, mostly, they’re doing nobody, including themselves, any favors. For one thing, it obviously makes no sense to tar every salesperson with the same brush. But, more importantly, by doing so, people are denigrating themselves. First, let’s have an impartial look at the different kinds of salespeople.
Most salespeople are good communicators skilled at making enthusiastic pitches that often deliver sales. They’ll only be great sellers, however, if their sales strategy is based on integrity. Then they sell only what they believe in, and always make two sales simultaneously. They first sell themselves, and then they sell the product or service. People trust them because they sense their credibility and honesty, and it’s that trust that closes the sale.
In addition to integrity, exceptional salespeople need other qualities: self-confidence, excellent communication skills, a neat appearance and in-depth knowledge of the product or service. The first three are the most important. They’re about the salespeople themselves, and, if salespeople can’t sell themselves, they’ll struggle to sell anything else. Integrity creates the self-confidence which underpins good communication. A neat appearance also promotes self-confidence, but more importantly, it shows respect for the other person.
Bad salespeople frequently lack the most important quality: integrity; and they misunderstand the others. They think a sharp suit and slick patter make the sale. When it doesn’t, they wonder why they fail. They fail mainly because they don’t believe in their own message and most potential buyers see through them regardless of how clever their spiel may be. Of course, most unsuccessful salespeople are not dishonest and not all honest ones are successful. But it’s mainly the charlatans who give honest salespeople a bad name. They’re also one of the main reasons selling is regarded by many as a particularly pressurized occupation. It’s bound to be stressful if you spend your time telling half-truths and being evasive, and then trying to cover your tracks. Good salespeople act like advisers helping buyers make informed choices, not con men out to make commission by fair means or foul. Their approach is challenging, but not stressful, and it produces many more sales.
Selling can be narrowly defined as offering a product or service for sale in exchange for money. But that’s no longer the only meaning people assign to the word, nor is it the most important one. By far the most widely used meaning is that selling is any act of persuading or convincing, and that definition describes the way in which we all interact with each other much of the time. That’s what I meant in the first paragraph, when I said that we denigrate ourselves if we denigrate all salespeople.
We’re selling ourselves whenever we try to put across our point of view to others, whether at a job interview, on a date, with the bank manager, at a business meeting or a political rally. We often do it even in the relaxed company of our family and friends, when we’re involved in a lively discussion, usually switching roles from seller to buyer every few minutes. One way or the other, we’re all in sales, so we should be constantly selling ourselves. It’s not about boasting; it’s about ensuring that those we meet are aware of our strengths.
Some of the most convincing salespeople of all are politicians. They need to be because what they sell is the most intangible of commodities: promises. The world’s biggest “promise selling” campaign – the job application with the biggest interview panel, you might say – is the US presidential election. The money spent backing each candidate’s case may be substantial, but in the end, each candidate has to sell himself to 200 million people through the power and sincerity of his words.
No selling comes under such intense scrutiny as does political selling. Politicians’ first responsibility is to tell the truth, but they have a huge task convincing people that that’s what they’re doing. Politicians rarely get away with being dishonest, and the higher up the political ladder they climb, the more difficult their task becomes. The reason is the media and the Internet. Every word spoken and every deed done almost since childhood are scrutinized by opponents and the media; any inconsistency is magnified and spreads like wildfire online.
The Internet has similarly changed the world of selling goods and services. It enables many more con artists ply their trade, but their spiel is much less likely to fool potential buyers because buyers are better informed and can easily compare the offerings of many competing sellers. More importantly, buyers can publicly rate and post comments about their experiences of different sellers. Badly rated sellers don’t stay in business very long and the good ones – the ones most likely to have a high level of integrity – are rewarded with more business.
Before the Internet, buyers had little choice but to rely on the assurances of salespeople. Mixed in with the good ones and the bad ones, charlatans abounded, hence the warning “let the buyer beware.” The buying environment has changed significantly because of mass communication and the Internet. Now, the seller has to be just as wary as the buyer. The result is a level playing field, where all sellers have little choice but to tell the truth. For some of those sellers, it’s a sort of forced integrity. Nevertheless it’s good news for the buyers, who are more likely than ever before to get what they pay for.