Liberate Your Inner Salesperson

Effective selling is just a shift in attitude and perspective


Executive Summary:
To be effective at their jobs, even IT pros need to understand the fundamentals of sales. The success of an IT project hinges as much on selling the project as it does on the technology. Relationship building and persuasion form the foundation of selling. Hear what the customer is really asking. Sell an experience or benefit related to the product rather than the product itself. Eliminate all the reasons a customer might choose an alternative to what you're selling.


As Blake, the quintessential real estate salesman, scolds a group of underperforming colleagues in David Mamet's brilliant movie about the art and war of sales, Glengarry Glen Ross, he says, "Put that coffee down! Coffee is for closers only."

Sales is a different beast altogether from the land of routers, servers, and Ethernet cards. In fact, many of us went into IT specifically to get out of sales. But that's not to say we never have to sell. More than we might like, even in IT we have to sell our solutions and services to other business groups and IT consumers in our organization. Whenever you need something from someone who might not be inclined to give it to you, you'll benefit by understanding how to sell.

In the world at large, sales is about getting a customer to pay the most he or she is willing and able to pay for a good or service. In IT, sales is more about convincing a business group to replace an old line of business (LOB) application with a new one, getting a manager to sign off on a new rack of servers, or even persuading another IT group to use a different process or platform. Like it or not, the success of many IT projects hinges less on the technical quality of the solution than it does on selling the project to those who will implement it. As Blake later tells his cohorts, first prize in the sales contest is a Cadillac, second prize is a set of steak knifes, and third prize is "You're fired." Here are four essential tips for unleashing your inner salesperson.

Tip 1: Master the Basics

Sales is one part relationship building and one part persuasion. Relationship building is the art of acquiring potential customers and warming them up for the pitch, and persuasion is the science of closing the deal.

In the relationship phase, a good salesperson builds a foundation of trust and credibility. Salespeople generally build trust by finding things they have in common with their customers and progressively exchanging more information. For instance, upon finding out that a customer is from an area the salesperson is familiar with, the salesperson might share an anecdote about his or her experiences there, thereby starting a relationship around a common geographical area or culture. Before moving to the persuasion phase, an effective salesperson also establishes credibility with regard to the product he or she is trying to sell. The most common way salespeople do that is by reciting specification details for the product they're selling and demonstrating the benefits. If the salesperson can't establish credibility as a source of information, the buyer's doubt will likely prevail.

In the persuasion phase, the salesperson concentrates on the benefits the product. The objective is to make the customer feel so good about deciding to buy the product that he or she can't wait to sign on the dotted line.

In the relationship building and persuasion phases, you need to be energetic, assertive, and relentlessly positive. You're priming the customer or stakeholder to make a big decision, and if he or she isn't excited, empowered, and smiling inside and out, you probably won't close the deal. If you don't believe—and clearly project—that your product or idea is the greatest thing since the integrated circuit, you certainly can't expect your customer to think so.

Tip 2: Hear What the Customer is Really Saying

Customers always have questions. They want to know what they're getting, what they're not getting, and how the solution will perform for them in the ways that they'll want to use it.

The catch is that customers rarely ask the questions that they really want answered. You need to listen carefully to what the customer asks and answer not only the stated question, but also the real question that underlies it. For example, when considering a new LOB application that your group has developed, a business manager might ask you how many transactions per second your application can achieve. The technical geek in you will be tempted to say something like "on a fiber-optic network, the server can do up to 1,500tps." But that response, while informative, doesn't answer the question the business manager really wants answered.

Although the business manager asked about transactions per second, she actually wants to know whether your application will have the performance that her group needs. The answer you should give to this question (if you truthfully can) is that your application can scale to whatever throughput her business can generate. If business doubles in capacity, you can double the transactions per second. If her business doesn't grow (which of course you could never imagine), your application can be right-sized to meet the group's needs.

Tip 3: Sell the Freedom, Not the Car

A great salesperson doesn't sell the product but rather an experience or emotion related to it. Cars are the best example of how this sales principle works.

One car is very much like another, but from watching automobile ads and listening to car salesmen, you'd never know that. For example, if you're in the market for a convertible, the salesperson sells sunny days, hair blowing in the wind, and freedom. If you're shopping for a gas-electric hybrid, the salesperson sells clean water, rainforests, and Earth Day. And if a luxury sedan is more your style, the salesperson sells reputation, status, and country clubs.

Selling IT is no different. Say your company call center's legacy ticketing application costs twice as much to manage as would the up-to-date version of the product. You'd like the call center to upgrade the application, but the call center managers might hesitate to disrupt business continuity.

Now you must become a salesperson. If you want the call center to upgrade its ticketing application, start by finding out how the call center managers' performance is measured, then sell the benefits of the application that relate to those metrics rather than the application's benefits to your team. For instance, if you find that the managers are evaluated on call turnaround times, sell the speed of the new application. If they are evaluated on uptime, sell the application's fault tolerance. The bottom line is that the call center is going to use some application—you just want it to be the one that you want, too.

Tip 4: Eliminate Reasons Not to Buy

Alternatives are the leverage that buyers have in a negotiation: They can always walk away because they have an existing solution that's good enough or because they can consider other solutions. When you're selling, you need to eliminate all the reasons that the customer might consider the alternatives. The best way to do so is to create apples-to-apples comparisons in which your solution is clearly competitive, then present apples-to-oranges comparisons showing that your solution does things the alternatives can't possibly do. Whenever you hear a business or IT manager give you reasons why he or she is unlikely to implement your solution, make a mental note. At some point, you have to counter that thinking before you can close the sale.

For example, if an IT executive is hemming and hawing about the cost of a new rack of servers, you'd first clearly articulate the cost of not funding the servers. Then you might create a compromise point by offering to set a management target of reducing the cost of the new servers by 10 percent.

A Shift in Attitude

A lot of great sales training is available free. Just tune into some late-night TV infomercials and watch how the hosts use these four sales tips to sell everything from kitchen appliances to cleaning supplies to exercise equipment. You could almost substitute the product in one informercial with that in another without changing the dialog or spirit.

Although at times you might feel that becoming an effective salesperson requires that you sell your soul to the devil, successful selling is actually just a shift in attitude and perspective. And remember, coffee is for closers only.

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