Three steps for successful selling

posted: May 20, 2023

tl;dr: There are two predecessor steps to focus upon before you sell the product and/or service...

As I mentioned in On the importance of sales, the sales function is critically important to the success of any company, yet they don’t teach sales in most business schools. Fortunately I have been able to learn from others who are skilled in the art of selling, in particular a sales executive that I worked with at four different companies in my career.

That sales executive taught me the lesson in this post: the three steps for successful selling. I witnessed him put it into action many times with prospective clients. I should mention that he and I both worked for companies that sold complex products and services to enterprise-class customers, rather than simple products (shoes, say) directly to consumers. For a product-oriented technologist such as myself, the three steps may seem to be two too many, as I have a tendency to focus solely on pitching the merits of the product itself. That is insufficient, however.

The three steps for successful selling are, in order:

  1. Sell yourself
  2. Sell the company
  3. Then sell the product and/or service

Let’s explore each.

A middle-aged man dressed in a white dress shirt, tie, and blue suit, standing in front of a blackboard on which is written 'Always Be Closing', speaking while his right-hand index figure is raised

The sales process is a bit more complex than Alec Baldwin's "Always Be Closing" lesson in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross

Sell yourself

The first challenge you face as a salesperson is establishing a rapport and a level of trust with the prospective customer. To achieve this, a good salesperson first sells himself or herself. You should be on-time, presentable, in good spirits, engaged with the customer, actively listening to what the customer is saying, and reacting appropriately. You don’t have to recite all the degrees and certificates you’ve earned. It’s more important to demonstrate an understanding of the customer’s industry, business, and issues.

When customers are engaging with a salesperson, they are seeking a potential advocate who will represent their wishes back at company headquarters. They also want someone who will be there for them when problems arise. If you don’t do a good job of selling yourself first, the customer won’t trust you, won’t believe what you are saying, and won’t confide in you. You won’t be successful.

Sell the company

Potential customers are not just seeking a solitary advocate. Any smart customer knows that they are likely to call upon other resources from the prospective supplier, both in the normal course of business and especially when things go awry. They want a supplier that is going to be healthy and viable for as long as the business relationship may last. That supplier should stand behind what the salesperson is saying, and of course stand behind the product and/or service.

The second step, after you have sold yourself, is to sell the company that you represent. You want the prospective customer to believe that you represent a well-resourced company that can be trusted to uphold its promises. If you don’t do a good job of selling the company, it doesn’t matter how good the product or service is, because the customer won’t want to do business with your firm.

Sell the product and/or service

Finally we get to the step that product-oriented people such as myself like to go straight to from the first initial contact: selling the actual product and/or service. There are plenty of different approaches that can be taken here, everything from Leading with the ask (which should be done sparingly) to casting FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) upon other alternatives to engaging in a specs-based or price-based comparisons. The best approach, I believe, is to demonstrate how your product and/or service solves major problems that the customer is experiencing. Whatever approach you take, Don’t sell past the close.

Although these three steps are presented in order, in practice there is some chronological overlap across all of them. It’s hard not to say a single word about the company or the product before successfully selling yourself. The primary focus, however, should be to achieve each of these three steps in order.