Always be selling, but don't always be nagging. There's a big difference, and it starts with knowing how (and why) to be patient.
Having been in sales for most of my adult life (and, frankly, what entrepreneur isn’t always "selling" something?), I try to never be rude to even the most clueless or incompetent salesman, because I know what a tough and thankless job sales can be. But recently I stopped taking one guy’s calls and began hanging up when he started calling my cell phone. (I’ve also been ducking my barber’s calls, but that’s a different story.)
All I can say is that I’m very grateful for Caller ID these days because--although most of the time I’m strong enough not to hate--this guy was treading on the thinnest of ice. Why? Because he simply wore out his welcome, and (with me, at least) once you’ve burned that particular bridge there’s really no way back. Life's just too short to deal with ignoranuses. (That's not a misspelling--I'm talking about people who are both ignorant and a**holes.)
The saddest part of the story is that I went out of my way to give him all kinds of fair warnings. You can't push a rope no matter how hard you try, and I fundamentally wasn't interested in what he was selling. Unfortunately, he was in too much of a hurry to hear me, even assuming (which might be a stretch) that he wanted to. The truth is that it's a very thin line between persistence and pestilence, but it becomes a lot brighter and obvious if you pay attention and listen to what your prospect or customer is saying. This shouldn't be that hard a concept to master.
Long-term sales success always comes from two things, even in this crazy, time-constrained and chronically impatient world: building relationships and being patient. And, by the way, I can’t believe that I'm saying this, since I'm the world's most impatient guy and a long-time sufferer of hurry sickness. But it's true. Trying to press a sale on an unwilling buyer at the wrong time is a waste of effort and energy. Patience always achieves more in the long run than force and, as I always say, even the strongest “No” is just a “No” for now. Unless, that is, you burn down the place and wreck your relationship in the process.
In sales, you’re always dealing with people’s perceptions, which are erratic and discontinuous and can shift in an instant. You could be it for a long time and then you’re out, if you’re not careful to thread the needle between obnoxious and irresistible.
I’ve got a few ideas and suggestions to help you keep the conversation moving forward without crossing the customer’s comfort line.
1. Focus on Small, Serial Success
Great salespeople will tell you that winning is almost never about hitting home runs or bowling someone over in a first meeting with your bravado and B.S. It's about solid and consistent base hits, an unbroken series of successful gestures, that lead over time to a relationship based on trust. And then a sale. Despite what your sales manager may think, there are times when it's more important to walk away and wait for the real deal than to grab a quick sale that may or may not make sense for the customer. You have to learn to communicate a sense of urgency without seeming to be in a hurry. If you can't move things forward, move on and wait for a better moment.
2. Be Empathetic, But Only Up to a Point
As they always say about stocks, they're not bought, they're sold. Selling is about momentum, and at any moment in a conversation someone is selling--it just might not be you. If you find yourself leaning back on your heels and suddenly on the defensive, you've lost control of the conversation and, most likely, you've just met a master salesman who happens to be your prospective customer at the moment. You always want to be selling from strength and not seeking sympathy or someone's pity. It's OK to agree with your customers and even to empathize with them and all of their problems, as long as you don't end up agreeing with their very good reasons for not buying your product or service. One more thought: As soon as you start talking about price you're on a slippery slope and headed in the wrong direction. It's better at that point to pick up your marbles and come back when you've got a better story to sell.
3. Know When to Sell Something Else
When you're selling something that nobody really needs, you'd better actually be selling something else. This is why perfumes are sold by smell, sex, and status rather than dollars and cents, and why alarm systems are sold by images of burglars and broken glass, by smoke, security, and safety concerns--and almost never on price.
4. Manufacture 'Maybes' and Reasons to Return
In sales, closure is as bad as cancer. A million "maybes" are better than having the door definitively shut in your face. So it's important to always have a plan to prolong the conversation, to have something, however modest, that the customer can say "Yes" to. And to always have a reason to return. Good selling is telling: explaining without a hidden agenda, and adding to the customer's knowledge base. Being an impartial source of this type of "education," and even of juicy industry gossip, is a way to make sure you're welcome to return.
HOWARD A. TULLMAN is the CEO of 1871 – Where Digital Startups Get Their Start and the General Managing Partner of G2T3V, LLC and of Chicago High Tech Investment Partners. He is a member of the Chicago NEXT & Cultural Affairs Councils and the Illinois Innovation & Arts Councils; an adjunct professor at Kellogg; and an advisor to many start-ups. He is the former Chairman and CEO of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. Over the last 45 years, he has successfully founded more than a dozen high-tech companies. @tullman @tullman