One of my favorite things about sales is that you don't need to go to school to learn how to stand out from your competitors. Don't get me wrong--business school has lots of uses and advantages. But some of the most memorable approaches to sales I've seen have come from people who rely on creativity, rather than degrees, to make a strong connection with prospective customers.

In fact, I often look completely outside of the sales world for inspiration, and some of the best advice I've received over the years has come from comedians, former FBI agents, cancer survivors, and plain old weirdos like me. Through conversations with these individuals, I've learned that you don't have to rely on fancy business writing or $300 dinners to make yourself memorable as a salesperson.

With that in mind, here are six unusual selling tactics to use during sales conversations, whether they're online or in-person.    

1. Help your customers, don't sell to them.

Truly great salespeople know the end goal for a sales job is not closing deals. Rather, these people understand their real mission is to help other human beings solve problems and pain points. 

Practice this by researching a potential customer's business needs before you ever try to sell anything. And once in a meeting, practice empathy, which includes listening to the other person and understanding and respecting the situation from his or her point of view--even if it's not going to lead to a deal right then. 

2. Quit asking why.

One of the best sales lessons I learned last year was to take the word why out of my sales vocabulary. "Why did you choose that platform for your sales data?" is like asking a teenager why he or she sneaked out of the house--it reeks of accusation. Once that happens, it doesn't matter how good a negotiator you are--people will get defensive or shut down, and neither your meeting nor your relationship with that would-be customer will get far.

But this past year, I started replacing "why" with "what" and "how": "What made you choose that platform?" "How did you learn about that software?" Not only are these questions a lot more specific, they're also much more conversational in tone, and, so far, have done wonders for relaxing people and getting them to talk honestly. 

3. Turn your sales strategy into a social strategy. 

Last year, LinkedIn released survey data with a surprising stat: Sixty-two percent of respondents said they look for a solid online profile when deciding to talk with a salesperson. Meanwhile, 69 percent of Millennial buyers are more likely to connect with salespeople who have a professional online presence.

Those figures boil down to a simple conclusion: Your professional social-networking activity is hugely important to your job. No, you're not going to post pictures of your breakfast to your LinkedIn feed. But a detailed profile packed with your accomplishments, interests, unusual experiences, and maybe even a post or two will demystify you to potential customers. If people like what they see, your odds of working with them go way up.

4. Devote yourself to kindness, ruthlessly.  

When I spoke to Comedy Cellar founder Bill Grundfest last year, he pointed out that most companies today--whether they're selling software or jokes--motivate by intimidation. He rejects this notion of running a business, and I'm inclined to agree with him. Rather than acting as if you're doing your customers and potential customers a favor by talking to them, show them how much you value the time spent with them. 

To that end, make your conversations all about the other person, take an interest in the person's life, and don't turn into a bully if the person tells you his or her company can't spend any money this quarter. By Grundfest's logic, when you strive to earn loyalty with your actions rather than a customer's dollars, you'll gain a much more dedicated group of followers in the long term. 

5. Understand the difference between fear and terror.

Fear has its time and place in the world of business, and it can be a useful selling tool if you learn how to do it right. That means understanding the difference between sparking a sense of urgency and terrifying someone.

So, for example, if you want to get a conversation about cybersecurity started with a potential customer, don't say (or write), "Hackers will destroy your business this year." That only triggers panic, and most people freeze up during panic and can't make any decisions. Instead, apply the power of subtlety: "Hackers can unexpectedly steal your data if your security strategy is out of date." A line like that is intriguing enough to keep someone reading without sending the person's heart rate through the roof.

6. Be weirder.

We're often taught to be slick and sophisticated when dealing with prospective customers. But I've found that your quirks and eccentricities can be just as effective for starting sales conversations, whether over the phone or in a cold email. Maybe you're an exceptional comedian, or you have an around-the-clock obsession with fly-fishing. Can you creatively work those elements into a conversation? A little finesse is involved, of course. But if you can show potential customers your quirkier side, you're going to be a lot more memorable than the 500 other salespeople vying for that person's attention.

Published on: Feb 14, 2018
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