Open a book or turn on a movie with a salesperson in it, and nine out of ten times the character in question will be oily, conniving and blatantly self-interested. The popular impression of a salesperson is essentially the ultimate con artist. But in fact, the opposite is true--the best salespeople actually put the customer's needs above all else.

Buyers today don't like being sold to in the traditional sense, and they don't respond well when they think they're the target of a sales pitch. Sellers who don't focus on serving their buyer, risk irrevocably damaging the most important relationships they have--their customer relationships.

Putting a customer's needs first isn't exclusively a noble act, however, there are very tangible benefits for both the organization and the salesperson. At the organizational level, I have yet to see any business grow over time without a strong focus on customer experience. And sales reps who put the customer's needs first are rewarded with loyal customers, industry credibility, respect and referral business.

The Value of Customer Promoters

Ultimately in sales, we want to turn every buyer into a customer, but we should also be driven to turn every customer into a promoter or advocate for our company. Customer advocates drive repeat business and referral business.

To better understand how likely your customer base is to say something nice about you, many companies have implemented Net Promoter Score (NPS). NPS asks the customer one simple, yet powerful question: "How likely are you to recommend ABC company to a friend or colleague?" Based on how customers respond, they are assigned a status as promoter, passive or detractor. According to the system, promoters evangelize, passives remain neutral and detractors actively disparage the business.

NPS is a tool we use at Velocify, and I highly recommend to all business leaders. The simplicity of the approach makes it easy to report, analyze and act on.

How Sales can Help Turn More Customers into Promoters

As a metrics driven CEO, I pay close attention to our NPS at Velocify, and am obsessed with improving every area of our organization to deliver a better overall customer experience. One area I find that is often neglected when it comes to customer experience is sales, especially in high-growth companies that are focused on building a healthy sales pipeline.

It's easy for these types of sales organizations to fall into the trap of bringing on bad revenue (i.e. customers that aren't really a good fit for the product or service) or to put customers in long-term contracts that don't fit with the customer's needs. This strategy may keep investors happy in the short term but it's likely to come back to bite them later as contracts expire and churn rates increase. Worse, this strategy can hurt a brand's reputation, driving negative word of mouth from customer detractors.

It's unfortunate to see companies falling into this trap, especially when you look at the enormous opportunity for sales to be the relationship opener for the entire (hopefully long) customer relationship. Positive or negative, the tone set in the sales process will inform customers' expectations for the rest of their experience.

So first things first--act ethically. No amount of hypothetical ROI is more important than your professional integrity or the reputation of your company. Second, stop selling and start serving your customers--this slight mindset shift will show customers you care, driving more "promoter" customers, longer-lasting relationships and a higher potential for future revenue.

What Customers Want From Salespeople

The best way to ensure that you are focused on your customer in the sales process is to actively listen to what they tell you. Really understanding their needs is critical to you offering a solution that really satisfies them for the long-term. In a one-hour sales call, it is not unusual for me to take ten pages of notes. I devour what customers tell me because every fact or opinion is a breadcrumb that adds to my ability to offer them the right solution under the right terms.

But active listening isn't the hardest part of the equation when it comes to delighting your future customer. The most difficult thing is initially getting the prospect to a zone where they are open enough to tell you what's really on their mind. In the old-school world of sales, this is why deals were made on golf courses; Prospects relaxed, opened up and told their golf partner what was really important to them. Today's buyers rarely have time for golfing trips with potential partners. They want answers fast. So how do you get your prospects to trust you quickly?

A technique I recommend is giving away something meaningful early in the sales relationship. For every sale I've made, I've found a way to offer customers some piece of insight that is disadvantageous to myself, so that they know that I have their interests at heart. This could be something as simple as letting them know they don't need that extra product or service or pointing out something about my competitor's solution that is better than mine. Doing this once or twice early in the sales process establishes trust and shows that I want to understand my buyers' challenges and will work with them to build a solution that suits their needs.

Adopt an honest, customer-first approach in sales and you'll see better relationships and a stronger pipeline in no time. Thoughtful salespeople are more successful than duplicitous ones--something that even Hollywood might learn eventually.