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MCLEOD: Why we're weird about salespeople

Lisa McLeod

Lisa McLeod

Houston, we have a problem.

It's not as dramatic as an out-of-control space capsule hurtling toward death. But it does cause many people to abort what could have been a successful mission.

It's a business problem. It's the disconnect between the words "sales" and "salesperson."

People love an organization with strong sales. Apple sold millions of iPhones; Build-a-Bear sells storeloads of stuffed toys. Their customers and investors are on fire. When a company is it doing well, people say, "Yay, sales are up!"

Yet when you add the word "person" to "sales," it takes on a completely different connotation. Sales are positive, but a salesperson is often viewed negatively.

The sales profession is consistently ranked as one of the least trusted professions. "Salesperson" evokes image of a smarmy, dishonest huckster, like the Music Man who sold a town non-existent instruments.

This perception begs the question: Why is increasing sales in the collective a positive thing, yet salespeople as individuals are often perceived negatively?

This disconnect causes big problems for individuals and organizations.

Here are two examples:

Philanthropic failure

I work with several nonprofits to help them increase donor revenue and volunteer engagement.

I frequently encounter people who are passionate about their cause, yet they're uncomfortable "selling" it. It's as if selling it somehow cheapens their message.

They're emotionally invested and they often believe that the cause should sell itself.

Sadly, this perception ignores reality. Potential donors and volunteers are busy people with crowded lives; they have lots of causes competing for their time and money.

Failure to put forth an excellent "sales" effort results in worthy causes going unnoticed and underfunded.

Entrepreneur exhaustion

One of my clients, Cali, articulated the issue many entrepreneurs have with sales, saying, "If I'm honest, I'll admit that I've believed that as long as people know what I offer, the right people will come to me."

It sounds good in theory, but again, it ignores reality. Cali's firm provides training and consulting to improve workplace efficiency and personal happiness. Yet no matter how good her programs are, people aren't going to get interested unless she reaches out to them personally to help them understand how they might benefit.

In other words, she has to sell it.

People devote their time, money and sometimes their entire lives to creating something. Yet when it comes time to demonstrate the value to others, they hold back.

After coaching entrepreneurs, philanthropists and business leaders, I've identified three reasons people are weird about stepping into the role of salesperson:

-- People are afraid to put themselves out there.

-- They've been turned off by bad salespeople.

-- People perceive that it's somehow cheating if you take the time to fine-tune your approach.

Somewhere along the way people bought into the false belief that being intentionally persuasive cheapens your cause. But in the words of my colleague Keith Ferrazzi, "Just because it's intentional doesn't mean it's insincere."

The act of selling is neither good nor bad. It's like cooking; it's something we do to make life work. You can do it skillfully with grace, finesse and a generous heart. Or you can do it poorly, riddled with anxiety, fear and a self-serving spirit.

At the most basic level a salesperson is someone who is so passionate about their offering that they do everything they can to skillfully share the good news. And there's nothing weird about that.

Lisa Earle McLeod is the author of several books, including "Selling with Noble Purpose: How to Drive Revenue and Do Work That Makes You Proud."