Myth of the salesman

Few occupations are more misunderstood than that of the salesman. Take any
accountancy practice; at most there is likely to be only a small proportion of
staff with a sales-related job title. Few staff members would recognise selling
as part of their role and most would probably shudder at the mere thought.

Yet across your business, there are many individuals who regularly meet
clients with the express purpose of acquiring more business on the best possible
terms, developing client relationships and building something of value – however
small or indirect – for the practice. Like it or not, that is selling.

The sales process has attracted more than its share of pejorative
connotations. Yet the ability to sell effectively requires a high degree of
professionalism and is the very lifeblood of successful business development. It
is time to dispel some of the myths and stereotypes that have grown up around

Myth 1: You need a sharp suit and a firm handshake

First impressions may count, but the truth is, there is no correlation
between physical appearance and sales achievement. Indeed, many top sellers
totally contradict this stereotype. Instead, what links these top performers is
that they are highly skilled, professional and know how to deal with people.

Myth 2: You need to have ‘the gift of the gab’

This is somehow seen as key to talking the buyer into doing or thinking
something different. In fact, the most successful sales people have far less
‘airtime’ than the client in a sales conversation. Their true skill lies in
getting the other party talking and thinking, by asking lots of questions and
listening to the answers, in order to unearth concerns and needs.

Myth 3: You need to be an extrovert

There’s no link between personality traits and success at selling. Extroverts
may be inherently more comfortable, say, in a cold-call situation. On the other
hand, an introvert may be better at listening, and not have the tendency to
interrupt and present solutions too early in the buying process. Natural
extroverts and introverts can both succeed, provided they understand and are
willing to adopt the right behaviours throughout complex negotiations. Much
depends on the personality of the buyer.

Myth 4: You need to sell differently to women than to men

There’s a commonly held view that buying drivers are gender-related – for
example, women are more influenced by emotional factors and men by more
hard-nosed elements such as money. Rather than matching female seller to female
buyer, for example, the key is to ensure that the buyer feels you have their
best interests at heart.

Myth 5: Being an expert really helps

Being an expert can be an impediment – a specialist can easily swamp the
often part-time and inexpert buyer with their expertise, resulting almost
inevitably in failure. Skilled experts will work out how best to make their
knowledge available to the client by asking questions rather than imparting
information. The goal is to establish how capable the client is likely to be in
absorbing information and work out how to explain what they have to offer.

Myth 6: You face a street of never-ending sales

Natural optimism aside, this myth betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of
the need to target your sales effort effectively. This means identifying those
prospects sufficiently attractive to you and those for whom you have a realistic
opportunity to put together a relevant value proposition. Don’t ‘spray and pray’
– it’s a waste of time and effort to focus on those whom you have little or no
chance of converting.

Myth 7: Cold calling isn’t fun

OK, so this isn’t a myth, it’s true. Very few people enjoy cold calling but
many more are very good at it. Fortunately, it is unlikely to be critical to the
long-term success of the practice. Though it does have a part to play in
business development, it is much more effective to focus your efforts on looking
to cross-sell within existing clients and seek referrals from those who know and
trust you.

Myth 8: The prospect hasn’t called back, so they aren’t

Research indicates that around three quarters of professional services buyers
say no up to five times before buying; yet 92% of sellers of professional
services give up after the first ‘no’. Not surprisingly, the remaining 8% of
‘dogged’ sellers win 73% of sales. So persistence pays. Initial buyer negativity
is often because, at the time of the initial contact, they may not have
identified a need or may be dealing with more important issues. By staying in
touch, you can influence their thinking so that they begin to see the related
issue as more important. Equally, by keeping your name in front of them, you are
more likely to be ‘in the frame’ when they come to consider a solution.

Myth 9: People don’t like salesmen

The view that sales people generally are not ‘nice to know’ or, even worse,
‘con artists’ is the kind of superficial stereotyping that results from a few
extreme examples of the breed. Selling is a highly professional occupation, and
the skills needed to succeed are strategic, behavioural rather than intuitive,
well-researched and, critically, can be developed. By identifying where the
contact is in their thinking, helping them develop that thinking into a defined
need and providing the appropriate solution, it is possible to convert any
contact with the customer into a sales opportunity.

Myth 10: Bidding and pitching is the most important sales

Pitching is expensive, time-consuming and a gamble – though at times
unavoidable. An equally valuable use of time and resource is to focus on
strategic networking, and building stronger relationships with existing clients,
prospects and intermediaries. This involves you much earlier in the buying
process, with the opportunity to help determine the precise nature of the
client’s need and improve the chance of being able to provide a suitable

In today’s highly competitive commercial world, the ability to differentiate
service is crucially important. Selling can no longer be dismissed as ‘not for
us’, but must be embraced as a vital and legitimate practice development tool.
And fortunately, everyone can be trained to do it – and do it better.

Peter Belsey is sector head with behaviour change consultancy Huthwaite

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