Sell Block

You're a great business owner, but how good of a salesperson are you? Read these tips if you want to improve your less-than-stellar sales skills.

"First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired." These words are from the ├╝ber-sales movie Glengarry Glen Ross, as the sales force gets chewed out for weak performance. But as an entrepreneur, you don't even get a set of Ginsus when you lose a sale-you're just outta luck.

So what do you do when you get a strong lead on a prospect who needs exactly what you offer? You meet; you present; you bond. You send a proposal that includes competitive pricing and an implementation plan. Next thing you know, you've lost the account to a competitor, perhaps even a more expensive provider. What went wrong? Most likely, it's your sales skills, or lack thereof.

The good news is, poor sales skills are quite a common-and fixable-dilemma. Through self-teaching, sales courses, and trial and error, many entrepreneurs are able to take their sales from tepid to terrific. I talked to Azriela Jaffe, author of Starting from No: 10 Strategies to Overcome your Fear of Rejection and Succeed in Business (Dearborn, $17.95, www.isquare.com/crlink.htm), to get some tips for turning around sales malaise.

Kimberly McCall:Many talented business owners find themselves stumped when it comes to sales. They're great at what they do, but they have a hard time converting expertise into clients. What's the first step toward becoming a successful salesperson?

Azriela Jaffe: Respect your limits, and don't force yourself to do the kinds of sales activities that make you shake like a leaf and want to throw up. Sales come in many different packages. One person can make a presentation in front of 400 strangers, as long as he doesn't know anyone in the room. Another can talk one-to-one in a casual networking environment, but public speaking is a nightmare for her. Until you build your self-confidence, select the sales activities that are most natural for you.

McCall:Some people fear being thought of as a "salesperson" because of the title's negative connotations. How can an entrepreneur learn to be a good salesperson without being perceived as too "sales-y"?

Jaffe: Focus on being a person of service to another. If you don't truly believe that you are of service and your focus is entirely on "making the sale," you'll chase your prospects away. Like a dog can smell fear, a prospect can smell desperation or embarrassment. You've got to believe that the customer will be lucky to buy from you!

McCall:What are the common traits of top salespeople?

Jaffe: They are outstanding listeners, they don't personalize rejection, they keep at it for a long time (even when it hurts), they genuinely care about their customers, and they believe in their products.

McCall:How can you pull yourself out of a sales slump?

Jaffe: Inactivity leads to desperation, which leads to further withdrawal and fear, thus escalating the cycle. The key is to take action toward progress in your business every day, whether or not you are in the mood. You might change the approach or stop doing a certain kind of sales activity for a while, but don't allow yourself to stop working on the business altogether. At the very least, get out of the house and volunteer your services in the community. Networking can lead to sales, even when you aren't looking for them. Also, it's not always a bad idea to get a part-time or full-time job when you've hit a slump. Sometimes, when you remove the financial panic, you become much more effective in your business. The job doesn't have to be forever-just to get you over the hump.

McCall:What about overcoming the fear that comes along with making a sales call or presentation?

Jaffe: Take a look at what you are really afraid of. You aren't afraid of rejection-there's no such thing. What can rejection do to you? You are afraid of the consequences you are telling yourself will occur if you don't make the sale. Is it financial disaster? Or making a fool of yourself? Or letting someone down? Examine the catastrophic thinking that is leading to your panic. Set your mind straight-it's rarely going to turn out as bad as you think.

McCall:Do you have any examples of a businessperson who overcame his or her fear to become a stellar salesperson?

Jaffe: A guy contacted me for coaching because he was stuck in his business. He couldn't pick up the phone because he was terrified of making cold calls or contacting anyone he knew. He couldn't handle his fear of humiliation. This guy had no fear of public speaking. I suggested that he start giving public seminars instead and that he stop trying to sell one-to-one. Voila! He had no trouble doing that, his self-confidence rose, and he started making sales by referrals that came to him after the seminars.

McCall:Business owners are used to turning to accountants, lawyers and consultants for advice. When do you know it's time to seek the assistance of a sales coach?

Jaffe: When you've been procrastinating for weeks or months, and no matter how many books you buy or what you tell yourself each morning, your behavior doesn't change, and you aren't making any headway. So if you've hit a sales slump, don't despair; get busy! Hit the books; enroll in a sales course; perfect your pitch. The keys to sales prowess are knowledge, practice and a confident attitude. Whether you sell a product or a service, your bottom line will benefit.

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This article was originally published in the September 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Sell Block.

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