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Some Assembly Required

You don't get the perfect salesperson by throwing together whatever's handy. Lean in close, and we'll give you a peek at the manual.
Magazine Contributor
10 min read

This story appears in the August 2001 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Look! It's a man! It's a woman! No, it's Supersalesperson-that individual who leaps sales quotas with a single bound, stops customer complaints faster than a speeding bullet and is more powerful than 10 salespeople put together. Of Messianic stature, Supersalesperson is the deliverer of the capitalist's promised land and the paradigm against whom all are judged.

Alas, this superhero is but a fancy. Yet at rare moments we see a glimmer of Supersalesperson inside those who, by luck and pluck, possess a generous portion of the qualities we attribute to the fantastically great. They may flow, as does the sales pitch. We see them radiate from an employee's open eyes and in the head tilted toward us, listening ever so closely. But when all is said and done, the power of greatness comes not from sight, speech or attentiveness. Rather, it emanates from the mind and heart, giving the salesperson an insatiable appetite to learn. And it's this appetite that feeds the remaining characteristics, ultimately shaping success.

Mind Over Matter
Sales superiority starts in the mind. "The supersalesperson possesses a propensity for personal growth," says Rick Sapio, founder and CEO of Inc., a New York City holdings company that sells mutual funds to investors. Sales superheroes hunger for knowledge about themselves, their customers and their products-as well as the products and services of competitors, adds Sapio, a former broker.

"They're achievement-oriented," agrees Sean Magennis, founder and CEO of Thomas International USA Inc., a sales and marketing consulting company in Dallas. Every sale has a learning objective-determining what was done well or poorly." Failure becomes an opportunity to learn. Instead of blocking failure, supersalespeople examine it objectively, thereby inhibiting the spiral of self-doubt that many salespeople fall into. And, says Magennis, "A supersalesperson reads, takes courses, keeps a journal, writes down professional goals and listens to tapes of sales calls. He or she mimics top performers and develops a relationship with a mentor."

Supersalespeople are competitive, and competitive people yearn to better themselves to improve the quality of their work. Their knowledge of the process exceeds that of any sales consultant, adds Tim Riley, founder and CEO of Door to Door Storage Inc., who launched his Seattle-based storage business by selling storage space to businesses and individuals throughout the West Coast.

"They understand the business, its products and the business's potential products," agrees Daniel Turner, founder and president of Turner Consulting Group Inc., a sales and marketing consulting firm in Washington, DC. "The right [creative] side of the brain helps the salesperson figure out how to describe the business so the client understands it. The left [analytical] side helps the salesperson pitch the business so the sale makes sense monetarily."

The Heart of the Matter

A salesperson packing only knowledge is weak, however. Armed with empathy, salespeople become potent forces because they have the "ability to understand the attitudes, needs and wants of others, putting themselves in their client's shoes," says Magennis.

They no longer sell products; they solve problems. And their customers evolve from being commissions to partners in a relationship, says Gail Harris of Incite Marketing, a South Norwalk, Connecticut, marketing company that specializes in technology and management consulting.

Supersalespeople can establish rapport with a variety of prospects, because people gravitate toward those who are empathetic to their needs and wants. As customers draw near, relationships develop and trust grows. There's no science. It's human nature.

"Customers won't buy from you if they don't trust you, and they won't trust you if they don't like you," says Paul Hickey, founder and CEO of Q Comm International Inc., an Orem, Utah, prepaid wireless technology and information services company that's growing at more than double-digit rates-due in part to sales strategies.

Unfortunately, some salespeople fake "heart"; they turn on the empathy in the customer's office and turn it off when they leave. They often act the same way with co-workers, who also need empathy. "If salespeople care only for themselves, they don't receive the team's support," notes Sapio, "and they'll eventually die on the vine."

Supersalespeople recognize their roles, the roles of others in the organization and, most important, their co-workers' dependency on them. Out of that recognition comes a drive to build long-term relationships with all the departments, from accounting to marketing. Thanks to the relationships they build, those salespeople become leaders-driving forces recognized and appreciated by others. That's when they truly begin to shine-not with hubris but with pride. "The supersalesperson is excited about being a salesperson," says Hickey.

Like any professional who excels at his or her art, supersalespeople lean not only on natural talent, but also on the one trait that remains consistent: discipline. "Regardless of how skilled and talented one is," Hickey continues, "if he or she doesn't do their work day in and day out, they will fail."

Ears Two Sizes Too Large?

There's an old saw that cuts something like this: "We're born with two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we speak." But that's just not enough for the supersalesperson. Harris believes great salespeople spend 80 percent of their time listening to their clients, processing each tidbit quickly. "They can recall and use information heard two or three minutes earlier in the conversation to move the sales discussion forward," says Harris.

Simultaneously, supersalespeople peel away the layers of the conversation. They pay particular attention to what's in the background. Behind their words, clients reveal critical information that goes beyond their wants and needs-to their abilities. Are they buyers? Filters? Influencers? Magennis says supersalespeople can hear whether there's potential to develop sales growth or long-term relationships.

Being a good listener doesn't require superpowers. Why? It's a learned behavior. Some 90 percent of all successful salespeople start out as poor listeners, says Magennis, but they learn to modify their behavior.

More Than Lip Service
Salespeople are frequently seen as mouthing meaningless platitudes or phony camaraderie. It's a bad rap, especially for the supersalesperson. In truth, the mouth lubricates the sales process-not by telling but by eliciting. A quality salesperson knows how to draw the customer out.

"The supersalesperson is able to instantly build a rapport with people," says Sapio. "I call it the three-second rule. Within the first three seconds of a salesperson's conversation, the customer will decide whether there's a rapport."

After rapport comes discovery. "Salespeople get paid by the questions they ask," Hickey remembers hearing once. Good questions elicit the true objections and needs of the prospect. For example, the supersalesperson might ask: "If we were to meet three years from today, what would you want to have happened to you personally and professionally?"

Magennis says if there's no answer, then that relationship has limited potential. Silence has meaning. "The customer doesn't see the salesperson in his or her life in three years helping solve problems." So the salesperson is unlikely to establish a relationship that drives sales.

And knowing when to shut up is one quality that Hickey says is critical to the oral tradition of sales.

The Eyes Have It

Supersalespeople see on two levels-physiological and conceptual. Through the former, they can step into a meeting and scan the scene to study how customers sit, stand, shake hands and make eye contact. "They know how to translate body language, adjusting to customers' posture," says Hickey. Supersalespeople know how they're viewed by customers, and they use their own body language to further the process.

Conceptual vision plays the greater role because it allows salespeople to envision how their customers will use their products. "When salespeople find those uses, they can pitch particular needs or wants, wow the client and lay the groundwork for larger projects down the road," says Turner.

Meanwhile, the supersalesperson sees right through the process. He or she has looked at the client's history and seen the potential problems, whether generated by the salesman's company or by the client. According to Magennis, this vision is what enables the supersalesperson to take responsibility for the entire sales process.

In Good Hands
In the hands of any salesperson you'll find the tools for greatness: a briefcase, a mobile phone and a laptop equipped with software that enables them to create presentations or proposals in the blink of a cursor.

Beyond that, the hands and arms of the supersalesperson are symbolic. At first, the hand is associated with the handshake, the ability to build new relationships. Then there's the grip, the ability to hang on tightly-representing the salesperson's tenacity and perseverance. "Salespeople need the ability to go forward when others give up or when obstacles are in the way," says Barry Farber, president of Farber Training Systems in Livingston, New Jersey. "Tenacity overrides many of our deficiencies." It also keeps salespeople focused when their charm and insight aren't enough.

"Salespeople need the ability to go forward when others give up or when obstacles are in the way."

"Even the most charismatic salespeople need to follow the process religiously," says Riley. "Charisma has its highs and lows. On a bad day, the salesperson falls back on the process, carrying him through to the close."

Supersalespeople reach beyond actual job requirements to make the sale. Says Magennis, "They assume additional assignments, look for new solutions and demonstrate initiative outside their defined job role."

A Leg Up

For most athletes, the primary means by which they demonstrate their balance and endurance are their legs. The supersalesperson uses legwork to achieve these same goals in the sales process. According to surveys of purchasing agents, the most important attributes of a supersalesperson are follow-through and follow-up. In the eyes of the customer, a salesperson's ability to walk through the sales process from beginning to end exemplifies his or her interest in the customer's wants and needs.

With strong legs, the supersalesperson can also "leap tall buildings in a single bound," going above and beyond the average performance. He or she takes calculated risks to reach higher goals. For example, if the average salesperson requires five meetings to close a sale, the supersalesperson sets a goal of sealing a deal in three-and accomplishes it.

But that's not the end of it. "Legs are for pounding the pavement," says Turner. "Sometimes, when all else fails, the best salesperson has to rely on cold- or warm-calling."

The supersalesperson may seem like a dream, but our dreams are often born from reality. Each day, we glimpse fragments of the superhero, especially in the salespeople we admire. What's left for us is to determine how to make those fragments appear more frequently. It's part pluck and part luck.In the end, the supersalesperson guarantees that relationships with customers will lead to one powerful and irrevocable conclusion: The company, the client and the salesperson profit. The supersalesperson is aligned with the business owner. "He's like the founder, but he doesn't want to be the owner," says Chris Campbell, president of Praxis Media, a South Norwalk, Connecticut, producer of multimedia marketing programs. This characteristic is probably the most significant yet elusive; it endows the supersalesperson with the owner's passion and desire for quality and profitable sales without demanding a stake, forever remaining satisfied as a sales professional.

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