The Best-Kept Secret of Entrepreneurial Sales: Be Yourself

Another secret: Sales is a lot like dating. No, really.

learn more about Karthik Rajan

By Karthik Rajan

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

I clearly remember the evening I received a phone call from a leader at a well-regarded start-up accelerator. Our conversation centered around sales. "Can you speak to our entrepreneurs on sales?" the principal asked. "Most of our entrepreneurs have great ideas; most are inventors, engineers or numbers people. They do understand the importance of sales/revenue generation."

Related: Selling for a Startup? Make Yourself Essential. Become a 'Pipeline' for Consumer Feedback.

But: "They do not seem to enjoy sales," he acknowledged. "It is not their forte."

I considered the invitation and replied that before accepting, I first needed from each of the entrepreneurs some data about the top two sales-related items on their minds. Thanks to Google Forms, my request was quickly fulfilled, And, I duly noted, the beautiful thing about free form expression of thought is that it encourages people to articulate their needs, in the form of questions embedded in their subtext. Looking for the trends, I pulled out five implicit questions:

  1. How do I find my targets efficiently?
  2. How do I build credibility in the first meeting?
  3. How do I build trust?
  4. How do I take it to the next meeting?
  5. How do I get long-term engagement?

While looking for these connections, I experienced a "light bulb moment"; I even chuckled at the idea. I was actually looking forward to the discussion.

'Be yourself.'

The day arrived. Once everybody settled in, I posed the first question: "When you hear 'sales,' what comes to your mind?" I then listened patiently to an earful about used car salesmen, comparisons to aggressive recruiters and diatribes on morals and ethics. And I picked up on the near-consensus that sales as an activity might be necessary, but was not not these entrepreneurs' cup of tea.

I next projected those five questions on the wall. "If we get some answers to these questions, is that a useful discussion on sales?" I asked. There was a collective nod in the room.

If that is the case, I told my audience, referring to their grin and bear it attitude toward sales, the answer is, "Just be yourself. That is the secret of success in sales." Nods quickly morphed into perplexed faces, as a collective skeptical look was directed my way.

I redirected those looks back to the five questions. "Please re-look at the questions -- the context of the first four questions could be a first date," I said. "Your success in that arena could bode well in a sales meeting." There was a perceptible giggle among my listeners.

Related: The 3 Main Reasons You're Not Closing the Deal

Sales is a lot like dating.

With that statement, I projected a couple of statistics.

  • Percentage of married couples first introduced by someone they mutually know -- 63 percent

This stat is powerful, as it keeps the end goal in mind. Drawing parallels, converting a target into a customer, the best odds occur with customers who are introduced by a mutual acquaintance. That is the headline-grabbing part. There is another stat that gets little attention, but provides a good dose of realism:

  • Percentage of first dates arranged by friends moving into a second date: just 17 percent

Even if you get ten dates arranged by friends, on average, eight may evolve into rejects/no gos for a second date. In other words, approximately only two in ten first dates get to the second date. Keep this perspective when some well-meaning customer introductions through referrals do not lead to second meetings! Rejections are the anathema of motivation; this larger perspective on odds is a wonderful counterbalance.

Circling back to the audience, when this conversation first started, folded hands and relaxed, pushed-back seating had been the norm in the room. But at this point, many attendees were leaning forward, with coffee in hand, absorbed in the statistical analogies I offered. Entrepreneurs usually like to work in environments they can control. So, while sales might seem like an afterthought worthy of delegating to a professional sales person, dating was not!

What matters.

Having engaged these entrepreneurs' attention, I next added, "Now, I am interested in your thoughts on what works/ does not work on a first date." What followed was a mixture of sparks, deep thinking, reflections on missteps and some all-out zingers. I took my marker and started jotting down the synthesis of what, for my listeners, "works." The two leading areas of consensus that emerged were:

  • Good listeners
  • Sharing of related stories, experiences -- a two-way connection

I then posed a follow-up question: "How much time do you spend preparing [to talk] about you before the first-date meeting?" Not much, was the answer. But many ventured to add that they do spend some time researching their dates online!

Drawing a parallel to sales, I asked, should you, the entrepreneur, spend a lot of time preparing customized slides before every customer meeting or spend some time knowing more about the customer? After all, the customer might not explicitly acknowledge it, but he/she is looking for a "good listener." And, in this informational day and age, many customers do their research about you and your product before they accept your meeting. (Daniel Pink's modern-day book To Sell is Human delves deep into this new internet age paradigm of informational parity.)

I personally believe that listening and credibility have a high positive correlation, built on that age-old mantra: Understand before understood. Sharing of related experience back and forth builds on that.

It was getting time to end my talk. I did so with a question. "All of this is great," I said. "So, if all goes well, how do you ensure the next meeting?" I answered my own question: Just ask for the next meeting! I said. There was another set of chuckles in the room as we wrapped up the session.

Parting thoughts

"Sales" can conjure up different images and emotions, whether they be that of the old-fashioned used car salesman; an on-stage monologue; an enthusiastic, informative teacher; or a two-way, engaging date. The choice is yours. But if you choose the last option, the time you spend on preparing content will be the least you'll need among these four scenarios -- and time is one thing many entrepreneurs have in short supply.

At the very least, it would be wonderful to spend those extra few hours saved, with family and friends. Above all, the biggest bonus would be that you could be your nice self and still be successful. And nothing beats that.

Related: 3 Steps to Aligning Sales Teams and Maximizing Results

Karthik Rajan

Entrepreneur Mentor, Advisor

Karthik Rajan is a keynote speaker and writer who covers the intersections of analytics with entrepreneurship, economics, education and, above all, human relationships. He enjoys helping startups with business plans, sales and investment pitches.  

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