In order to succeed in their endeavors, entrepreneurs must be masters of selling. You need to sell yourself, your ideas, and ultimately your products; and if you’re a solo entrepreneur, these skills become even more important. If they you no sales skills, and want to continue what you’re doing, you’ll have to learn to sell. And fast. Let me help you along that road by showing you the basic sales skills I think every entrepreneur should have.
I’ve selected these skills because they can be applied fairly universally. Whether you’re trying to present yourself to potential investors, sell your product, or merely pitching an idea, you’ll have more success if you master these. I’ll be adding more advanced articles later, so stay tuned!
This is the single most important skill in sales, and should be your primary focus. Even if your specialization is elsewhere and you don’t consider yourself to be a good communicator, you’ll be able to improve very quickly.
The most important medium you must become a true master at is conversation. Practice, read, and learn as much as you can. Learn what small talk is for, how to use it well, and how to guide conversations. First and foremost, however, I urge you to listen.
Many entrepreneurs I know are so excited by their idea or product that they go on and on about it. The conversation is effectively them telling me how amazing it is. The problem with this is that I’m not engaged, and neither are your prospects. Conversation is about two people communicating, not a giver and a receiver.
Becoming a good listener will allow you to tune in to verbal and non-verbal cues. You’ll be better able to judge if they’re interested, how interested they are, and if they’d rather be elsewhere sipping a cocktail. This is an awareness that develops quickly, and you’ll be able to improve and tailor your communications based on these.
When you communicate in any way, remember to follow up. It’s always polite to send an email summarizing what you spoke about; it’ll let you ask further questions, and make sure you’re on the same page. Beyond that, I recommend you set up some kind of structure (eg. one or two emails and a phone call) for following up and turn it into a habit. You want to keep that channel of communication open and fresh.
Once you’ve improved your communications skills, you can focus on learning how to qualify. In sales this is usually freighted with a whole cornucopia of meaningful facets, but what’s important for you are the following two questions:
- Am I wasting my time here?
- If not, is this person interested in buying?
Determining either of these isn’t particularly difficult, but it does require a certain degree of delicacy; after all, even if you’re wasting your time, you don’t want to alienate a potential future client. If you’re speaking with someone who’s interested, you’ll want to find out if they are even a good match; that is, if they can afford what you’re selling and if they have the decision-making authority to buy it.
Adopting a methodology can be useful in the early stages of learning to qualify. I tend towards the simple and effective methodologies, and would thus, as usual, recommend that you take a look at BANT as a basis for your own qualification criteria.
3. Value proposition & pitch.
Before you attempt to sell something, you need to know what it is you’re selling. By this, I don’t mean the actual thing itself – that’s usually self-explanatory (except potentially ideas). I mean the things that differentiate you from your competition.
Before you even think about working on your pitch, ask yourself these questions:
- Why would someone choose you?
- What makes you different/better from the other offerings out there?
- What value do you deliver to your customers (that they can’t get elsewhere)?
- What problem will you solve?
These are questions that are in the minds of all of your future clients, and that you must have good answers to. If you can’t answer these clearly and succinctly, you may need to reevaluate what it is you’re selling or how you’re selling it.
Keep in mind that your value proposition must be clear and simple to your target audience. If you’re selling medical devices, then it must be clear to your potential client companies, and not necessarily to a CEO of a media company. If you have multiple distinct targets, you may want to consider preparing value propositions for each of them based on their own unique needs.
Pitching is one of those black arts of sales, and everyone seems to have an opinion on it. There are a veritable ton of articles, books, tips and tricks out there, and I think most of them are absolute bunk. In my mind, pitching is essentially presenting your value proposition before having an conversation (and thus an artificial construct, but that’s another matter).
A good pitch should answer all the questions I mentioned earlier with an extreme economy of words. In short, it should include:
- Who you are (either you as a person or you the company),
- What you sell,
- Why you’re qualified to sell it (optional),
- Your value proposition including what the problem is you’re going to solve, and
- Proof points (if you have them).
Proof points are existing customers or success stories that you can flaunt. I won’t say much more about pitches other than: keep them simple, interesting, and informative. If you want to see incredible pitches, watch some TED talks. They’re somewhat longer than a normal pitch (though still time constrained), and usually present beautiful pitches in a structured manner.
The top salespeople are always prospecting and you should too. Finding clients will keep your business alive; you simply can’t do without. I’ve written on this topic before, but let me give you some pointers:
- Focus on your want-to-have clients: Don’t just target any likely-looking company. Find companies (or people) you’d like to have as clients, and discover as much as you can about them. Set up some news alerts (or get a clipping service) and be on top of what they’re up to. Tailor your message to their interests and needs, and focus your energies on winning them as clients. Don’t ignore the others, but make a point of focusing on your greats. You’ll be happy you did.
- Get referrals: The single best way to sell to someone is to be referred there. Always, always, always ask for a referral. Always. Even if your prospect isn’t interested in buying. Ask your friends and ask your acquaintances. If you’re introduced, you’re in a much better position to sell, so seek those introductions.
- Cold call: Get over your fear, grab a few expendable leads, and go for it. Cold calling is much more of an art than it is a science, and like every art, you learn through practice. It’s also essential for every company; after all, you need clients to buy whatever it is you’re selling. Cold calling is a very effective way of doing this.
- Don’t be over-reliant on technology: It’s tempting to rely on social networks for leads. Good leads can certainly come from there, but don’t let it be your only source. Make sure you go after the companies you want, not simply whoever finds you. Use social networks to warm prospects up before a cold call, but do call them. Your communication will be much more efficient, and you’re much more likely to close.
- Demonstrate your passion: The most effective way of raising interest is by being passionate. Passionate people intrigue us and can make us more interested in whatever it is they’re talking about. Don’t be afraid to show your passion (though be wary of going overboard).
Prospecting is usually the difference between successful companies and failures. Make time every day to do some prospecting, and turn it into a habit. Before you know it, you’ll be big enough to be hiring people to do it for you.
Here’s the biggest secret of successful salespeople: relationships matter more than closed deals. Don’t dump promising prospects simply because they didn’t buy right then. Instead, nurture them, and make sure they know you’re available to them. Keep yourself top of mind, and you’ll be surprised by how much business floats your way.
Relationships require work. They require you to be capable of good communications skills, and to be organized enough to keep them alive. They also require the mental fortitude to see past a missed deal towards a potential cooperation in the future. Do not neglect your prospect relationships.
If you’ve done your market research and you’re au courant with the current trends of the sector you’re selling into (and you really should be), you should consider yourself an expert in the field. If you share that expertise, you’ll potentially be able to give your prospects a leg up, and will certainly be seen as a go-to person for this kind of expertise. This kind of communication, whether over a dinner or via a mailing list, is the single most effective way of remaining in their mind. If you’re consistently useful to them, they will come to you the next time they need something.
This article was meant to give you the basics to get started. It wasn’t meant to be an in-depth treatment of the skills you’ll eventually need to develop – I’ll include more advanced topics in later articles. In any case, I wish you the best of luck and hope you’re successful in your endeavours. Please reach out to me if something is unclear or you think I can help you in some way.
I hope this has been useful to you, and, as ever, I wish you all the best!
Do you agree with what I wrote here? Disagree? Did I miss something? Could I have done something better? Please let me know in the comments!