The Secret Weapon of Salespeople Every Entrepreneur Should Steal
It’s easier to become a great salesperson than you might think
I was quizzing a pre-revenue entrepreneur about customer acquisition. He was practicing his fundraising pitch with me, and he’d spent the entire time talking about his product. I wanted to know how he was going to sell it. Finally, he’d had enough of my questions.
“I’m a product guy,” he huffed. “Can’t I just tell investors I’ll hire some MBA to do the selling for me? Isn’t that what I’m raising money for, anyway? So I can hire people, I mean.”
I shook my head. “No, you can’t,” I answered. “You’re the founder. If you can’t sell your product, nobody can.”
“But I suck at talking to people,” he moaned.
“That’s your problem,” I said.
“That I suck at talking to people?” he replied. “I already know that!”
“No,” I answered. “You just told me you suck at talking to customers. But you should never be talking to customers. You should always be talking with customers.”
I’ll admit the point I was making probably seems like a tiny grammatical nitpick. Unfortunately, I encounter the problem so often from entrepreneurs that I often find myself having to highlight it. Sometimes, as entrepreneurs, we get so focused on building things for our customers that we forget our job isn’t to tell them what they need. Instead, effective conversations with customers require that we talk and listen.
The myth of the “great” salesperson
The most common misconception about effective salespeople is that they’re great at talking to people. But that’s a myth. Great salespeople aren’t necessarily great at talking to people. They’re great at listening to people.
This is the critical distinction entrepreneurs need to understand in order to get better at talking with customers. Entrepreneurs who struggle talking with customers are usually struggling because they’re focused on talking about themselves, their products, their companies, and/or whatever they’re building. But that’s not how great salespeople make sales..
Instead, great salespeople focus on asking questions and learning about potential customers. They do this because asking questions is the secret weapon of sales.
Why questions matter
When you learn to ask prospective customers the rights kinds of questions — questions about themselves and their businesses — something incredible happens: they tell you everything you need to know in order to sell to them. That’s right… everything you need to know! They give it away, for free, like it’s the least valuable information in the world.
In contrast, for you, as the entrepreneur trying to sell them on something, their information has enormous value. All you have to do is listen carefully to their answers to figure out what they need. Selling is really that simple.
So instead of trying to talk to customers, enter every conversation with genuine curiosity. Try to learn, first and foremost, about the people you’re talking with. Where are they from? What do they enjoy? What do they hate? What’s their family like? What are their favorite sports teams or movies or hobbies?
I realize, on its surface, learning personal details about people seems unrelated to selling them your product, but it’s not. Remember that companies don’t make purchasing decisions… people make purchasing decisions. And people have passions. Understanding those passions and connecting with those passions builds trust, and trust is necessary in all transactions. After all, you wouldn’t buy a car from someone you don’t trust, would you? You wouldn’t buy food from a restaurant you don’t trust. And nobody is going to buy your startup’s product if they don’t trust you.
Once you’ve gotten to know the person and built trust, it’s time to learn about the person’s needs. You want to learn things like:
- What problem do they have (related to your product)?
- How are they currently dealing with the problem?
- What other things have they tried to do to solve the problem?
- How big of a problem do they perceive it to be?
- How soon are they hoping to resolve the problem?
- What’s the buying process for a potential solution?
- Who would be involved in the buying process?
- What’s the budget for buying a potential solution?
Hopefully you can see how, once you have answers to those kinds of questions, making a sale becomes much easier. You’ll understand how potential customers view the problem you’re addressing, and you’ll be able to more easily frame your solution in a way that fits with what they need and what they’re looking for.
Similarly, by asking those kinds of questions, you’ll also be able to determine if your solution won’t work for them. That’s not necessarily bad either. Better to end the conversation as quickly as possible than waste time selling to someone who’s never going to buy. Remember, your most valuable asset is your time, so don’t waste it.
Either way — whether the person is a great potential customer, a terrible potential customer, or something somewhere in between — keep reminding yourself that sales isn’t a process of telling people why they should buy your product. Instead, sales is a process of learning what problems people have and then, if relevant, showing how your product can help solve their problems.
And if none of that helps you get better at selling, then just remember this little trick: if, during a sales conversation, you ever find yourself talking for longer than 30 seconds, it means you’re doing something wrong! Immediately stop whatever you’re saying and ask the other person a question.