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Taking a day off – from selling

A couple of my colleagues and I went to an interesting talk on Friday by the excellent Anil Seth from the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex.

The event was hosted by the Headstrong Club, which has been debating the hot topics of the day since at least the 18th century, although it only more recently relaunched – in 1987.

Anil gave a very lively run through eight key areas that he and his colleagues are researching. I really liked the way his team are integrating recent technological advances such as virtual reality into their research – as with their VR version of the rubber hand illusion (here’s the background).

I am a sucker for this kind of thing, and also like the perceptual illusions which are often used to illustrate some of the surprising ways the brain works; I especially enjoyed Anil’s version of the amazing colour changing card trick.

But I don’t know if it was this talk or something else that meant I woke up this morning deeply aware that everyone is always selling something.

I respectfully include Anil, because actually one of the bits of his talk that most stuck in my mind was his answer to a question about which other key aspects of consciousness are worthy of research.

His perhaps only partly flippant answer was something like “those that attract funding”.

I liked this answer because it seemed to me to be an honest acknowledgement of that need that I also share – to be always selling.

There’s a probably apocryphal story of an academic and a salesman meeting at a party.

Quickly they engage in a debate around the value of each others’ profession. The story ends with the academic unconsciously proving the salesman’s point, by saying “Just give me 5 minutes and I’ll tell you why my profession is worth so much…”.

At its worst selling is a intrusion, a subtle form of violence. An attempt to manipulate someone into doing what they don’t want to do.

At its best it is a form of helping – a way of gently discovering what another person really needs and helping them gain it for themselves.

And I am not just talking about buying a physical product. I am also talking about ‘buying’ ideas. Selling is just as relevant to politicians and therapists.

So I suppose what I am really noticing this morning, and objecting to a little, is that desire in me to manipulate another.

And I am recognising the difficulty of staying in a place where I seek to get my own needs met, without having to persuade others to adopt my point of view.

And perhaps I am making a little plea? Could we all take a day off from trying to persuade others that we are right? Or that we have something that the other needs?

Let’s all just stop selling for the day, and see what happens.

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The need to please

I have a strong need for acceptance.

Whenever I have done personality tests I have always been grateful for the kind psychologist’s desire to cast the most positive light on this aspect of my personality. Words like “introverted”, “extremely sensitive” and “would enjoy working one-on-one with others” could, of course, be written in a less positive way: that I fear rejection and have a deep-rooted need to please others.

But hold on. Rejection is something we all suffer from, isn’t it? And haven’t I heard it said that the sales person’s greatest skill is overcoming rejection? That confuses me a little because sales people always seem to me to be so focussed on their relationships – perhaps paradoxically they also have a very high need for acceptance, but show it differently from me?

My personally preferred route would be to avoid human contact a lot of the time, and avoid rejection at all costs.

But, in business, that isn’t always possible. And over the course of my working life I have probably done quite a lot of selling. Several things have made it possible for me.

Firstly, major bits of reframing. I see selling not as the activity of using my charm and personality to win someone over to my point of view. Rather I have learnt to see it as a qualification exercise: one where I simply ask questions to find out if this person desires whatever I have to sell.

I see selling as helping. After all that is how I sometimes experience being sold to. If I need something and a helpful salesperson gently guides me to the product I want, in the right size and the right colour; and gently removes my fears – about what I’ll do if I change my mind later, for example – I am a happy customer.

And I have learnt to see the word “no“, or indeed any other word which signifies the conversation is not heading in my chosen direction, with great curiosity. “What on earth do they mean by that?”, I ask myself. “What are you really trying to say?”. I have built my curiosity muscle – and if I use it often the conversation may take another, sometimes quite unexpected turn.

Essential to all of these is reducing the emotional burden behind the thoughts. I am a fan of cognitive behavioural therapy and actually enjoy the process of trying to reframe my thinking around the harder areas of my life. But I know that if there is deep-seated emotion still sitting around in me while I try to see the world differently, reframing will have only limited success.

Awareness is, for me, the most powerful way to lessen that emotional burden. Gradually, over time, inch-by-inch I think I am becoming stronger, and more able to deal with my need for acceptance; and this seems well correlated with my growing awareness of it.

And finally to action: Testing my beliefs to destruction seems to give me the ultimate proof I need to make real progress. Each time I find myself in a sales situation, and I practice “helping”, I practice asking those questions, and I practice just sitting with those difficult feelings, I seem to get just a little bit stronger.

I break my old habits and I forge new, more appropriate ones. That’s how it seems to go for me. What about you?

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Selling, new style

A new year and a new president. Change is in the air. And as lots of people are saying, now is also the time for a new type of business.

A new type of business needs a new type of purpose. Sustainability is one.

A new type of purpose also needs a new type of marketing. Maybe not exactly a new type. But at least a return to a truer, more authentic type of marketing. Marketing that is about figuring out what people really want and giving it to them.

There’s been a lot written and said about more authentic marketing in the last few years. And in my opinion, social media is one of the opportunities to make that goal of authenticity much more real. What better way, for example, to find out what people really want?

But as well as marketing, every business needs to sell something. So what does a new type of selling, one that’s suitable for a new type of business, look like?

Again perhaps it’s not exactly new. But it’s definitely a change from the used-car salesman type of selling we have come to associate with all sorts of products from financial services to …, well, used-cars.

According to Huthwaite, for example,  the new type of selling is consultative. I’m a fan of their approach. Maybe I take it further than they intend but for me most selling techniques they and others suggest can be practiced authentically and honestly.

Asking questions to find out what a customer’s problems are? Don’t invent problems. And don’t project your own or others problems on to them. Instead really listen. Yes, really, really listen. Find out what those real, deep-down problems are, and you’ll find gold.

Asking questions to find  out the impact of these problems? Don’t manufacture fear. Don’t scare the customer into buying your solution. Instead, work with them to uncover what the real risks are. Write them down, agree them, quantify them if you can.

There’s absolutely no point in manufacturing fear. As soon as the customer cools off, if they’re half-sane, they’ll go back to a more balanced point of view. And forget any dangers that seemed real during your oh-so-clever sales call. You’ll lose the sale and waste everyones’ time.

Another well known sales technique is to answer a question with a question. In the trade this is called the “porcupine”. A trivial and annoying gimmick, a way to buy the salesperson time? Or a way to better uncover a need?

When people ask questions, sometimes it doesn’t really come from curiosity. Sometimes they have a point to make. So “how quickly does your product degrade?” may really mean “I am concerned about damaging the environment”. Use the porcupine to further understand this concern, in all its depth, and how it relates to the broader set of needs the customer has.

“Always be closing” – the salesperson’s mantra. Isn’t this just another way we recognise pushy sales technique? Another abhorrent bit of behaviour that means that sales people are so low in status that we have to artificially compensate them (with loads of money) for their otherwise valueless job?

Not for me. Good sales people learn to love the word “no”, offered in response to any close. “No” is simply a sign that you haven’t fully understood the needs and the drivers and the circumstances. It means you haven’t  found a way yet to give that customer or client what they really, truly and deeply need. You’re probably not even conscious of that need.

But it also means you’re on the way. Keep going, keep working with the “No”s, keep a true heart and you will find the way.


Little things count

My son has recently learnt to read. What a wonder and a joy. A whole new world of ideas magically available to him – the wisdom of the ages, and access to dreams of the future.

I went into Habitat to buy him a reading light. I saw a nice little light. I noticed it had a small, low energy bulb. I took a boxed one to the counter. Bought it and took it home.

How frustrating – when I opened the box there was no bulb.

For the first next couple of days I ranted and railed at anyone who would listen about the salesman’s failure to up-sell me. As I have said before anything to do with selling seems to have a bad name but it’s poor selling I don’t like, not selling itself.

Why is up-selling important?

Increasing the size of a transaction is directly related to the company’s profitability. Here was an opportunity for the salesman to increase the sale value by 10%. At very low additional cost to the company. They offer low-energy bulbs. All he had to do was ask if I wanted one.

More importantly, imagine how angry I was when I got home and discovered there was no bulb in the box.  What use is a light without a lightbulb? That salesman and his company upset my feelings and those of my disappointed child. Upset my feelings and I will not only be angry next time I go near the store, but I will tell as many people as I can what a bad experience I had. Not great for the company’s profitability.

Is profit king? For me, yes. Profitability is a direct measure of the value the company gives to its customers. Profit is used to develop and grow the company, invest in people, training and capabilities – and ultimately in giving a better service to customers. People complain about profit but what they are usually complaining about is what is done with profit (excessive executive pay, greedy shareholders etc) not profit itself.

Lack of profit is not good from the employee’s and the economy’s point of view either.

And what about the environmental angle? Maybe I shouldn’t have bought this light at all. My view is less extreme – we all need to live, and while I will do my best to reduce my carbon footprint and help others do the same where I can, life without some of its basic joys seems grim indeed.

If I am going to buy the light, then I am the kind of consumer who’ll pay extra for a low-energy bulb not an old-fashioned one. I’ll happily pay extra for anything that assuages my conscience in this area. I hope Habitat’s record on sweat shops and human rights is OK. I hope they have a “Plan A”.

So what happened from an environmental point of view? The failure to up-sell caused a wasted trip to replace the bulb, with all it’s environmental consequences. Of course I can time it so that I am in town anyway, but you get the point. Failure to up-sell can be environmentally inefficient too.

When I went back to the store a few days later, I was still fuming a little.  Maybe that’s why I wasn’t thinking well. I told the guy I needed a bulb for the light. I nearly started talking to him about up-selling but bit my lip. As I said, I was still a little angry. He sold me a bulb. I popped it in my bag and took it home.

The end? Not quite. When I opened the box, I discovered an old-fashioned bulb not a low-energy one. The display lamp had a low-energy bulb. I’d assumed that’s what I’d get. The new sales guy got me something else.

If I had any hair, I’d tear it out. Good selling to me is about understanding needs. I had a need. A need for a light bulb, yes. But also a need to feel good about myself. To do something better for the environment. To confirm my self-image as a good citizen.

This poor sales guy failed. He mis-sold me. He’s damaged the reputation of the company. He’s reduced its turnover. He’s reduced its margin (I swear there’s more profit on a low-energy bulb than an old-fashioned one). He’s made me very unhappy.

And maybe he’s contributed to damage to the environment – maybe I’ll use the old-fashioned bulb? Or should I make a third trip?

OK, I wasn’t clear enough about my needs. That’s clearly my responsibility. But the company also contributed to the problem, because the salesman didn’t ask me what I needed.  Because the company didn’t teach him how to sell well. Such a little thing.