As anyone who has ever tried to sell anything may or may not tell you – whether they’re pushing a glass of wine or an entire French vineyard – there is always more to the deal than just bringing the right product and the right prospect together. Admittedly, most of us may spend the bulk of our time and energy trying to bring about that felicitous meeting, but there is a long way to go once you actually get into a room together. You still have to be able to play a good hand once you’re in there.
Salesmanship is one of those nebulous, ill-defined skills that everybody recognizes after the fact – but putting your finger on what it is that separates the big closers from the small-time losers is far more mysterious than hindsight admits. Actually delivering your own sales is even more enigmatic.
Every professional you speak to will be able to make a case for their specialty being fundamental to the success of any venture: no HR means no staff, means no business; no IT means no website, means no work for anyone; no accountancy means no grasp of the numbers, means no business… and so it goes on. But underpinning each and every one of those aspects of commercial life is the ability to sell. Without sales there simply can be no commerce because there simply won’t be the money to pay for accountants or IT or anything else. Maybe that’s why, according to analyst Sam Williams, there were over 23 million sales people in the USA in 2012.
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There is a famous article by author Albert Z Carr that describes an analogy between doing business and playing poker. He says that in both cases, and in equal measure, there are sets of specific rules that everyone involved understands and that those rules operate on their own terms. The key point for Carr is that within the terms of your respective ‘game’, whether that’s in business or poker, the people who mysteriously keep emerging at the top of the food chain are the ones who can both build and execute a clear-sighted strategy for success and read their prospects’/opponents’ reactions.
Indeed, it is down to the individual salesman or poker player to gauge the party sitting across them and adapt their behavior accordingly. They must use the strategic concepts they possess “like the colors on an artist’s palette: the basic colors are the same, but the artist’s use of them is unique and stylistic”.
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And nowhere is this more sharply observed than at the crucial point where you ask your prospect for his or her money. That’s the absolute tipping point for the business. A sales meeting is where strategy meets the money, it’s the dramatic high point of business activity. All those high-tension poker scenes you’ve seen in the movies are boiled down in that meeting into just a few vital moments. Say the wrong thing and the deal is dead, lose your nerve and your profits will slip through your fingers.
The “super salesman” and the elite poker player have this in common: they share a sense that strategies for success rely on their ability to work those rules to maximum advantage. They have to know where they can cut a margin and just where their prospect is in their journey towards a decision. Again, it is the ongoing calculation of both the numbers and the people in front of you that makes Carr’s poker analogy ring true.
And there’s the thing. As a salesman, you know what you have to offer. You know the price you can afford to sell at and the price you would like to sell at. As a buyer, your prospect will, for their part, know what they can afford to pay, how much they want to pay and – every bit as importantly – how much they want or need your product. The ritual that establishes the point of agreement between the pair of you might as well be played out in a small room over a green baize table.
Poker players talk in terms of ‘tells’ – the tiny signs that give away what an opponent is thinking – a tilt of the head, a nervy sip at a drink, or some other inadvertent clue of a disturbed internal state. That’s why the famous poker face is so crucial. And, inevitably, that is equally true of what happens in a sales meeting.
And therein lies the secret of success in sales, whether you’re one of the 28 million US small businesses or working for one of the Fortune 500. Your strategy must be in place when it comes to the numbers and the mechanics of how any deal pans out. But getting to know your prospects well enough to almost read their minds will always be a winner.
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