What Makes a Great Salesperson?

4 top sales managers share the qualities they feel make the difference between good and great when it comes to selling

Chris O’Hara, Chief revenue officer, LookSmart, Ltd.

You cannot be a great salesperson these days without some profoundly advanced writing skills. Why do I say that? Every morning on the train from Cold Spring Harbor to Penn Station, for the bulk of the 56-minute ride, 70 percent of the people on the train will be doing some writing—mostly pecking at their mobile devices. That’s a big change from 15 years ago. Back then, writing was something that happened in a more formal setting, when you sat in front of your workstation and crafted a memo, or wrote a proposal after a sales call. Back then, your prospects mostly communicated by phone—and would even answer it once in a while.

What does that mean for today’s sales team? A lot. First of all, your prospects are online…all day long. They are answering emails, reading newsletters, browsing websites, checking their Twitter feeds, and updating their Facebook status. They let phone calls go to voicemail, and comb through their messages once or twice a day. If you are in my business [digital advertising], your prospects are being assaulted by 30 emails a day, all promising to solve the problems of modern media, each with their own compelling value proposition. So, how do you break through all that noise and clutter, and get your prospect to acknowledge you? Good writing.

What makes good writing? Good grammar, constructing a proper sentence, and being able to tell a story all help. What is especially important is avoiding the use of “internet casual” abbreviations in email correspondence. An email should not read like a text message. When you are asking for somebody’s trust and business, it is important to maintain a level of formality and integrity.

As important as writing is, being able to comprehend the industry your team is selling to is equally as important. You probably have four to five competitors that are calling on the same people, trying to sell them something quite similar to your product. What’s going to differentiate your salesperson from the salesperson down the street is not just your product, but what you are providing beyond the product. That thing is called information.

When your salespeople reach out to prospects, are they offering more than just a chance to buy something? If they provide interesting industry news, opinion, or perspective on an issue, or (best of all) a valuable industry connection or introduction, then they are not just selling, they are also building a valuable relationship. The ability to be that type of salesperson revolves around reading everything they can about the field they are in, and becoming an expert. Not everyone can do this, but the 5 to 10 percent of sellers who can position themselves as industry experts will be vastly more successful than the average seller.

Most of us don’t have the perfect, reasonably priced product that just happens to be ready exactly when the customer, money in hand, wants to buy it. Therefore, the key to sales is constantly being around, so that when this miracle of circumstance happens, your salesperson is on the receiving end of it. That translates to your sales team calling a lot of people to remind them that they have something to sell, going to a lot of trade shows, and constantly staying in touch with their prospects. Do this enough, and eventually someone will buy something. Why? Like you, the customer is naturally lazy and wants to get the maximum return on the minimum amount of effort. He has already gone through a lot of annoying work and plenty of bad table wine with you to get to the point where he is comfortable enough to buy something, and he doesn’t want to relive that process all over again. Therefore, even if your product is a little worse or slightly pricier than that of your competitor, he will sooner buy it from you than start a whole new relationship and, worse yet, fill out another credit application.

The number one trait to be avoided is the tendency some salespeople have to sell too soon. A real salesperson should do more listening than selling, especially on the first several appointments. Prospects can read PowerPoints, too. If that’s what your team is doing on sales calls, they should consider another line of work.

[This appeared in the October 2012 issue of New York Enterprise Report]

Looking for the Best Salesman? Find the Best Writer.

Today’s Dependence on Written Communication Means Your Next Great Salesperson May be an English Major

A headhunter recently asked me if she could help me recruit some new salespeople to our organization, and asked me what qualities I was looking for I told her, “Find me a great writer, and I’ll make a salesperson out of him.”

Why a writer? Look around. I’m riding on the 7:17 AM train from Cold Spring Harbor to Penn Station right now and, for the bulk of the 56 minute ride, 70% of the people on the train will be doing some writing—mostly pecking into their mobile devices. That’s a big change from 15 years ago. Back then, writing was something that happened in a more formal setting, when you sat in front of your workstation and crafted a memo, or wrote a proposal after a sales call. Back then, your prospects mostly communicated by phone—and would even answer it once in a while.

What does that mean for today’s online sales organization? A lot. First of all, your prospects are online…all day long. They are answering internal e-mails, reading newsletters, web browsing, checking their twitter feeds, and updating their Facebook status. They let phone calls go to voicemail, and comb through their messages once or twice a day. If you are in my business, your prospects are being assaulted by 30 e-mails a day from new start-up companies in the space, all promising to solve the problems of modern media, each with their own compelling value proposition. So, how do you break through all that noise and clutter, and get your prospect to acknowledge you?

Good writing.

Did you ever read an e-mail that made you laugh right off the bat, or had such a compelling subject line that you simply had to open it? How about an e-mail that felt like it was written exactly for you, or one that automatically answered a business question you’ve been asking for a while?  Those are the e-mails that get opened, read past the second line, and flagged in your inbox for later action….the ones that break through all the noise and make a connection. They are hard to write, and finding the people that can write them is even harder. But in a world where the written word is truly king, those that can communicate the most effectively in writing will be the leaders.

For Randy Daux, a recruiter with Howard Sloan Keller, the leading retained search firm in the media space, it’s all about knowing your audience. “Writing allows for a connection between writer and reader and is a demonstration not just of intelligence, but empathy and understanding, as well.  How many times has each of us read a cover letter or marketing email which, directed at a broad audience and without an understanding of our business objectives, we simply moved to the trash?  Competent, targeted, and emotive writing is capable of cutting through our increasingly frenetic and multi-tasked lives, and really making someone stand out.  Moreover, with everyone tied to a computer or iPhone (or Blackberry) 24/7, there’s little excuse for lack of communicative capability.”

Luckily, finding the best writers among your prospect list is fairly simple: look at their cover letters and judge them on the merits. Few candidates understand that, in sales, the easiest thing you can sell is yourself. If you can’t make a compelling argument for your own employment as a salesperson (knowing the “product” as well as you do), then I don’t want you selling something of mine. The cover letter is your gateway to understanding the way a good candidate thinks and, more importantly, expresses himself in written form. Here are some things to look for:

* Your Name: Did she get it right? Or are you “Whom it May Concern” or, worse yet, “Hiring Manager?” If your company has an “About Us” section, then your candidate should know who is in control of the hire, and address the cover letter appropriately. Even if you are not listed on the masthead, if your company has a phone number, then your candidate should be able to get the name and e-mail address of the hiring manager or HR person in charge of the hire. Would you let a salesman send a “To Whom it May Concern” e-mail to a prospect? Of course not.

* The Knowledge: Does your candidate know the first thing about your company and its hiring needs? Does she spell the company’s name correctly (don’t laugh…this is not uncommon), and know what the company does? Does the cover letter reference the actual job title in the body of the e-mail? Hint: if you get a cover letter for a “Sales Director” position that talks about “the exciting Director of Business Development position,” then you’ve just been mail-merged. Would you allow a salesperson to send 20 strategically important prospects a canned cover letter like that? No, you wouldn’t. Randy Duax, whose firm recruits for Pointroll, the Huffington Post, and The Knot, expresses a similar sentiment:  “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve Googled a sentence or two from a cover letter a candidate sent me to find it was copied and pasted from a stock cover letter/resume website.  If someone is going to put minimal effort into interfacing with me in such a fashion, how are they going to act when they’re actually in a sales role?”

* What Can I Do For You? Too many cover letters focus on the needs and skills of the salesperson, rather than the needs of the company that is hiring. You don’t have to be trained in the Huthwaite methodology to know that the first rule of sales is to get to know the customers’ problems before you try and solve them. The candidate that leaps right into his pitch without demonstrating knowledge of your needs is like a salesman who goes into a meeting and immediately leaps into a 30 slide PowerPoint. Do you want a salesforce that “sprays and prays,” or a consultative seller that can break down the digital media ecosystem, and explain your company’s place in it, relative to the issues your prospects are facing? The latter, of course. If your candidate leads by putting your needs before his, that’s one sign of a seasoned seller.

* The Close: Last, and never least, is the close. What is the “ask” your candidate is making? For an interview? Is the candidate’s “collateral” being left behind (her resume) compelling? Does the candidate reference anything besides her resume, or lead you to a place where you can find out more about her (a article or write paper she wrote, her LinkedIn page, or even an industry article you might be interested in)? Being a good salesperson means always getting a yes, no, or a continuation. Look at your candidate’s close, and see if it makes you want to take the next steps. If she can’t get to second base with you (an engaged “prospect” if there ever was one), then it’s likely that she can’t get there with one of your customers, either.

There are a lot of good salespeople out there, but few great ones. The great ones in the modern era are going to be the ones that can break through the clutter, and deliver the messages that your prospects want to read. They are the ones who not only communicate through e-mail the most powerfully, but the ones who write the Twitter messages that tend to get retweeted, and maintain a blog with their industry observations, and post the Facebook messages that don’t make you want to immediately “hide” them. The best salespeople know what you want, and deliver the content that addresses that need. Finding them is as easy as being a great reader.

[This article originally appeared in Adotas, 4/28/10]