Succeeding in sales depends on many factors, some of them beyond your control. But what you can control is you. Jill Konrath, Blair Singer and Don Hutson offer these pointers to help you from sabotaging your own success.
1. Failing to Adequately Prepare
Even if you’re a veritable font of knowledge when it comes to your brand, proper preparation is always key, whether it’s for a cold call or a follow-up presentation. “The failure to prepare leads to a bad sales call and leads to the prospect taking control,” says Jill Konrath, sales strategist and author of two top-ranked sales books, SNAP Selling and Selling to Big Companies. “They see that the seller is lost and start asking questions and directing the conversation. It means they’re trying to quickly learn as much as they can so they don’t have to deal with you any longer.”
But she says being prepared doesn’t mean bringing in armfuls of paperwork and samples—especially on a first call—which can prevent the salesperson from focusing on the prospect’s needs and asking the right questions.
When it comes to preparation, practice makes perfect, says author and business development specialist Blair Singer: “Practice your opening lines or your elevator pitch hundreds of times out loud until you are comfortable, natural, passionate and pleasant. Know what key words, numbers and examples you need to gain the interest of the prospect.”
It’s also crucial to do your homework on your prospect. “Even if it is a cold call, know the businesses that you will be calling on in terms of type of business, their challenges and solutions,” Singer says. “Quickly checking their website before calling gives you a huge advantage for getting into their world early and shows interest and respect.”
2. Not Following Through on Your Word
A large part of building and maintaining trust with clients and prospects isn’t done with your words, but with your actions.
“Keep good records and make sure that you do what you say you are going to do,” Singer says. “No matter how small the agreement you make with someone, if you forget about it or blow it off, it posts a little negative stamp in the mind of that person. They remember. Trust is built through a series of interactions in which you make agreements and you keep them.”
Try deliberately making agreements and keeping them— “if for no other reason than to distinguish yourself from other competitors,” Singer says. These gestures can be as small as bringing by a book that the two of you chatted about or sending the phone number of a contact you thought would benefi them. In the event that you forget to honor your agreement, don’t just ignore it. “Clean it up as soon as you remember,” Singer says. “They will appreciate it.”
3. Trash Talking
As a salesperson, you’re much more than the representative of your product or service, says Don Hutson, sales growth specialist and author. “A trusted advisor is one who is perceived as a ‘high integrity expert’ who is willing and able to help people.”
Establishing and maintaining that integrity does not involve pointing fingers or launching attacks—pitfalls many salespeople stumble into when their clients are unhappy.
“It is a common mistake for some salespeople to take the side of the client,” Singer says. “When a client is upset with your company, many salespeople, in their desire to be liked, will agree with the client and bad mouth their own company. Bad idea!”
Although you may think you’re winning points with the client, you’re ultimately undermining yourself and your success by cutting down your own company. “Be professional about it and empathize, but resist the temptation to join in throwing rocks,” Singer says.
It’s also important to avoid bashing rival companies, as it sends negative vibes, makes you look petty and also causes the client to question whether you’re trying to compensate for something.
“Know your competition, but do not spend time trashing them,” Singer says. “Chances are, you either will be inaccurate or will even upset the client. Focus on what the customer wants, and show how you can deliver it to him. Talk about your unique advantage in the market, not about your competitor’s problems.”
4. Being Fake
No matter what profession you’re in, nobody likes a fake person, and that rings especially true for sales. Because so much of your success is based on trust, it’s important to be authentic and real.
“Do not try to be someone that you are not,” Singer says. “People want to trust someone who they know is genuine and honest. Many make the mistake of trying to look or act like someone they think others will like.”
There’s a fine line between being a cheerleader for your company and just being obnoxious, so do what feels natural. If you feel uncomfortable or that you’re being over the top, chances are your client or prospect will sense that, too. Gauge the person’s facial expressions and verbal reactions to see if you need to tone it up or down.
Konrath says to avoid superlatives—“best,” “greatest,” etc.— because they minimize your credibility, as these phrases are so overused that sometimes they convey no meaning at all.
And, while it may seem obvious, it’s never OK to lie. Sometimes that comes in the form of overpromising, but, either way, it’s a mistake.
“In the need to make a sale, people will exaggerate the truth or claims about what they can deliver,” Singer says. “This will always bite you in the shorts. Be as transparent as you can.”
5. Misidentifying the Prospect's Stage in Decision-Making
Every prospect is in one of two decision stages, says konrath: deciding whether to change, and then deciding with whom to make that change. When the salesperson doesn't identify which stage a prospect is in, he or she can't know how to correctly proceed.
“Sellers assume that, if a prospect wants to meet with them, that they’re making the decision about which option they want to go with, when, in reality, they may still be making a decision to change from the status quo,” Konrath says.
If prospects are in the first stage, then the conversation should be focused on their needs and concerns and what they want to accomplish. Only when they have reached the second stage is it appropriate for the salesperson to start talking about specific offerings.
"There's a fundamental difference, and salespeople don't get that," Konrath says. "A simple question could help them decide what to do: 'Have you already decided to change, or are you still trying to decide if it makes sense?'"
6. Forcing the Close
True, closing the deal is every salesperson’s main objective, but pushing a prospect to sign on the dotted line too soon could ruin your chances completely.
“Do not attempt to close the deal until you have earned the right,” Hutson says. “We do that by performing a great needs-analysis and showing high interest in solving their problems.”
Konrath agrees: “Going for the jugular too soon creates roadblocks.” Instead, she recommends, at the end of each meeting, you suggest the next logical step in the process, whether it’s having a follow-up meeting to learn about their organization in depth, interviewing a different person with the company or coming back with a proposal.
"At some point, the next step is to take care of the paperwork," she says. "The prospect will oftentimes start to close themselves. If you can do that, you've done a superb job because they want it, and you're not shoving it down their throat."
7. Neglecting the Long-Term Client
The proactive salesperson is always looking to expand his or her client base, but such efforts should never be at the expense of existing clients.
"Many times, salespeople are focused too much on getting new business, looking for new leaders and thus continually churning customers," Singer says. "The greatest source of additional business, referrals and killer testimonials comes from existing clients."
Hutson reminds us that it's "out of sight, out of mind," and recommends sending birthday or holiday cards, or even news articles that might pique their interest. "Anything that thoughfully keeps your name and/or face in front of them," he says. "Do this more and better than your competitors, and you will gain an edge."
He suggests designating a set amount of time each week to checking in on customers, asking how they're doing, how you can continue to support them and how your product or service is doing for them. "When you come across a great example, ask if you can use it for a testimonial, which will give you huge credibility with future prospects," he says.
Singer also points out that, if you're having a bad day or are in a seemingly endless sales slump, reconnection with long-term clients can give you a much-needed shot in the arm. "They are a great place to get your batteries recharged and to get your passion and self-confidence re-instilled if you have been taking care of them," he says. “There is nothing like getting patted on the back and sent out to take on the world again by those who love you!”
8. Shirking Accountability
Sales is a very autonomous profession: Instead of a typical 9-to-5 desk job, you're out in the field, working on your own. There isn’t a taskmaster looking over your shoulder, making sure the work gets done. Because of this lack of structure, salespeople must hold themselves accountable for their progress—or else they may quickly find themselves falling far behind.
“It’s important to make sure that all salespeople are answerable to their numbers on a frequent and regular basis—preferably weekly if not daily,” Singer says. “By being answerable to a number of calls, number of contacts, number of appointments, etc., it conditions salespeople to override their fears and lack of production so as not to look bad in front of their peers when their numbers are posted and reviewed for all of the sales team to see and debrief.”
He recommends setting daily goals—and pushing yourself to meet them before you quit for the day—and keeping track of these stats. “Show your stats to the rest of your team to keep yourself accountable and on purpose,” Singer says.
9. Not Self-Analyzing
Veteran sellers can fall into this trap more readily than newbies: Salespeople assume they’ve seen it all, done it all and know it all, and that, if sales are low or they blow a big deal, it’s due to external factors instead of internal ones. That’s not always the case, and as in every area of our lives, it’s important to continually self-assess.
“Only one out of seven salespeople will self-assess, and those who do are top sellers,” says Konrath. “They should constantly be in learning mode. There’s no right or wrong way in sales, only ways to be more effective.” One of the most objective ways is to simply look at the black-and-white facts: your numbers, beyond just dollars and cents. How many calls have you made? How many contacts do you have? How long are you holding onto prospects before they either close or fade away?
“Numbers don’t lie,” Singer says. “They will point out all of your strong habits and will magnify your weaknesses of habit, attitude and skill. With the numbers, it is easy to spot what speci.c parts of the selling cycle you need to work on.”
Having a good mentor or coach (possibly your sales manager) who will give you an honest opinion and constructive criticism is a huge asset. “If you are only critiquing yourself to yourself without honest and quality outside feedback, you have little chance of improving quickly,” Singer says.
“I’d say rule No. 1 is to get that perspective,” Hutson says. “After strengths are known and agreed upon, build on them as your foundation for success. After weaknesses are known and agreed upon, develop a plan to eliminate those you can through focused training and development activities, and at least manage those you cannot totally eliminate.”
Finally, it never hurts to go to the source: your clients themselves. “Debrief every call immediately,” Singer says. “What worked and what did not—and write it down. You will correct faster, and it will keep your attitude high."