Sunday, January 29, 2012

From Dog Food to Filet Mignon: My Selling Journey As An Introvert

Are you a highly educated introverted professional who is required to sell your services and meet revenue goals, as part of your job?  Do you ever doubt yourself and your abilities to sell?  Do you feel uncomfortable with the idea of selling, and being viewed as a sales person? When it comes to selling, many introverts doubt their abilities to sell.  I used to be one of them.

My very first job out of college was as a Sales Engineer for a major oil company.  Landing on the job, after receiving some initial product training, I was given a car, a territory, a map, and told go at it.  I was to call on contractors selling commodity items that included fuels and lubricants for heavy machinery.  While I was thrilled to have a company car, it was not exactly what I expected the job to be. It was frankly a pure selling role. Never figured out at the time where the engineer part was that was also part of the job title.

In any event, thinking sales people are supposed to be outgoing and that it's about fast talking, back slapping, shooting the breeze, I tried to do all that.  I even grew a mustache so I would look older than I did at the time, so people would take me seriously.  In hind site, I must have looked awfully stupid because as an introvert, such behavior is so counter to who I am.

Nearly every day frankly in that job was a misery, and I hated it.  While I loved the part about learning and meeting people, I just couldn't get used to idea of me selling.  And frankly I hadn't gone to college and studied Chemical Engineering only to then become a salesman.  But I loved the car and I was finally making some money, and so was too hesitant to quit.  Finally, much to my relief, my employer kicked my behind out the door.  While it hurt my ego, I said to myself "Thank God".  And I wowed never to go into sales again.  (Though I failed at the time, it would be decades later I would come to see this part of my career as a gift.  That's a topic for another time however.)

Well, as they say, never say never. Ten years later, I was back doing Business-to-Business sales, and it is here I came to see that in the right place with the right offerings, we introverts can really sell and do it very well.  In this new role, I decided to just be myself, and it worked.  As a result of some steps, which I learned through many trials and errors, I ended up enjoying numerous referrals, highest margins, strong client retention, and remained top producer for a long time. 

How did I succeed in sales the second time?  Here it is:
  • Gained Expertise: Having a passion for learning, I spent countless hours learning about all aspects of the business. I become an expert in the business, in what we were selling, and to whom I was selling.  I learned the ins and outs of what I sold, how it was produced, and how our offerings benefited our customers.  This also meant I made the time to understand who our ideal customers were, what challenges they were facing, how our offerings helped them, and what made us different-unique from our competitors.
  • Freely Shared Expertise:  As I enjoy writing and sharing knowledge, I wrote articles, participated actively in various electronic discussion groups, developed and delivered training courses.  These writings led to my being invited to serve on various committees and speak at conferences.  In the process I came to know many people within my target market, and more importantly they came to know me.  All this contributed to my establishing visibility, credibility, and trust.
  • Asked for Face-2-Face Meetings:  This is one area I had to push myself out of my comfort zone.  Given people within my target market were coming to know me through above mentioned activities, getting meetings became easier, over time.  Still, I had to make conscious effort to reach out and ask for meetings, for business, for opportunities to serve.  Initially this was very uncomfortable and over time with practice it became easier.  
  • Helped Solve Problems:  I enjoy helping people solve problems.  Therefore, in meetings, I never tried to sell.  Frankly I couldn't do it even if I tried.  Instead I asked numerous questions, took time to probe to understand clients' needs and challenges. Then when it made sense I helped them understand how what we offered could help them.  In other words, selling happened when it made sense and this naturally led to business.  Of course there were many times I had to still ask for the business. But when the value was clear, it really wasn't very difficult to do.
  • Built Strong Relationships:  As I like people, many of my clients in time also became my close friends. Though I am no longer in that business, some remain close friends to this day.  Building such relationships made business more enjoyable and led to much more business too, from both existing clients and their colleagues who were referred to me.
  • Went Deep, Went Wide: As client relationships became stronger, I was given opportunities to help them solve more and more problems they were facing across various departments.  This led to my taking more of my offerings deeper into my clients' organizations.  This not only helped them, it also led to relationships becoming more "sticky", i.e. making me less likely to be displaced by a competitor.
  • Remained Curious, Constantly Asked Questions:  By on-goingly asking clients questions such as "how am I doing?" and "what more can I do for you?", they gave me lots of feedback, which we used to make improvements and develop additional offerings. They told me what's important to them, what they need, what made us stand out from the competition, and so on. In essence, customers told me how to sell to them and what to sell.  Doesn't get any better then this.
Bottom line is that introverts can and do absolutely succeed in selling.  So if you're an introverted professional who is required to sell and generate revenue as part of your role, fear not.  If I can do it, you can too.  Just be yourself, and just do it.  Leverage your natural strengths, take types of steps I shared above, and success will follow in due time.  I can guarantee it.

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