How to Help Non-Sales Staff Sell

July 31, 2009

Copyright 2005/2009

Asking non-sales staff to sell is an issue that arises more and more these days, as organizations compete to move their products and services. Sounds good on the surface, but the request (or demand) often terrifies people who don’t do sales on a regular basis. If they are going to participate in sales activities they need help. I first wrote about this in 2005 and am updating that article here.

There is nothing wrong with sales. It is just another manifestation of influence. If the influence is of benefit to the person being influenced, then most societies would usually agree it is a “good” thing.

So, why are some people and not others afraid of selling? For the answer to this question, which I did not address in my original piece in 2005, I’m drawing on neuroscientist Dr. Gregory Berns’ 2008 book iconoclast, particularly his commentary on “fear”. My conclusion is that some people fear sales because they are uncertain of the benefit of the influence sales represents. They suffer from “ambiguity”, or the inherent fear of the unknown. And/or, they may, like a third of Americans, suffer from the same fear that arises from that most common phobia – public speaking. It’s the fear of failure.

In his book, Berns references the science of these fears and notes some experiments that prove the power of these fears and their effect on human behaviour. When people who have these fears hear the word “sales”, a movie runs in their head and it triggers a reaction. Think of the fear inherent in making the initiating phone call with the prospective client, or in the “asking for the order” of closing the sale. These images trigger the socially debilitating condition – fear of rejection.

Before I get into solutions to these fears, let me answer another question. Why would organizations want to have non-sales staff selling? We hear from clients that they want as many points of contact with potential customers as possible. We hear that they also want staff to cross-sell products and services to existing customers. Consulting companies want consultants to go out and bring in new business, or “kill their dinner” as they say. But many of these people are not psychologically equipped to go out and “sell”.

A number of years ago, I received a call from a truly desperate PR consultant who practically begged me to help him find new business or to get another job. A consulting  firm had recruited him from a position at an industrial association because of his knowledge of a particular industry sector. He told me he had been promised that the firm had lots of business for him to work on and that he would only occasionally be required to participate in new business pitches. Well, that lasted for a couple of months, and then he was told that he had to make a far more substantial contribution to his billings from clients he was to bring into the firm – or he would be let go. This was a likeable, knowledgeable fellow – but a salesman he wasn’t and he knew it. When he told his wife, she was devastated. She had warned him not to leave the association for the consulting field. His distress and bleak prospects had such an effect on me that I use his story as a cautionary tale for anyone who asks me about a career change, where the selling reality is not fully understood. His story also prompted me to want to find a solution to the problem.

Another situation where non-sales staff are asked to participate in selling occurs when the organization has to make a sales presentation as part of a bid on a major contract. We’ve seen these situations cause serious concern amongst these staff. Organizations that realize the terror this creates come to us looking for training/coaching assistance, to help their non-sales staff to be less anxious and to make a better showing for the prospective client.

So, what help do we provide these terrified staff?  I should note here that the solutions offered were not derived from, but are consistent with Berns’ commentary on “Taming the Amygdala Through Reappraisal and Extinction”. (The amygdala is the brain’s fear centre.)

Here are 3 critical components:

1. Brand/Reputation-building, not sales

Change the words and you change the perception of what is being asked of staff. Sales to most non-sales staff (and even to some salespeople!) is as frightening as giving a speech to an audience of 1,000 people. In truth, these people are not really being asked to close deals. Usually they are being asked to find selling opportunities or to contribute to the sales process, not necessarily to do the actual sale.

It makes sense to use language that doesn’t frighten staff. In fact, what most non-sales staff do is deliver the product or service. If they do it well and look after the customers, they help to build the brand image and enhance the reputation of the organization, thus making sales easier. If the task is explained in those terms to staff, there is likely to be far less anxiety.

2. Customer knowledge

I always want to have the customer knowledge discussion in these sessions. Non-sales staff have a perspective on their customer and some have a deep knowledge. However, many haven’t fully thought through their customer’s wants and needs. A customer knowledge discussion puts a current perspective about the customer in their heads. It often stimulates a conscious empathy for the customer. Eliciting an expression of interest in helping the customer get what they want/need isn’t difficult after this discussion.

It may seem like a “no-brainer”, but too often this knowledge and consciousness is taken for granted. When we ask them to tell us the customer’s story at the beginning of this exercise, they can’t. We get part of the story, but not all. So, we should never assume staff have it top of mind. We should always work through the customer knowledge discussion.

How powerful is this customer mindset? I met the top salesperson for the largest region in a particular division of a major bank. We talked about sales. He said he never sold. He just gave the customers what they asked for. Their ask which resulted in the sale would come after he explored their wants and needs with them, as well as the possible solutions and products that might satisfy those wants and needs. He said he never asked them to buy a product. He didn’t have to. They asked him. His success was based on customer knowledge. And while the monetary reward was good, he said looking after the customer was what he enjoyed most. No anxiety or terror here.

3. Personal contribution

Most employees believe they are making a contribution and take pride in what they do. We tap into that. We get them to tell us what that contribution is and how it helps the customer. Then we ask, if they were speaking to a customer or prospect, would they feel comfortable in talking about their knowledge of the customer? Or how they as employees contribute at their organization to satisfying the customer want/need? Customers more often want to hear a credible story about how their wants/needs will be dealt with from the people who do the work, rather than hear from a person whose job it is to “sell” making grand claims. But staff doesn’t have this perspective on their minds or the right stories prepared, if they are blinded by the terror of the demand that they have to sell.

Don’t deal with this terror by saying, “Oh, you’ll be fine, don’t worry” (this line is about as comforting as the “this won’t hurt a bit” line.) Shift the focus from outcomes to a focus on a process that will credibly show non-sales staff how effective they can be at “sales”.