Being a Competitive Seller vs. Being a Trusted Advisor

“What are the most important personal attributes for finding the right balance between being a trusted advisor, and being a competitive seller?”

That was the question teed up by a Google sales training leader earlier this month at a Talks at Google session with Ryan Serhant. It’s an intriguing question. (The answer, not so much).  But first, some back story.

The Background

Ryan Serhant is known to most people for his reality TV show Million Dollar Listing, about New York real estate. Personally, I prefer his most recent show, Sell It Like Serhant, which also happens to be the title of his recent book, subtitled “How to Sell More, Earn More, and Become the Ultimate Sales Machine.”

Let me just say: Serhant gets a lot right – very right. He’s also extremely personable, with very good interpersonal instincts, and a compelling personal story.

A (partial) list of what he gets (very) right about sales: the idea that people want to have a personal connection; the importance of improvisation; the emotional journey of buyers; the role of buyer insecurities and the need to recognize and address them; the importance of metaphors and stories; the critical role of personal selling; and many more.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Back to the Question

Remember, the question raised by the sales training leader was ““What are the most important personal attributes for finding the right balance between being a trusted advisor, and being a competitive seller?”

Here’s Ryan’s answer. “Endurance, empathy, and enthusiasm.”

Huh?

He goes on to say these are the three traits he always looks for in his own hires, and they’re the keys to all sales that require just a little bit more than a good product that fits the price.

Note he didn’t answer the question. As he mentioned, he had written about those three attributes in his book, so it was a bit of a canned answer. It certainly didn’t address the “balance between being a trusted advisor, and being a competitive seller.”

But in fairness: the question itself is an odd one – it begs many more questions. It posits a tension between being a trusted advisor and being a competitive seller. But can someone be both (as the question implied)? Or is it an either/or proposition? Does it depend on the industry? On types of sales (e.g. B2B or B2C)? Is it really a choice? And if so, what kind of choice?

Serhant didn’t address any of those questions, settling for what is ultimately a fairly conventional description of the key personal attributes for successful selling of all types. It left me unsatisfied. So of course I wondered how I would have answered.

My Answer

In most industries and situations, the question is a false dichotomy: in fact, the best way to compete successfully is to be a trusted advisor to one’s prospects – to practice Trust-based Selling.

What’s my evidence? In its simplest form, if a prospect thinks I have more endurance and enthusiasm than you do, but trusts you more than me, you’re going to get the business more than half the time. (Empathy – Serhant’s third item – is also critical to trust-based selling, so no argument there).

The biggest difference between Serhant’s proposition and trust-based selling is profoundly simple:

  • Serhant is focused on the seller’s success as the end goal
  • By contrast, the end goal of trust-based selling is doing the right thing for the buyer.

In one approach, competitive success is the goal. In the other, it’s a byproduct.

The answer to the questioner’s dilemma is to reject the question. It’s not a question of balance, nor is it an either-or proposition. It is how you get from one to the other.

You don’t gain trust by being competitively successful nearly as much as you gain competitive success by being trusted.

Common Threads

Interestingly, a lot of what Serhant suggests fits equally well in trust-based selling. You have to have empathy; you have to take risks; you have to understand and appreciate emotions.

But there are tells. Serhant shares a touching story about the power of fear: how he is motivated by never wanting to go back to a dark period in his life, defined by stark failure and rejection. We can all relate.

But fear of failure is a very private, internal emotion: it doesn’t help connect us to our clients, it separates us from them. If not getting the sale is part of the fear, then we haven’t conquered it – in fact, we’ve made our clients hostage to our personal pursuit of overcoming fear.

Trust is a relationship. But competitive sales, the way Serhant defines it, is a personal adventure, with clients as means, not ends. He is very insightful about the need for connection: but he never mentions relationships.

There are differences in tactics between the two approaches, which I’ve written about at length elsewhere. But this is the bedrock difference between the goals of the two approaches from which they all flow.

At one point in the interview, Serhant notes how he consciously prioritized success over career. If your goal is personal success, being a great seller is a great way to get there.

But if your goal is your clients’ success, you will, paradoxically, end up a more successful seller yourself. Because buyers trust more those whose goal it is to help them, rather than to help themselves.