Why Experts Are Bad at Sales

Why Experts Are Bad at SalesIf you’re a lawyer, accountant, management consultant, VAR, systems engineer, financial advisor, CRM expert, architect, IT services consultant or even an HR consultant – odds are that you’re ineffective at selling.  That’s the bad news.

The good news is – it isn’t hard to get better.  If you do,  you’ll compete far more effectively against those who haven’t learned the trick. The trick is dialing back the emphasis on expertise.

Trust Sells

Let’s start with the commonsense observation that trust sells – powerfully.  If your customers trust you, many good things follow – higher close rates, lower price sensitivity, greater client loyalty, to name a few.

Trust isn’t one monolithic quality.  In the Trust Equation, we deconstruct trustworthiness into four components – credibility, reliability, intimacy, and low self-orientation.  Data collected over the years (see the Trust Quotient Self Assessment) identify the relative importance of those four factors in creating a perception of trustworthiness.

Trustworthiness Data

For example – gender and trustworthiness. When asked to guess which gender is more trustworthy, about 85% of my workshop audiences guess women; and 12,000 datapoints say they’re right.

Further, nearly all the gender difference is due to different scores on one factor. I also ask workshops to guess which factor that is, and again, they are overwhelmingly right – it is intimacy.

Score two for commonsense backing up the data.  And there’s more. Surveys of trustworthy professions show shifts over time in the least trusted professions – used car dealers one year, lawyers another, politicians another. But the most trusted profession is remarkably consistent – nurses. Again, audiences find that this “makes sense.” And tying the data together, note that of the four attributes of trustworthiness, the one most easily identifiable with nursing is, again, intimacy.

Finally, we were able to isolate six “Trust Temperaments” – differing combinations of high scores from each of the four trust equation components. The three highest-scoring pairings were the three that contained Intimacy as one of the factors.

The combination of high Credibility and Reliability scores is what we most associate with subject matter experts.  And that combination was tied for least trustworthy among the six pairs.

The level of technical mastery required by the professions, for example, is considerable, and necessary. It’s not surprising that people in such lines of work would score highest on the attributes of credibility and reliability, the two “rational” and “hard” components of trustworthiness.

The problem comes when they assume, implicitly, that what their customers most want is a massive display of that expertise. Selling in those businesses, more often than not, is dominated by exhibitions of mastery, methodology, intellectual performances, credentials and references.

But technical mastery is the least effective approach to trustworthiness.  The most effective component of trustworthiness is precisely the one that so many experts shun – intimacy.

The Cure for Expertise

There’s nothing wrong with expertise; it’s necessary. It’s just not sufficient. What’s needed are some basic intimacy skills. That means, above all else, listening.

The listening that’s required is not listening as in being quiet, or even listening as aggressively pursuing questions. It’s listening as a sign of respect; listening with no objective beyond understanding the customer.

This kind of listening is part skill, part attitude. It requires the ability to suspend the overwhelming desire to solve problems. It isn’t easy to do – but it is simple. It is accessible; it can be learned.

Another intimacy skill is the ability to take an emotional risk.  Examples of such risks include saying you don’t know when you don’t know (very difficult for experts, whose careers are based on avoiding such moments), and acknowledging feelings – your own, and those of your customers.

Most technical professionals will remain expertise-based – and ineffective at sales. And that spells great opportunity for the few people and firms who are capable of recognizing the power of soft skills in producing hard results.

This article was first published in in a longer form. 

Still Afraid of the Sales Monster Under the Bed?

I was still afraid of the Sales Monster Under the Bed when I was 32.

I was 6 years into my career in management consulting.  It was becoming clear that the road to advancement no longer lay in more expertise. Instead, it lay in what was euphemistically called “business development.”

I was no dummy. I knew what “business development” meant: the dreaded Sales Monster.

Business Development, the Euphemism

You know something’s wrong when people cloak a supposedly reputable activity in the passive voice. If they couldn’t even look you in the face when they said “business development,” it proved they really meant “sales.”  Blech.

I knew I had to do business development.  But what was it?  And what was the least horrific way to go about it?

You know the list:

  • Write white papers
  • Write articles
  • Network
  • Go to industry association meetings
  • Make cold calls
  • Explore existing client relationships
  • Do mailings
  • Send holiday cards.

Holiday cards felt a little intrusive. At least white papers relied on expertise. The other steps were too horrible to contemplate.

The Sales Monster

In retrospect, my fear of sales was self-fear, aided by the intangible nature of professional services.  Lawyers, accountants and actuaries, I later found, all suffered from the same malaise.

It just all felt so personal. I had joined consulting because it seemed a meritocratic society of the intellect. The implied promise was I’d get rewarded for being smart.

That promise was being broken. Suddenly it was personal. Clients weren’t just buying expertise, they were buying me. Or not. That wasn’t just unfair, it violated my belief that content mattered.

Worst of all, of course, was if they didn’t buy. It was hard to rationalize a loss; it meant, ineluctably that They Didn’t Like Me. I understood Sally Fields’ Oscar acceptance speech very well.

Vanquishing the Sales Monster

It took me 15 more years to realize that every thought I’d had about sales was wrong. And it was more a process than an epiphany.  There were a few books along the way that helped:

But it was more life experiences than books that changed my view.  If you come right down to it—I had to grow up.  I had to develop and change as a person in order to understand the keys to sales.

I had to recognize the ultimately paradoxical nature of sales: the best way to sell is to stop trying to sell, and to focus instead on helping others get what they wanted.

Learning the Truth

You cannot learn this truth by reading this blog. Or by reading any book or article. You probably won’t learn it from anyone telling you.  It seems to me that we all learn things the hard way—from our own experience.  And my experience is that hard lessons, negative examples, bad experiences, are better teachers than good ones. Sad but true.

But sometimes, someone can say something in a way that makes it click for you.  It can pull together your own learnings and make a light bulb a little brighter. And that can help a lot.

So, here’s my own Top Twelve list of ways that I found to say something that I found meaningful. I hope one of them can turn on a little light bulb for you.

12 Insights on Trust-Based Selling
    1. Closing the Book on Closing
    2. Handling Sales Rejection Without Becoming a Narcissist
    3. How Sales Contests Kill Sales
    4. I Can’t Make You Love Me If You Don’t
    5. Sales, Narcissism and Therapists
    6. Selling Professional Services
    7. 10 Myths About Selling Professional Services [pdf]
    8. What Clients Really Want
    9. What to Say When the Client Says Your Price is Too High [pdf]
    10. When to Ditch the Elevator Speech and Take the Escalator or the Stairs
    11. Why Nobody Cares About You (and You Should be Glad They Don’t!)
    12. Why Should We Buy From You?  Good Question! [pdf]

If you’d like more help in vanquishing your own sales monster, you can also consult my book Trust-Based Selling (as the Trust-Based Selling print edition or the  Trust-Based Selling ebook for Kindle).

If the Sales Monster still lives under your bed, remember: it doesn’t have to be that way.

Let Your Doing Do Your Talking: Five High Impact Tips

It seems only natural. We rehearse, over and over, what we say and how we say it. “Put the em-pha-sis on the right syl-la-ble.” “Po-ta-to, po-tah-to.” “Take my wife—[wait for it…] please.” And so on.

What you say and how you say it is indeed critical—especially if you’re a stand-up comic or a keynote speaker.

But when it comes to sales and client relationships—what drives impact is not your saying—it’s your doing. You sell by doing, not by telling.

Behaving Trumps Talking

How often have you heard:

– Actions speak louder than words

What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say

People will judge you by your actions, not your intentions

-Walk the talk

-Talk is cheap because supply exceeds demand

-You have two ears and one mouth for a reason

There is much wisdom in folk wisdom like this. We over-emphasize content, over-analyze our words. Worse–our actions can contradict our words. If part of your spiel is that you’re client-focused—in that moment, you’re not.

It’s your actions that will sell—or not.

Five Opportunities to Replace Talking with Actions

You can read elsewhere tips about your demeanor, look, body language. Here are five ways you can design your actions to help your customers experience what you’re about.

1. When you illustrate a point through an example–make the example about this client, not your other clients. Everyone’s favorite subject is—themselves. Indulge them.

2. Offer free samples. It works with ice cream, but ice cream has color, taste, texture. Tax advice doesn’t. It becomes tangible only when the client gets some. Give some samples.

3. Work side by side with your customer. Don’t waste time back at your office pondering what your customer might want—ask them.

4. Put potential clients in touch with past clients–let them talk directly. They each learn a lot, and you get the credit for the introduction.

5. Ask for advice, not feedback. You can replace a hundred customer-sat written surveys with one serious, face-to-face meeting asking your customer to help you redesign your processes.

And one final bonus tip: Don’t say ‘trust me.’ Let your trustworthy actions do your talking for you.


Selling Through A Slump

Over the past few weeks, I have worked with the good people at TheCustomerCollective to co-produce an ebook on selling in rough economic times. 

Eleven top sales bloggers, from distinct veritical industry groups, with Top Ten lists from each: if you can’t find a few great ideas in this compendium, you’re either hopeless or should be master-teaching the class.

Enjoy.  It’s solid material, at a price hard to beat (free).  Let me know what you think.


Selling Through A Slump: An Industry-by-Industry Playbook

A Guide by Salespeople for Salespeople on How to Sell Your Way to Recovery

Download this Free ebook

Selling in a recession is tough. And simply doing more of the same is not the way to survive, much less thrive, in a recession. There are important dos and don’ts in times like these. This ebook is your industry-specific roadmap out of the economic slump.

Selling through a Slump: An Industry-by-Industry Playbook brings together sales strategies and best practices from 11 top sales experts from 11 distinct vertical market sectors, ranging from retail to health care to telecom—because one size doesn’t always fit all. The practical tips and experience-based wisdom here aren’t just limited to any single industry, though. Regardless of your market sector, you’re bound to find value in this arsenal of great sales ideas.

Get access to exclusive tips on how to sell in a recessionary market, from renowned sales experts like Jill Konrath, Charles Green, and Dave Stein. We know you’ve got questions—we wrote this ebook to give you answers.

Click here for valuable sales strategies from experts in every industry:

Charles Green, Founder and CEO,
Trusted Advisor Associates
Selling for Accountants and Consultants

Skip Anderson, Founder,
Selling to Consumers Sales Training
Selling for Retailers

Mike Kujawski, Founder,
Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing
Selling to Public Sector Clients

Mike Wise, VP, Insurance Technologies,
IdeaStar Incorporated
Selling for Insurance Agents

Matt Homann, Founder,
LexThink LLC
Selling for Lawyers

Anneke Seley, Founder and CEO,
PhoneWorks LLC
Selling in Health Care

John Caddell,
Caddell Insight Group
Selling in Telecommunications Markets

Dave Stein, Founder and CEO,
ES Research Group, Inc
Selling Technology

Jill Konrath, Author,
Selling to Big Companies
Selling in Services

Anne Miller, Founder,
Chiron Associates
Selling Media

Dave Brock, President and CEO,
Partners in EXCELLENCE
Selling to Manufacturers


Click Here to Download

(A simple registration is required)

Brought to you by The Customer Collective and Oracle CRM.
Welcome to the conversation.

Top Ten Ways for Your Business to Deal With a Recession

Global equity markets set all-time upside records yesterday. But US credit market trading was closed. By the time you read this in the morning, you may or may not think you need to worry about a recession.
Hint: you still do.

So here are some ideas. I have readers in large companies and solo consultancies; lawyers and salespeople; private and public sectors. Tweak the ideas to suit your own situation.

And please generously share your own ideas by commenting!

1. Shift some of your marketing budget to sales. You’ve planted the fields; now pay the harvesters to go to work.

2. Hire some key people from competitors in your industry. Increase your strength and get good PR for doing it.

3. Buy capital equipment now (or soon), when it’s off-cycle, suppliers are desperate, lines are short, and customers like you are welcome. When the up-cycle returns, you’re set to cash in, while others pay high prices and wait in lines with the other unfaithful.

4. Set a new metric; be in the slower half to lay off people. Not as wishful thinking, but as a conscious strategy to invest in people, and to be seen as and known for doing so.  Did you believe that stuff about people you said?  Now’s the time to walk the talk.

5. Higher levels of management—take a pay cut. Not just bonuses, either. The higher the level, the deeper the cut. What part of “leadership” didn’t you understand?

6. Tell your shareholders to suck it up. Not all stakeholders benefit equally at all times. This is not their time. Their time will come again, and even better—if they have the foresight to help customers, suppliers and employees when it is they who need the help.

7. Ask your key customers what you can do for them. They know you’re short on cash; offer services, advice, free consulting, and non-cash expenditures.

8. Tell your key customers that you’re extending your receivables terms by 15 days—because you understand how things are.  Do not stiff your suppliers.  And don’t hide these two particular lights under a bushel; tell customers and suppliers personally what you’re doing, and let them thank you.  Personally.

9. Identify a local charity in severe trouble. Make a contribution to them. It will have outsized impact, you’ll make an impression, and others—like board members and the community—will notice it. This one you do hide under the bushel.  Don’t worry, it’ll be noticed. 

10. Talk to your bank about why you’re doing steps 1 – 9. Say you want them to know you’re not just cost-cutting to make it through each month, but intelligently investing in the future through a longer timeframe than your competitors. In other words—you’re the kind of responsible customer they should want to lend to.

There are a few common themes here:

• Don’t fall prey to short-termism
• Do well by doing good
• Meet transactional opportunism with relationship strategies
• Be there for others now, and they will be there for you later
• We remember those who helped us when times were tough
• Now’s the time to prove you’re trustworthy—worthy of trust.

Is Sales Efficiency Killing Your Sales?


A search on Google for the following sales-related terms shows:

• Sales force management 315,000
• Sales force effectiveness 113,000
• Sales force productivity 44,500
• Sales force performance 37,200
• Sales force efficiency 28,100
• Sales force compensation 15,300
• Sales force motivation 6,150
• Sales force measurement 577
• Sales force relationships 244
• Sales force trust 33

The numbers alone suggest a certain sense of priorities in the world’s interest in sales. In the broadest sense, let’s just say the reigning focus seems highly seller-focused.

Here’s a quote from what I would suggest is a fairly typical piece on selling:

XYZ has developed proprietary approaches to measuring and maximizing salesforce efficiency. Sales managers can learn, quantitatively, how their best people invest available selling time, including a measurement of expected sales dollars per sales call. This knowledge is used to improve the efficiency of others in the salesforce. Simple tools can tell the sales manager what the expected outcome would be of adding one additional sales person, of getting each salesperson to make one more call per week, and so on.

[Our] model addresses several common sales planning flaws:
* Salespeople call on too many accounts, and therefore don’t have enough time to call on those accounts often enough to be successful.
* Salespeople don’t spend enough time with the accounts that provide the best opportunity for growth.
* Salespeople spend too much time calling on low potential accounts.
* Salespeople don’t realize how precious few sales calls they have to invest [sic] each year.

Let’s refine our statement of focus in selling. The usual treatment of sales goes beyond just “self-focused.” It also defines sales heavily in terms of return on investment, and of processes. The solution to higher ROI is often found in changing processes.

For a more academic example, see a 2006 Harvard Business Review Article, The New Science of Sales Force Productivity, by Ledingham, Kovac and Simon:

Today’s most successful sales leaders are taking a more scientific approach. Savvy managers are reshaping their tactics in response to changing markets. They are reaching out to new customers in innovative ways. And they are increasing productivity by helping the reps they already have make the most of their skills and resources.
Leaders who take a scientific approach to sales force effectiveness have learned to use four levers to boost their reps’ productivity in a predictable and manageable way.
1. They systematically target their firms’ offerings, matching the right products with the right customers.
2. They optimize the automation, tools, and procedures at their disposal, providing reps with the support they need to boost sales.
3. They analyze and manage their reps’ performance, measuring both internal processes and results to determine their teams’ strengths and weaknesses.
4. They pay close attention to sales force deployment—how well sales, support, marketing, and delivery resources are matched to customers.

What is remarkable in all these lists is the virtual absence of the “R” word: relationships.

There is “scientific” (read “quantitative analysis”) study of products, automation, tools, procedures, internal processes, results, and deployment;

There is general agreement that the end result is to be judged in financial terms (ROI—effectiveness), which can be decomposed into various ratios (efficiency in general);

Mirroring this self-absorbed perspective of both design and outcome is the treatment of the customer. Almost all sales models are based on a single-transaction—with the usual “feedback” arrow saying “return to beginning and start over."

Try substituting “relationship” into this self-oriented, mechanistic and transactional mindset and there is only one kind of relationship it applies to: a one-night stand, repeated endlessly, with only the names changing.

There is no forward momentum in a series of one-night stands. No growth, no development, no connection—and no relationship. (I’m not knocking one-night stands, by the way, or saying they are "wrong;" I’m just saying call them what they are).

There is nothing wrong with counting sales dollars as a pretty good indicator of sales success. And it’s natural to want to dig deeper. But if all the digging is focused on ourselves, our processes, our metrics; and if all the relevant timeframes are shorter and shorter; and if we fall prey to the Skinnerian belief that you must shorten the time between action and monetary reward for the rats salespeople—then we conspire to reap what we sow—the one-night stand.

Great short-term performance doesn’t come from short-term selfish, transactional management. Great short-term performance is simply one part of a longer success story that comes from a long-term, relationship-driven concern for the customer.