About a decade ago, I was doing sales for a startup that offered a tech solution for pharmacies. We came across a government initiative (called the 340B program in the United States) that allowed pharmacies to make more money while serving low-income pharmacy customers, and our company’s tech solution would power the initiative.
As I went into pharmacies, I would normally walk in the door and say that I’m here to tell them about a great solution that would help the pharmacy get more business from new customers, powered by the easy-to-use technology we were offering. And when I asked if they were interested, I would be shocked when they said no. What did I do wrong?
After some soul searching, I’ve realized that there’s something I find myself, my team, and our friends do over and over again that’s not helpful: trying to get the person we’re selling to understand my product and point of view. Meaning, instead of having genuine, authentic care about the person that we’re talking to and making him or her our priority, it’s all about making the sale.
For instance, in the example I gave above, as I went into the pharmacy, I made it all about me and what I was selling. I would walk into a pharmacy, ask to talk with the head pharmacist, and almost immediately start selling what I had. “My great 340B solution is going to save you a ton of money.” Just by having that mentality, I was selfish—putting all my energy towards making the pharmacist understand exactly what I was offering rather than trying to understand the pharmacist’s needs first.
In these situations, our intentions are probably pure—we may believe that what we are selling is good and that our product will help make their lives easier and better.
Yet, like the situation I just described above, something is missing. In Daniel Pink’s book To Sell Is Human, he shared a study from the INSEAD business school in France showing that empathizers—those who take the time to truly understand what’s going on with the person they’re talking to— typically strike a deal 76% of the time. Just by authentically caring for the person you’re talking to and understanding what they’re going through, you’ll strike a deal 76% of the time.
I’ll take those odds any day.
So, how do we reorient our sales tactics around the customer?
1. First, become more selfless in our approach.
Simply put, this means putting the needs of the customer ahead of our own to make a sale. Looking at the pharmacy sales example, what would happen if I went in, and instead said the following:
“Hi, Mrs. Pharmacist. I know you’re so busy, so I’m happy to come back at a later time. I heard you’re an incredible pharmacist in town, and that many people want to come to this pharmacy. So, are you open to chatting, either today or sometime later, about how we can increase traffic to your store? And what kind of client are you looking to bring into this pharmacy? And how have you explored the 340B program before? Also, how are things going elsewhere in the store, how are things progressing and working overall?”
You can feel the difference. In the first scenario, I made it all about me and what I’m selling—something I used to do a lot.
But the second scenario is genuine and selfless. I wanted her to know that I had done my research and knew she was a highly sought after pharmacist. I showed that I valued her time, and didn’t want to waste it if I’m not able to meet a need she had. I was open-minded to find out if there were other issues that she needed to be solved, even outside of the 340B solution, that other pharmacists in my network have dealt with and could help her.
This new approach builds trust and shows the customer that you genuinely care about their needs. This will take some work, but I’ve found the best way to put this into practice is to work on being insanely curious, which brings me to my second point.
2. Second, become more curious.
In my experience, once I adopted a selfless and curious mindset, I found that the “close” rate was usually about five times higher—all because I had the best interests of the customer in mind above my own sales interests.
Daniel Pink interviewed someone who was the top producer at a car dealership, and the producer’s response was great. She said, “You can’t train someone to care. [I’m constantly asking myself] what decision I would make if that were my own mom sitting there trying to get service or buy a car? It sounds noble. And maybe it is. But today, it’s how you sell cars.” If you’re curious, you’re doing a few things. You’re asking questions a) without regard to what you’re selling and b) to help the other person reach their goals.
I had a great conversation about curiosity with one of the top sales reps at Solidworks, Caroline Dee. Year in and year out she has been one of the top producers for the company. When I asked her why at dinner a few years back, she gave one quick answer: she would consistently tell clients not to work with Solidworks. If the client wasn’t a fit for Solidworks, the client would know. It was Caroline’s curiosity that allowed her to find out if and how the person was a fit for Solidworks. She would ask question after question before ever talking about Solidworks. The client always knew that she had their best interest at heart, so when she felt that Solidworks would be a good fit, the customer knew she was shooting it to them straight.
To become increasingly curious, Francesca Gina, the Tandom Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, says that we must do the following when engaging with others: asking “what,” and “how” questions.
So for example, if I was talking with the pharmacist, I might say “how are you looking to grow your business.” Or, “what has been your experience with 340B programs before?”. Or, “how is your business doing?”
None of those questions leads the other person to be defensive, and they make everything about the other person.
The best part about all of this? All we have to do is make some small changes in the ways we ask questions and approach sales to become more selflessly curious, showing we care about what’s best for the person we’re talking to—and generating more sales as a result.
Two great resources on this topic are Daniel Pink’s book To Sell is Human and also Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. Both books make the case, much more than I can do today, that in order to be successful, we must put the needs of the customer ahead of our own need to make a sale. I’d love to hear your thoughts.