“What’s your selling style?” is a deceptively simple question.
If someone asks “What’s your sign?” you may question which decade they’re from, but chances are you know the answer. Selling styles, on the other hand, exist under countless names. And they hang out in trendy cliques, following the latest fashions in sales training. Are you an amiable-expressive? A charismatic controller? Maybe you’re an ISTJ (that would be “Introverted Sensing Thinking Judging,” of course) or a Hunter/Farmer.
If you haven’t read the latest book or taken the newest test, you may not even speak the correct language to answer the question.
Just what do we mean by selling style, anyway? Let’s step away from the labels. Our functional definition describes it as “a relatively stable statistical representation of natural consistencies in a salesperson’s inclination to prospect, present and close, which tend to resist change regardless of selling time or place, training provided or product sold.” That’s psycho-babble for: “Your selling style is the way you naturally approach sales, no matter how you’ve been trained, what you’re selling or whom you’re selling to.”
Whether you’re inclined to be an aggressive, competitive seller or prefer to build relationships and create trust, you likely lean toward a particular style. You can and should choose to alter your tactics when necessary. If you meet a no-nonsense buyer with little patience for a touchy-feely approach, for example, it’s best to get down to business before you lose the sale. But no particular style is inherently superior, except as defined by your sales numbers. In the long run, consistently and assertively seeking out new business results in more closed sales, regardless of which stylistic banner you fly.
That goes against the grain of some popular training programs that try to teach you one (and only one) way to sell. Research has shown that adopting a certain selling style doesn’t guarantee success any more than you can positively identify your true love by his or her astrological sign. Salespeople, customers, products, markets and cultures are too complex to impose a one-size-fits-all approach to the perfect sale. Yet these days more sales organizations test their salespeople, record their selling style in permanent ink and lock them into patterns of behavior that have less to do with increasing sales than with following the arbitrary rules of a training program.
The “rapport-based” selling revolution of the last two decades created a perfect storm of selling style over substance. Originally touted as less aggressive and pushy than the typical hard sell, it soon morphed into a manifesto against traditional, assertive sales techniques. Companies all over the world went so far as to scrub the word sales from business cards and organization charts. (Is there a relationship manager in the house?)
Salespeople who scored high on tests for empathy were quickly hired and promoted even if they weren’t very good at actually closing sales, while others were shown the door regardless of the results they achieved—all because one kind of selling was deemed better than the others.
We believe rigid labels based on selling style do a gross disservice both to the salespeople being labeled and the tests being used to pigeonhole them. Assessments that identify selling style can be useful tools. They help allocate training and development resources, identify potential strengths and weaknesses in customer interaction, and provide opportunities to teach alternative techniques to expand your selling tool kit.
But in the hands of unskilled practitioners such assessments create artificial benchmarks for determining a salesperson’s potential based primarily on selling style. And they extrapolate dubious judgments about the ethical and moral worth of one type of seller over another, creating a pecking order that looks more like a middle-school social hierarchy than a professional sales organization.
Bottom line: Your selling style is part of who you are. You can change it, just as you can change your physical conditioning or your education level, with discipline and dedication. But don’t try to sell like someone solely on the advice of a so-called expert. Look for evidence to back up the claims, stay flexible and resist buying into others’ expectations. Here are some more tips to keep in mind if you want to expand your stylistic horizons:
Observe. Try to watch various approaches to selling in action. Watch your colleagues, especially those whose selling styles differ markedly from yours.
Learn. Objectively review your approach to selling and be willing to try what your competitors do better than you.
Disclose. No matter what style you adopt, remember who you are. Never be afraid to tell a prospective buyer: “I’m a salesperson. I want to sell you my product or service because I believe it will be useful to you.”
Remember. Clients are opportunities, not potential adversaries or sources of rejection.
Edit. Be a discerning consumer. If anyone tries to tell you how you must sell, zone out. You have better things to dream about.