Let’s face it: selling isn’t for everyone. Some people, including executives and entrepreneurs, panic at the thought of “putting themselves out there,” especially when that means asking colleagues for referrals or reaching out to past clients to drum up new business. In the past few weeks, I’ve been approached by several company leaders clamoring for help. They know they need to bring clients in the door, but don’t want to look desperate or needy or smarmy. Isn’t there a path to growth that doesn’t involve wearing a snakeskin suit?
I usually start by pushing back: being a leader means being a rainmaker — period. No one is more convincing than you when it comes to explaining your company’s vision, approach, and the “secret sauce” that hopefully will compel clients to choose your firm rather than a competitor’s. It’s easy to imagine, as some of these executives and business owners do, that you can just “hire a marketing person” to take care of it. Unfortunately, winning clients is actually the most important part of your business, so it can sometimes be self-indulgent to fob it off entirely on an underling (you do the fun parts, and they can figure out, or not, how to make it viable). Anyone who’s read Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth Revisited has gotten an earful about the perils of a “business as hobby” mentality.
This can take some mental adjustment. Plenty of people, including me, grew up with messages about sales being a tacky activity that seeks to put a false sheen on substandard products — because if they were good enough, their reputation would speak for itself. You might have been able to get away with that attitude in the past, with smaller networks and tighter circles (indeed, my doctor father — a terrible businessman who eschewed marketing — always had a healthy roster of patients who magically appeared). But in today’s frenzied global environment, it’s suicide: am I really going to discover your new app among the half-million contenders if you don’t promote it?
So some shy leaders — through gritted teeth — recognize they have to step up. I’ve worked with plenty of businesses to create better, more automatic sales and referral systems. You can take pressure off by ensuring that everyone in your company is involved in the effort (though the impetus and example has to come from the top) and that you build sales opportunities into your everyday dealings with clients, so it’s planned and organized (rather than awkward and ad hoc).
But for other executives and entrepreneurs, even if it means lost business, they’re not going to budge: they don’t want to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or look (to their eyes) like a hawker. So here is my advice to the shy and recalcitrant:
Recognize the difference between marketing and sales. There’s often a lot of confusion about marketing and sales. Indeed, many executives have both in their titles — where does one discipline end and the other begin? Here’s my quick definition: marketing is what you do to make clients come to you, while sales is about you reaching out to them and closing the deal. They’re both important and complementary — the former is longer-term and creates a valuable pipeline for the coming months and years; the latter is what’s going to help you make payroll next week. Ideally, your company should have a strong mix of both to keep your cash flow balanced; if not, you’re going to have to adjust accordingly. Which means…
If you’re less focused on sales, you need killer marketing. Just as you can (mostly) make up for a crappy diet by jogging every day, you can make up for a lack of sales orientation by having a strong marketing emphasis. Specifically, that means if your brand is powerful enough and you’re attracting enough people to you, a certain percentage will convert to sales. So if you really, really don’t want to ask for referrals or reach out to clients about new projects, you’ll want to use marketing to stay “top of mind” through activities like writing articles or e-newsletters, creating podcasts or video blogs that demonstrate your expertise, getting involved in charitable or professional associations (and rubbing elbows with potential buyers), or getting quoted in the media. (You can reach out to reporters who are seeking expert quotes using services like Help a Reporter Out.)
Hire the help you need. If you still want to delegate your business development, you’ll need to pay for the right kind of help. If you’re selling anything pricier than magazine subscriptions, hiring a junior associate to do cold calls is just not going to cut it. You’ll want to bring on a high-profile deputy who can represent you — credibly, and with your full authority — in important client situations. (Recognize that you’re paying this person to develop key relationships and be aware of possible risks if they try to walk away with them.) You may also want to bring on staff or outside expertise to create the kind of marketing operation you need — from strategy to PR outreach to content creation.
Bringing in business is an essential duty — perhaps the essential duty — of being a corporate leader. That’s a lot harder for people who are shy or otherwise allergic to anything “salesy.” I counsel my consulting clients, if at all possible, to reorient their thinking and embrace the sales process. But if that’s just not going to happen, then the answer is to become a marketing machine.
How does your company balance sales and marketing? Do you favor one approach over the other? And if you’re a shy leader, how have you adapted?
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on June 6, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.