To many people, sales is a shady profession, predicated on shark-like closing techniques, manipulation, and shallow, transactional relationships. Bob Burg says that’s exactly the wrong approach. “Top salespeople, the best of the best, understand that when it comes to selling, it isn’t about them or their product or service. It’s about the other person and how they benefit from it,” he says. Burg, co-author (with John David Mann) of the bestselling The Go-Giver: A Little Story about a Powerful Business Idea and their follow-up Go-Givers Sell More, admits his emphasis on the other person “sounds Pollyanna-ish.” But he’s convinced that a low-pressure – even no-pressure – approach will ultimately result in far more sales (not to mention greater career satisfaction for its practitioners).
Focusing on the other person isn’t an invitation to be a punching bag, Burg cautions. “Do not be a doormat, self-sacrificial, or a martyr in any way,” he says. “It’s a willing suspension of self-interest, not a forgoing of self-interest.” Repeatedly selling something at a loss (even if it’s good for your customer) is going to put you out of business quickly. But referring that customer to a competitor when their product is a better fit often builds long-term trust, because it’s clear you’re an honest broker.
When it comes to building trusting relationships, “The best thing you can do,” says Burg, “is to invest 99% of the conversation asking about [the other person] and what they do. Ask what I call ‘feel good questions,’ which make them feel genuinely good about themselves and about you. How did you get started selling copy machines? What do you enjoy most about what you do? And a great question to establish your potential value is to ask, How can I know if someone I’m talking to would be a good prospect for you?”
If you find yourself constantly referring clients to a colleague but don’t receive any referrals back, take a careful look at the situation. “There are times you may want to refer to someone, and it’s not a matter of having to receive,” says Burg – perhaps you simply admire their work, and there’s little crossover in your client base. But in general, he says, “You should be creating relationships with people that are win-win in nature, and if you find a person who for whatever reason doesn’t operate by those principles…you can let them know how much you enjoy the relationship, that you’re always happy to refer people to them, but ‘I notice I haven’t received any referrals. It’s fine if you don’t have anyone to refer, but I want to make sure it’s not a lack of confidence.’ You put it on yourself so they don’t have to be defensive.”
Over time, says Burg, “you attract people by the kind of person you are. It’s where character comes into play – what people know you for.” If you’ve built a solid reputation, the right kind of clients will come to you. “When you become known as a resource to others, always giving value and focused on creating value, you’ve created a benevolent context to success. So many people know you, like you, trust you, and want to see you succeed, they’ll refer you to others and you’ll attract the best clients.”
But believing that good things will happen if you help others doesn’t mean you can slack off on the business end. “You do still have to ask for the order nine times out of 10,” says Burg. The secret, he says, is leaving the door wide open so the customer feels comfortable. “If the focus is on building a relationship, closing the sale will be a lot more natural. There’s nothing wrong with asking for the order, but you don’t want to do it in a way that puts pressure on the other person or is ‘closey’ or trying to trap the person.” Instead, Burg likes to pepper his meetings with phrases like “this may or may not be for you,” to ensure the customer feels comfortable saying no – because that trust allows them to feel comfortable saying yes. “It’s what I call the Law of the Backdoor,” he says. “The bigger the backdoor, the less they’ll feel the need to take it.”
Ultimately, the secret to sales is recognizing what you can control – and what you can’t. “You can control your activity, of course, but you can’t control another person,” says Burg. “In sales, you’re responsible for…being prepared, knowing the product, and [responding to] possible objections. But you’re not responsible for their decisions.” Knowing that means you can focus on the gratifying work of building relationships and helping others, without the desperate gnaw of expectation. Says Burg, “Focusing on creating immense value allows the right things to happen.”
What’s your philosophy of sales? How do you add value to your customers?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on November 11, 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). 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.