The most important lesson I ever learned in sales

by Steli Efti

One of the most powerful lessons I've ever learned in sales was actually one of the very first lessons I learned in the trade when I was just 18 years old.

I was a young kid that thought that selling was all about talking.

I was taken under the wing of one of the most successful sales directors in my area. One day, he decided to do a little sales training session with me.

The setup was simple. I was to role-play a hypercritical customer. He would be the salesman. My task was to throw as many objections his way as possible.

Senior Sales Director: "So Mr. Customer, what are your biggest concerns when it comes to the offering I just proposed?"

Me: "Well, the truth is I don't know if I can trust you. You experts all sound great and your pitches make total sense. But then another 'expert' will come along and sell me on something totally different and he will make sense to me as well. I don't know enough about this area to make a good judgment call and have been burned before."

Senior Sales Director: "Hmm ... I see ... that makes sense. What would you propose would be a solution to this dilemma?"

Me: "Uhmmm ..."

I remember this moment very, very well. I remember my inner dialogue going NUTS over his question. I wanted to be smart and thought, "Shit ... what's a good solution to this problem ... better say something smart!" 

Me: "Well ... I could have all of you sales guys show up at the same time and argue it out in front of me and whoever makes the most sense wins my business!"

Senior Sales Director: "That's a good idea! Any others?"

Now I was even more stressed out thinking, "Holy shit, another idea?!? I don't know any other good solution to this. Uhmm. Better say something fast ..."

Me: "Well I could also ask around in my network to see if I know anyone who knows more about this and that I trust and that could advise me on the subject."

Senior Sales Director: "Another good one! Any more options you can think of?"

At this point I was totally out of ideas ... I spent a few minutes thinking as hard as I could and came up with some stupid idea that I can't even remember anymore. I just said something to say something.

Senior Sales Director: "I see. You think there are any more ideas?"

Me: "No, I don't think so."

Senior Sales Director: "Well, let's recap then. We have option #1 which is to get all the sales people in a meeting and have them present their ideas together to you. Option #2 is to tap into your network and see if you can find an advisor. Option # 3 is [insert stupid idea]. Which of these options do you like best?"

Me: "I think #1."

Senior Sales Director: "Great. Let's do that then!"

At that moment he came out of the role-play, leaned forward, looked me dead in the eye and said:

Senior Sales Director: "Now who had to do all the work?"

Me: "Uhmm ... me?"

Senior Sales Director: "Exactly! And that's how you always want it to be. Empower the customer to do all the work, come up with all the solutions and guide him along the way. Sales is easy."

I'll never forget what he said next:

"He who asks all the questions is controlling the direction of the conversation. Sales is all about asking questions and actively listening, and very little about talking."

That was probably the most profound advice I have ever gotten regarding sales and it triggered a major mindshift in me on what good communication is really all about.

What's the most profound thing you've learned in sales so far? Share your lessons in the comments! :)