UNC Kenan-Flagler Insights

What every leader can learn from good salespeople

September 30, 2010 By Heather Harreld

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The skill or ability to obtain willing followers for a given course of action that creates value for both parties. That is the definition of sales that Alston Gardner has developed over a 20+-year career of training salespeople in over 40 different countries.  In addition, he notes, that definition of sales is also a key component of effective leadership.  Leaders seeking to sell their ideas can benefit from many of the techniques perfected by professional salespeople.

For example, though it may be counterintuitive, the best salespeople do not spend a lot of time establishing rapport with potential customers, because that often comes off as phony, Gardner notes.  “The bulk of the time should be spent seeking to understand the customer’s issues and uncovering their attitudes about the problems,” he said.  “Unskillful salespeople spend too much time on small talk and extolling the virtues of their product.”

Gardner was the founder and formerly CEO of OnTarget, a sales training and consulting firm.  He taught Introduction to Sales in the MBA and BSBA programs from 2003 to 2008 and then secured funding for the Center for Sales Excellence at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

Likewise, skillful sales people don’t spend a lot of time on closing sales. “If you have done a really good job of understanding a customer’s business issues and you have aligned with them so they are committed and confident in what you are doing, the closing is kind of an anticlimax.”  These techniques can be just as effective for the leader of a team or project, he noted.  “Instead of selling something, leaders must present their vision and persuade their subordinates to execute that vision.  While leaders should spend some time establishing rapport, they should spend more time trying to understand the pain and the challenges their people face before they try to sell their ideas.”

Three key points to leaders effectively selling their ideas are listen, align, and influence.

Research has found that the most successful salespeople have one thing in common:  they listen more than they talk during sales calls.  They also ask frequent questions.

Asking questions is a key skill for selling your ideas, Gardner added.  Leaders need to ask a series of questions that help identify key pain points including:

  • How is the current situation working now and how does it affect you in your job?
  • What are the financial consequences of this not working?
  • What would it mean if we could solve this problem together?

“It isn’t good enough to ask what the situation is, I need to understand the seriousness of the problems, and I want to get to what does it mean if we can change this problem?”

To gain alignment with followers, Gardner advises leaders to gauge how people are receiving and responding to their ideas. For example, “If the person is reserved and is just studying the situation you don’t want to try to close for a commitment because it might be too early.  Instead, leaders need to talk in-depth with the person who is studying the situation and help them analyze any misgivings they may have.”

Selling ideas – just like selling services or products – can hinge more on the political power a person has in a company than where he or she is listed on an organizational chart.  Gardner advises leaders to understand the informal power or influence in the organization to make sure they are tapping into the people who will drive the behavior of others in a company.  “A person’s title or rank might not display their true role in getting things done,” he added.

Whether selling your idea in your first job or selling your vision as the leader of an organization, remember to listen, align and then influence.