”I don’t want to be in sales. OK? . You do the selling bit and I’ll do the delivery side.”

I can’t quite remember how early in the piece I uttered those words. But I did. To my then business partner, Glenn Dobson, as we joined forces and began to build what would become known as The KONA Group. The irony of that statement was that our business… was a sales and sales management, training consultancy! My title was Director of Quality and I developed what would become some very well regarded training programmes – which delivered outcomes the likes of which our corporate clients had never seen before, consistently, over a 15-year period.

Our particular distinction was that of building scenarios which allowed our participants to practice the techniques and methodologies we were teaching them, on ‘real’ clients. Well, when I say ‘real’ – in the design phase of the programme for any client we would spend days out on the road, with multiple members of their sales force, often all around the country, observing both their techniques but also gaining insights into the reality of their clients’ environments. As we did this, not only were we assessing the current levels of competence and seeing the current sales methodology, we were seeing their clients’ worlds too. We would get to understand what the various sets of circumstances were for our clients’ clients – their operating environments, business objectives, their blockages, their concerns, their business drivers, their decision-making processes etc. and with this intelligence, we would then write “adaptive-fiction” scenarios based on these client realities, ‘changing names to protect the innocent’.

In our ‘live-action’ workshops our students would then meet a new bunch of ‘prospects’, who seemed somewhat familiar to them and they’d practice using the new methodologies we were teaching them, to develop a stronger understanding of the real drivers that would lead to a successful sale. They got to practice, rehearse and refine their newfound skills and techniques in an environment which was safe (no deals were harmed in the making of this skill set) yet were incredibly realistic. The learning was often described as ‘profound’ and certainly ‘the most realistic’ scenario-based training they’d ever experienced. People left our workshops, most definitely, armed with real skills which would help them increase their sales capabilities and enhance their sales careers.

Yet, I had developed a phobia of sorts about actually selling our solutions…

As it turns out, I wasn’t alone. It seems that a great swathe of small business owners also dislike the idea of being in sales. “I didn’t get into business to sell.” I hear. Or, “I’m the CEO, I’m not in sales.” Or worse than these, I see small business owners who subscribe to the old “Build it and they shall come!” Well, I’ve got news for you… yes you did, yes you are and no they won’t. I call these perspectives the S-Myth.  The myth that suggests that as a business owner, (aka Founder, aka Managing Director, aka CEO, aka Director of Quality) sales is somebody else’s concern.

Sales, is absolutely your concern. It always will be your concern. Even when you become a global juggernaut – sales will always be a pressing concern. Let me assure you that Alan Joyce (Qantas CEO), Gerry Harvey (Harvey Norman, Executive Chairman) and Janine Allis (Boost Juice founder and Executive Director) have always got their finger on the pulse of sales in their hugely successful and long-enduring businesses. They may not be out on the hustings but they absolutely understand that ongoing sales are never guaranteed and that, in my words, if you’re not selling shit, you’re gonna be in the shit.

So why is it that so many of us small business-owners are resistant to selling?

20 years of experience, in both selling the various services that my 7 different businesses have offered, in concert with observing, coaching and mentoring in-excess of 10,000 sales professionals, sales managers and business owners suggests that while the reasons have subtle variation, there are some central themes:

  • FEAR – the prime suspect. Primarily fear of rejection;
  • Misconception – an unhealthy view of what the art and science of sales actually is;
  • Limited knowledge of the methodologies of selling;
  • All resulting in a deficit in ‘the 3Cs’ – competence, confidence and commitment.
Fear & Rejection

Let’s take a look at each of those in a bit more detail.

Chances are you’ve heard the use of fear as an acronym – F.E.A.R. It stands for False Expectations Appearing Real. In other words, the suggestion is that fear is a product of a vivid imagination, which presents the possibility of negative outcomes/consequences, in such a powerful and compelling way, they end up paralysing the person experiencing those thoughts.

I often see fear coupled with a mantra of “the best way to not fail… is to not try!”

It’s a fair enough apprehension. Most rational people know that when it comes to selling, you are more likely to hear people say no to you than say yes. Anybody who has been anywhere near any kind of sales training in the last 50 years will have heard, at some stage and probably more than once that “it’s a numbers game!”. We get told that “another ‘no’ is one step closer to a ‘yes’!” So when it comes to selling we have read, heard, seen and/or been told that we’re going to be rejected. A lot. And of course, if you’re not a black belt in this mystery called selling, you’re going to be rejected a hell of a lot! Who on Earth wants to step up to that on a daily basis? Right?

This little monster absolutely sat in the dark corners of my mind for, I’d say, the first 15 years of business ownership for me. I’d start to think about the idea of picking up a phone or going on a sales call, or following up to see if they were ready to buy yet and instead of envisaging a positive outcome I’d feel that fear that comes when you look down into a drain grate built into the kerb and there’s one of those evil clown dolls grinning back at you.

OK, I’m probably exaggerating here but you get the gist right? The fear of being rejected and the subsequent feelings I might experience, of being incompetent, inarticulate, lacking in gravitas enough to be compelling to my prospect, intellectually inferior, an impostor – all of that was often enough to cause me to find ‘better things to do’. Things, which, I would kid myself, would lead to an easier way of selling. Perhaps I could devise a way of selling that didn’t involve actually selling! The perfect thing to waste time on.

Which helps us also understand that a misconception of what sales actually is can be a major obstacle to engaging in it. It had never really, consciously occurred to me until quite recently, that my subconscious perspective of ‘selling’ was that it was something you did to people, as opposed to for them. Selling seemed to be some sort of slight of hand where you used clever techniques and words, which eventually brought people to a place where they found themselves buying.  I knew, because I had been taught a number of moves, like a series of judo-throws of sorts, called ‘objection handlers’. Apparently people would try to resist the techniques and words and not buy from me. And so I had these moves in my arsenal to counter their resistance. So I learned quite early in the piece that people didn’t like being sold to. Therefore selling was something which was undesirable. I learned to ‘trial close’, to ‘always be closing’, to use the ‘hamburger close’, the ‘alternative close’, the ‘assumptive close’. These felt like techniques where, as a salesperson, I might be tackling an opponent down to the mat and putting them in a lock which ultimately resulted in them ‘tapping out’ – “Alright! Alright! I’ll buy!!” That just didn’t sit well with me. It felt like selling was really the art of manipulating somebody to do something I wanted them to do. That was a really good reason for me to not be in sales.

But I was fortunate, in comparison to so many start up founders and small business owners. I’d actually received an education in this called selling, as an employee of a global sales training business. And then, as I’ve shared I went on to create and deliver all sorts of sales training to thousands of people hired to sell for their companies. So at least I’d had exposure to this ‘dark art’ when it came to going it alone. Scores of business owners get their first exposure… when they start their business. Which means they really have very little understanding of professional selling. And in particular, professional selling in this ‘new’ era of internet, Google, Google My Business, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn – to name a few.

Dark Art

Right now, I’m in the throes of writing a book. I’ve named it “The S-Myth” in a nod to Michael Gerber’s best seller from over 30 years ago, The E-Myth, aka the entrepreneurial myth which is the mistaken belief that most businesses are started by people with tangible business skills, when in fact most are started by “technicians” who know nothing about running a business. Hence most fail. 30 years on and access to information, know-how and ‘hacks’ are readily available in the arena of entrepreneurialism. There’s no shortage of ‘how to sell’ tutorials on YouTube either – yet I see very few business owners who make that sort of educative investment in themselves. Certainly, few could classify themselves as masters of the profession of selling. So, the ‘technician’ still prevails. The person who is, invariably, incredibly emotionally attached to their product or service. They can see all of its beauty and possibility. They know and hold dear to their hearts why their offering is superior to the competitions’. They know exactly why customers/clients should be buying what they have to sell… but as it transpires they know very little, if anything about how to actually sell. (And by ‘sell’, I’m not just referring to the face-to-face interaction that occurs at the moment of purchase decision – I’m referring to the entire process of product/service positioning, creating market awareness – including your website, SEO, SEM, Google and Facebook ads – lead generation, qualifying ideal prospects, qualifying opportunities, defining solutions, understanding and then navigating the clients’ buying decision-making process, presenting solutions, securing the purchase – and after fulfilment, garnering the much vaunted ‘customer review’, in order to sharpen the cycle for the next prospective buyer).

Ultimately, all of the rationale I’ve shared so far can be distilled into a model that I have been teaching to managers and business-owners for nearly 15 years, known as TC3.  TC3 posits that a person’s performance in their role is a direct outcome of their level of competence in performing their routine tasks, their confidence in performing their routine tasks and their commitment to performing their routine tasks. Task competence, confidence and commitment – TC3. Wherever there is a deficit or shortfall in any of a person’s competence, confidence and/or commitment there will always be a corresponding shortfall in performance or results. There are actually six stages of evolution that we all go through in order to become highly competent, confident and committed at a particular field of endeavour – including selling.

So, on reflection, as I consider all of the thoughts, feelings and emotions I experienced when it came to the idea of being a sales person – especially a successful sales person, it’s not hard to rationalise why running for the hills seemed like a smarter move for the better part of 15 years.

Can you relate to any of this? Have I described anything here that you’ve experienced in the journey of getting your small business off the ground, or perhaps, to move from start-up to scale-up?

If you’re a business owner and the sales-voodoo thing is something you grapple with, connect with me on LinkedIn or visit my website where I share more insights.

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James Michael
James Michael is the founder and CEO (Chief Engagement Officer) of Justified Talent, a specialist recruitment agency which assists small business owners all around Australia to recruit their first sales professionals. James has owned and operated 8 businesses over the last 20 years and has a passion for helping SME owner/operators make the stepchange from start-up to scale-up. As a co-director of The Kona Group, James coached, trained and mentored over 10,000 sales professionals, over 15 years, seeing good, bad and indifferent performers across many industry sectors. He's recruited over 120 for small businesses in the last two + years. More importantly, he's profiled over 3900 sales people in the last 3 years and has now developed a scientifically-validated behavioural benchmark of B2B Solution Selling success. James can tell you, with stunning accuracy, the unique behavioural architecture true sales professionals possess - and which candidates have 'got the right stuff' for you. Using his proprietary and evidence-based methodology James helps clients to identify, attract, select, recruit and then optimise the right sales professional for their business. He only works with SME's who are looking to scale up and only works on 3 assignments at any one time, assuring absolute focus on quality. He charges a flat fee, provides you with a 6-month guarantee of performance and will work with the business owner in managing and accelerating that performance over that 6 months, also teaching them how to be the best high-performance sales manager they can be. As a former professional soldier, James is also an inaugural member as well as Business Mentor to the Veterans Community Business Chamber in the areas of sales recruitment, sales leadership and sales cultures.