As a young management consultant, I initially struggled to make sales. I tried, as best I could, to copy some of the behaviors that I saw others display when in front of clients.  Unfortunately, my results showed that I was getting nowhere.

One of the senior managers, an old hand at sales, took pity on me and one day took me aside and said ”let’s talk”. He told me how he’d watched me sell, and noticed my results were nowhere near expectations. He then asked me: “what goes through your mind when you are in front of a client ?”.

I started blabbering about how I felt self-conscious, wondered if they took me seriously and had concerns around whether what I was saying was actually making any sense at all.

He looked me deep in the eyes and said “Ago. I’m going to give you a little piece of sales advice.”

You’re not nearly as important as you think you are.

When I first heard it I thought, “what a strange thing to say” (my ego was still pretty well-developed back then). But as I reflected on it over the next few days, I gradually discovered the hidden meaning behind his words. What he was saying was that – in reality – selling wasn’t about me at all. It was about my client.

The moment I understood that, my sales results started changing. Gradually at first. But soon, I started getting very different results and started building a reputation as a capable, able seller.

Over the next few months and years, I discovered three core principles that to this day, I put into practice in every single client conversation.

#1. Practice Better Listening

In spite of all the talk about how sales equals listening, many sellers are still not very good at it. The reason is that they listen selectively – only listening for clues they can use to launch into a pitch about their product or service. Great listening is part art, and part science. It involves the whole body, as well as the mind. It’s all about placing the other person front and center in the conversation, and for a brief moment forgetting about your own agenda.

Slowing down the conversation, clarifying and paraphrasing, listening to the emotions behind the words and asking great questions are all crucial skills for better listening.

#2. Ask Better Questions

The great writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire once said “judge a man by his questions rather than his answers”. I’m sure he wasn’t dispensing sales advice when he thought of it, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant for those of us in sales and business development.

I remember many long meetings in corporate life with the single most valuable thing that I heard an entire hour was a carefully crafted question. Questions have the power to accomplish great things: elicit thoughtful responses, get others to (re)consider their point of view and collaborate with teams and individuals.

But perhaps most importantly, questions are an excellent tool to position yourself as a knowledgeable, intelligent, considerate and value adding conversational partner.

Fast Company recently published an excellent list of five things to consider when crafting your questions. Questions should:

  • Empower – giving others the opportunity to answer them without feeling judged or attacked
  • Create inclusiveness – related to common experiences in order to help others (re) consider their point of view
  • Challenge assumptions – they should help us go in with an open mind and ask questions to seek better understanding
  • Cause the person to stretch – they should invite us to expand upon ideas, explore what is important to us and challenges to “think big”
  • Encourage breakthrough thinking – they should encourage us to find new ways of doing things, or encourage new ideas and perspectives to come to the forefront

#3. Focus On The Other – Not Yourself

George Bradt, a columnist for Forbes and the author of “Take Care Of Your People And They’ll Take Care Of You”, once said “One of the most fundamental lessons of leadership is that if you’re a leader, it’s not about you.  It’s about the people following you.  The best leaders devote almost all of their energy to inspiring and enabling others.  Taking care of them is a big part of this.”

He might as well have been talking about sales – the very best sellers I know have the ability to completely focus on the other, and just for a moment ignore their own selfish needs and desires. It’s almost like they lose their entire ego, and become completely absorbed in uncovering the other person’s needs and desires, their hopes and dreams.

Yet, perhaps paradoxically, by focusing on the other they meet their personal needs far better than if they would’ve been focused on their own agenda.

As sellers, if we strive to raise the bar and stand out as professionals, advisers and trusted counterparts to our clients, we owe it to them to listen more carefully, asked better, more insightful questions and keep our focus firmly on their needs instead of our own. And that’s just about the best sales advice I can give you.