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5 things I had to learn to stop being an awful salesperson

When I was 18 I got my first sales job at the local Nissan dealership.

And I sucked at it.

I came inches from getting fired and ended up quitting before it could happen again. But despite the challenges, I learned a lot.

One of my problems was that I would always start every sales process by setting my customer up to get the best deal possible. Might sound a little counterintuitive, but yes, that was a problem.

I’d tell them that if I had the car they wanted, that nobody would get them a better deal than I would. And I very often did… when given the chance.

But, for reasons I couldn’t understand, that didn’t happen often. Customers HATED me. I worked there for 3 months and sold only one car myself the entire time (the rest being assisted by senior reps).

My bosses kept telling me that I was jumping the gun, and that all I needed to do was “make a friend.” But I couldn’t understand what they meant.

Five years later, I finally figured it out.

My problem was that I wanted something from all my customers, and I felt that the only way for me to get that was to earn it. And getting them a good deal was the best way for me to do that.

But what I needed to learn was that I didn’t earn my money by getting my customers a good deal.

I earned my money by solving a problem for them.

Here’s what I mean:

A guy bought a $40,000 Nissan Maxima from myself and a colleague one time. He owned an insurance agency and was almost certainly a millionaire several times over. I thought he bought the car because he just liked Maximas and wanted to have one.

But that’s not the case.

He didn’t want a Nissan Maxima because he wanted a Nissan Maxima. He wanted a Nissan Maxima because he hated the way he felt driving his old Toyota Corolla. He’d spent years living frugally, and he was sick and tired of being responsible. He wanted to cut loose a little and reward himself with a status symbol for making all the right moves.

(I love that a multi-millionaire’s idea of “cutting loose” is a modest luxury sedan 😂)

The sad thing is his true buying motivation didn’t dawn on me for 5 years.

And a person’s true buying motivation is rarely a good deal.

The best way for me to find my customers’ buying motivations (read: PROBLEMS) would have been to just ask questions. But I didn’t—I immediately positioned myself as a salesman, and by doing so, I was completely shutting them down.

Totally preventing them from feeling safe—and making it impossible for them to open up and tell me what their problems were.

Don't make the CUSTOMER'S buying experience all about YOUR sales process.

My bosses’ solution to this problem was to “make a friend,” but I didn’t feel comfortable trying to be friends with my customers. I wanted them to buy from me. It was a total conflict of interest.

But as I got older, I realized that I could be friendly with people without trying to become friends.

After I accepted a few difficult facts, I was able to get past my mental barriers and become not only a better salesman, but a better person.

Here’s what I had to learn:

1 – Starting a relaxed, “pointless” conversation is socially acceptable (even if you’re in a sales role)

Just because you’re a professional with a service to offer doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to just talk to people with no end goal in mind.

It’s true that some of your customers might assume that you have something to sell, but that’s fine. Their suspicions are not your problem.

You’re allowed to just talk to people. You’re not required to try to sell to them, and you don’t need a reason or special permission to talk to someone.

You can, and should, talk to people without an objective for the conversation.

2 – In order to solve a problem, you need to know what the problem is

When you’re talking casually to people like this, they will tell you what you need to know. Even if their guard isn’t totally down, they’ll still share information that will help you, just because their brain says it’s the socially correct thing to do.

You must help people feel safe in talking about their lives. Their hopes, dreams and aspirations. Their problems, challenges and hiccups. Especially their problems. A problem that you can solve is your opportunity to be of service.

You can’t assume you know what the problem is. Your customer needs to tell you, directly or indirectly.

3 – You can’t help everybody

Again, you’re not required to sell to people. Sometimes, I’ll have a conversation with someone who seems like my perfect customer. But sometimes, that perfect customer will have all their problems well in hand, at least the problems that I’m able to solve.

When that happens, I tell them how I feel. I say that I can’t solve the problems they’re facing.

If I know someone who can, sometimes I’ll pass along their information. But otherwise, I’ll just move on.

Not everyone is a good fit for your product or service.

Pro tip: Don’t discard people as soon as you find out you can’t get anything out of them. Even if they’re not a good fit, you should at least go out of your way to make them smile.

4 – “You win” ≠ “They lose”

Many salespeople I talk to feel guilty for getting paid. They feel like, somehow, the sale they just made is a loss for their customer.

A massive reason for my awful skills at selling cars is that I think cars are a bad investment. I remember a family of four with a $60,000 income that wanted to buy a $45,000 RAM pickup once. I thought that was one of the stupidest moves they could have made. They’d have been much better served by a Honda Civic in my opinion. I’d have felt guilty for making that sale.

My coworker, however, believed that by putting them in a brand new RAM, he was putting them in a reliable vehicle that would keep them all safe, warm, and on the road through the brutal winters here in Montana. He made that sale, got paid, and parted friends with the family he sold it to.

Did both our perspectives have merit? Absolutely. But I wasn’t a good fit for that product.

Now, I sell landing pages. Not two weeks ago I was on the phone with a paint contractor who told me he was sitting in his truck for an hour with tears in his eyes because his business was about to go bankrupt. He pulled himself out of the hole he was in before we spoke, but I shamelessly exploited that vulnerability he shared to sell my product.

And I didn’t feel the least bit bad about it, because I know for a fact that buying from me is going to put his business in a stronger position, and help him avoid feeling that crippling despair ever again.

Your customer is buying from you because you have something that they want, be it a product or a service (or both). If they didn’t want what you were selling, they wouldn’t buy it. You’re not getting paid for doing something wrong, so any conflict or interest exists purely in your head.

Sell something you believe in, and every sale you make will be a win/win scenario.

5 – You’re not their friend, and that’s okay too

Being in a sales role sometimes feels unnatural. Conversations often feel stilted and uncomfortable, especially if you’re trying to approach it from a position of “friendship.“

This feels unnatural because you’re NOT friends. You’re not trying to be friends with your prospects, at least you shouldn’t be. You have your own friends, and they have their own friends too. They’re here for a purpose, and your job is to help them fulfill that purpose.

But if you can fulfill that purpose from a position of genuine interest in the person you’re serving, they’ll love you for it nonetheless.

Care about your customers, but don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.

Replace expectations, goals and fake friendliness with genuine curiosity and interest.

To truly get to that position of genuine interest, you must accept these facts.

  • A pointless conversation is socially acceptable.
  • You can’t sell a solution to a problem that you don’t know about.
  • You can’t help everybody
  • You’re going to get paid, and that’s okay
  • You’re not their friend, and that’s okay too.

If you can accept those facts, you’ll be able to detach yourself from the end goal. Your conversations will get easier, your sales skills will improve, and you’ll feel a lot better.

By not pretending to be their friend, your customers won’t subconsciously notice the subtle signals that you’re deceiving them, because you won’t be deceiving them.

And you will feel comfortable with getting to know this person, finding out what their problems are, and solving them. Despite knowing that you might never see them again, and that you might even forget their name the next week.

By letting go of your sense of obligation, detaching yourself from the outcome, you’ll be able to become genuinely interested in helping these total strangers.

And when that happens, everybody wins.

I'm John Kakuk.

I’m a brand designer, web developer and marketer working with architects, engineers and construction companies. My purpose is to help others achieve the best versions of their businesses and themselves.

Here's how I can help you: