If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you went to Wharton, so you’re technically savvy, demonstrably smart, and have likely excelled for most of your career. Yet, for some of you, especially those in professional services, you may find your future career opportunities limited if a big criteria for advancement is based on your ability to source deals and generate revenue for your firm.
If you find yourself struggling to embrace sales, you’re not alone. So, why do smart people struggle with sales? When coaching professionals, I generally see three themes.
A Distaste for Sales
Many professionals generally dislike sales. Selling doesn’t seem respectable, and in many ways, it appears to be a departure from leveraging the technical competence you worked so hard to amass. This hesitancy to sell is likely not that you can’t do it; it’s that you are not willing to do it.
In many ways, the perceived status downgrade when it comes to selling is a misperception. Senior partners sell. CEOs sell. The highest earners in many professions sell. Also, when you can sell the work, you’re likely able to sell work that’s on the frontier of your abilities, accelerating your growth. Who can sell your expertise better than you?
A Delay Between Your Effort and Results
A second reason smart people struggle with sales is the lag time between the effort that’s expended and the results. When you’re modeling future cash flows or writing a brief, you have a good sense for the output you’ll be able to generate for the effort you put in. Unfortunately, in business development, which often depends on building trust and relationships, it not only takes time, but your efforts today may not pay off immediately, or ever. Winning others’ business not only depends on the quality and quantity of your activity but also on factors outside your control, such as economic conditions and your buyer’s personal circumstances, among other things. If you’re used to generating results quickly and with more certainty, you may begin to doubt your abilities or question whether sales activities are worth your time. These misinterpretations may cause you to gravitate back to the relative safety of technical work.
It’s important to recognize the probabilistic nature of sales. Like poker, you may be doing all the right things and still get a bad beat. When you understand this idea, you’ll begin to see that your efforts, if directed toward an effective process, are productive. Even if you may not see immediate payoff, as long as you stick to a good process, you will ultimately see results.
A Lack of Sales Guidance
Technically gifted professionals often struggle with sales because they’re not given clear guidance on how to sell. Unlike the structured learning they had when building their expertise, most professionals don’t get much guidance on business development. Even when they receive advice or training, they may not see it as a skill they can build, but instead as a function of one’s personality.
As for the lack of clarity or your own ability to learn selling, there are clear strategies you can follow, but they are context-specific. One of the reasons I wrote my new book, Selling Your Expertise, was to bring clarity to business development and to connect the mindset, strategies, and tactics needed to become a consistent revenue generator.
The key is to understand the principle behind what you’re looking to accomplish. For example, in a situation when your client doesn’t have an immediate need, pitching your services in an initial meeting may not be the best strategy. Instead, you’ll want to focus on deepening your relationship and offering more value so they’re willing to meet with you again. It’s not until you’ve built up some trust that a prospect will open up to you about their real needs.
If you’re a smart professional who is hesitant to shift to sales or find yourself struggling to source deals, see if you carry any of these misperceptions. If so, challenge them. If there is one takeaway for you, it’s that selling is not different than any other skill you’ve learned. On many fronts, it’s likely easier to learn how to sell than it is to learn how to do your current technical work. If you’re not sure whether you can succeed, you may want to check out Selling Your Expertise for a clear roadmap.
Robert Chen WG19 is a partner at Exec-Comm, a global communication-skills consultancy, where he leads the firm’s business development efforts. He is also the author of Selling Your Expertise: The Mindset, Strategies and Tactics of Successful Rainmakers, published by Wiley. Robert teaches managerial communication, advanced persuasion, and storytelling at Wharton for the MBA and Executive MBA programs and is on the executive committee of the Wharton Club of New York.