Is Sales a “Four-Letter” Word?

There are many advisors and investors who think “sell” is a four-letter word which conjures up images of slick, fast talking, booze-buying people that will say and do anything to make a sale. While there have been, and always will be a percentage of salespeople who conduct themselves in an unprofessional manner, the reality is that sales is a profession, a critically important profession albeit not a regulated one such as accounting, law or medicine.

Did you know that dozens of universities offer undergraduate degrees in sales? Respected institutions such as Temple University, Purdue, Baylor, Florida State University and many others have been teaching sales as a course of study for years. The Harvard Business Review published an article in 2016 stating that more colleges should teach sales noting that less than 100 of 4,000 colleges offer courses in sales, but that as much as 50% of the workforce will at one point or another be in a sales role in their career.

There are two conflicting realities in the retail financial services industry today around the topic of sales. The first is that there are still some old-school salespeople that conduct themselves in an unprofessional manner and simply try to jam a product down someone’s throat in one fashion or another. The second is that a growing group of advisors who do conduct themselves in the proper manner do not espouse the virtues of professional sales, in fact many of these advisors blanche at using the word “sales” like it is a four-letter word. The ill-intended effect of advisors not embracing sales as a legitimate business function is that fewer consumers and investors will hire an advisor, and that consumer will be worse off over the long run.

I have been in sales for much of my 30-plus years in financial services. I started in retail sales in the mid-1980’s then after a few years went to the business-to-business side of the financial services sector where I have been ever since. My education in sales was part self-taught, part experience, part formal training. There are many things I have learned in my time in sales, but I have also learned much by creating sales forces for the companies I worked for, and creating and leading sales forces for the companies I helped found and run as CEO. I learned much from the people I worked for, and likely learned more from the sales professionals reporting to me.

There are several core themes that every advisor and every investor should know about professional sales. First and foremost, the definition of when a sale should and ONLY happen is when the service or product the seller has can solve a problem of the buyer. If the seller cannot solve a problem of the buyer, then the seller needs to find out fast and terminate the process. In other words, if there is no problem to solve, then no sale should take place. Sales professionals run the other way when they find out they cannot truly help the buyer. The best example of understanding how professional sales works is to examine industrial sales.

For example, envision the General Electric aircraft engine sales executive who is attempting to land a big sale to Boeing. If the GE sales person were to sell the wrong engine to Boeing, people will likely die. In industrial sales, or Business to Business sales selling the wrong product or selling any product just to make a sale is rarely done. A sales professional in either retail or B-B will simply not do this, and the same applies to those in the financial services space.

A second theme in professional sales is the only way to learn if you can solve a client’s problem is by listening. An old trick I used to train junior salespeople who did not listen enough was to tell them “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason: listen twice as much as you speak”. Sales are made by listening, not speaking. There are many ways to actively listen to a potential client, and entire training courses have been created on the topic, but listening is the most important skill in professional selling.

The third theme to share is one many advisors do not understand and that is being professionally persistent. If the seller has uncovered a need that can be solved by their offering, and especially if the need is an important one such as a financial services solution like a financial plan, life insurance or a re-allocation of investments, then the seller needs to persist with the buyer. The trick is being persistent in a way that is not offensive or obnoxious. Thankfully in this age, there are so many ways to “drip” on a prospect that are both non-intrusive and labor saving, its easier than ever to stay in touch with a potential client. Many advisors these days give up after two or three emails, its quite clear they never had any formal sales training. To reiterate, the advisor’s life will be fine, but the investor that needs the advice may not be.

Professional sales is a vitally important function. It is not a four-letter word to be avoided. It is a skill to be embraced, especially for a service as important to others as financial advice.