The Most Underrated Skill in a Salesperson

I’ve worked in a sales job for the first 15 years of my career. And like everyone who has worked in a sales job for such a long time, I have my own war stories about how I won deals from the brink of losing them. But one of the best things that happened to me, happened really early in my career, which left an indelible mark on me and my sales career.

This is back in the mid-to-late 1990’s (I know I am dating myself here, but whatever). I had just finished college and was looking for a job. I was always clear that I want to take up a job that will teach me the skills to run my own business, as that is all I ever wanted to do (after being rejected from joining the Indian Navy due to my being color blind).

One of my uncles, set me up an interview with one of his business partners and I was asked to go to Bangalore (from Salem, where I used to stay). It was a five hour train journey and I reached the office at about 9:30 in the morning. I clearly remember it was a local festival and the offices were closed for business. I was waiting for the interview to happen. I was kept waiting till about 4:30 in the evening, when my future boss strolled in and asked me in.

We had a regular interview and in the process, he asked me about everything that he could. The last thing he did ask me was when did I arrive in Bangalore. I said that i had arrived at 9:30 in the morning and I was waiting for him since then. He was surprised and asked me why I hadn’t called him or let him know as soon as I had come in? I did let someone in his office know but the message never reached him.

There was my first two lessons:

  1. Never expect or hope that someone else will do your work for you.
  2. Always keep communicating with the person you are supposed to meet. If nothing else, at least send them a message that you have arrived and are waiting in their office.

I know, this is sales 101, but you will be surprised by how many times all of us commit this mistake. The most common form of this mistake is when we expect the customer or the prospect to do our work and hope that it will get done.

To cut a long story short, I was hired for the job and was again asked to come back to Bangalore for my induction. I got to know that my first job was to collect outstanding dues from the market. There used to be a sales agent in the market and he had accumulated a lot of debt and was not able to collect from the debtors. So, armed with a list of all the debtors with their respective outstanding, I embarked on a journey that took me almost 18 months to complete.

Basically, the debtors were mostly small (really small) entrepreneurs who did not have any money to pay us back. They had either lost money in their business or invested the cash in their machinery and now did not have any cash to pay us back with. Then there were some who did not have any intention of paying us back.

With the guys who had money, I had to coax them to pay us. As they say in my culture, I used all the modes of influence (Saam – to make rational arguments, Daam – financial rewards, Dand – Punish/shame, Bhed – out-fox them at their own game) and had them pay us back. This took almost a year to recover.

With the guys who did not have money but wanted to pay back, I worked with them to identify plans. Most of them had debts in the range of 750 – 1000 USD (in those days). So, with some we decided on a weekly payment schedule of 50 – 100 USD and with some, a daily schedule of 10 – 20 USD. I created a route plan and would visit each one of these debtors at their homes and collect these tiny little sums. Gradually but surely, their debts reduced and we collected most of the debts.

With the guys who did not have any money and did not want to pay back, I used to visit them every single day asking them to pay me whatever they could. I would start visiting them at their homes instead of their factories. This had a shaming impact on them as their kids would ask them about this young chap coming in every day.

Long story short, once I had collected the last penny possible, I went back to my boss and asked him about what should I do next. He asked me what I would like to do? I said, I would like to start selling back to these very entrepreneurs from whom I had collected the debts just now. And the best part is while he was not very sure if that was the right thing to do, he allowed me to run with it. I was able to almost triple the business that the agent was doing in the city without developing any bad debt.

The lessons I learnt here were:

Being Persistent always pays.

I could have easily told my boss that this debt can’t be collected as they don’t have any money to pay us with, I could have stopped long way before the 18 months that I spent following up for cash. But by being persistent in my effort to collect the debt, not only was I able to do a great job at it, but in the process also built up a lot of credibility and trust, with both my boss and my customers. This then helped me grow my business significantly, with the same set of customers.

This habit of persisting with my customers has helped me time and again in my career. There have been times, when I have followed up on a small deal (3500EUR) for almost 3 years before it closed. All I did was send out friendly notes to stay in touch and when the customer was ready to buy, I was there.

As sales executives, we all look at the list of accounts that we have to sell into and identify the top accounts with the biggest potential and where we would like to focus our energies on. What we do with the rest is – basically forget about them. I know of instances where, when a customer asks the sales executive about why they haven’t visited them for a long stretch of time, the immediate response is – You don’t give us business, so we don’t spend time with you. This is such a big mistake as it takes a very short-term view of customer.

While it is fine to focus your efforts on the accounts where you see immediate deals, it is equally important to stay in touch with all your other accounts as well. You persist with these customers and there will come a time when they can and will want to buy and you will be there to get their business.

Another important lesson I learnt in this process is that:

Customers don’t just buy your products/services, they buy into the sales executive who sold them.

While you might have the best product/service available in the market, but if the customer doesn’t trust you, there is always the risk of him/her deciding to walk out of the deal in the favor of a more trusted sales executives. One of the best ways to build that credibility with our customers is by being consistently persistent in our efforts with them.

These are some of the most under-rated skills in a sales executives. All things being equal (most times, even otherwise), customers would prefer to do  business with someone who is consistent, persistent and does his work himself.

PS: For a comprehensive list of why salespeople lose deals read my blog post here

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