Joel Malkoff: “You should be honest and have sales integrity”

You can effectively close sales in an ethical and soft selling manner without being perceived as pushy. There are hundreds of closing techniques but if your sales presentation was done well, the sales prospect literally closes the sale themselves. When this happens, you know you handled the sale properly. I do have several “trial closing” […]

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You can effectively close sales in an ethical and soft selling manner without being perceived as pushy. There are hundreds of closing techniques but if your sales presentation was done well, the sales prospect literally closes the sale themselves. When this happens, you know you handled the sale properly. I do have several “trial closing” techniques that I prefer best. Here’s my top 5 closes: the AlternativeChoiceClose is very soft and effective such as “would you prefer delivery this week or next week?”. I also like the Affordable/Cost-Effective Close, the Reverse/Limited Availability Close (only if it’s true), Testimonials/Everyone-has-one Close, and the Be-the-first-one Close.

As a part of my series about how to be great at closing sales without seeming pushy, obnoxious, or salesy, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joel Malkoff.

Joel Malkoff, a.k.a. the Ethics Giver, demonstrates that ethical business decision-making isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s the profitable thing to do. Over the course of his 45-year career as a business executive and entrepreneur, he has generated more than half a billion dollars in sales.

A writer and coach on ethical business practices and principles, he serves as general manager and vice president of a corporation that manufactures and sells medical and scientific research products worldwide.

Thank you for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this career path?

I have a passion to spread the benefits of sales ethics and I also believe that it is one of my purposes in life. My background is in sales and marketing and my expertise is in buyer/seller relationships. I have studied and applied business ethics for decades and I enjoy showing how ethics, when applied properly, can increase your sales and profits, and grow your business.

I have a strong desire to transmit ethical knowledge to the next generation.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

When I was a regional sales manager, I frequently accompanied my territory sales representatives on product demonstrations. This one time, my recently hired sales rep was presenting our new vital sign monitoring system to a large hospital. One of the physicians asked about a competitor and my sales rep proceeded to slander them. Another physician asked about pediatric applications and my sales rep said it was available when in fact it was not available for at least 10-months. When we left the facility, I explained to my sales rep that there are better ways to highlight our product by selling its exclusive features rather than trashing the competitor. I also stressed the need to be forthright regarding our product’s current capabilities and not sell future possibilities. I even said that she should recommend the competitor if the product fits the buyer’s needs better. Reluctantly, she called the buyer the next day and did so. After their initial surprise, the buyers were very appreciative. One year later, the buyer contacted her and placed an even larger order for our vital signs monitoring systems. There are three important take-aways:

  • You should be honest and have sales integrity. Your business ethics should be the same as your personal ethics — there should be no difference
  • You should conduct your business with the spirit of the law in mind. To go beyond the letter of the law and provide your customers with the best solution for their needs, even if it does not yield you an immediate sale. Your business relationships are long-term.
  • You should always provide full disclosure to potential customers. Your motto should be let the seller beware rather than let the buyer beware. Transparency builds customer trust and company profits.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I just published my first book, “Selling Ethically: A Business Parable Connecting Integrity with Profits” I chose to write a parable since storytelling is a great way to learn and remember principles to live by. It works well for adults and children alike. My book is a narrative nonfiction or as some say, a business novel. It was difficult to write and took me over 8-years to complete. I wanted a strong story with solid business concepts. The balancing of both objectives without one overpowering the other was challenging. The story unfolds as my business life’s journey, moving back and forth in time. There are successes and failures, ethical and unethical decisions, and many challenges to overcome. I do not consider myself a hero, but my story is portrayed as a hero’s journey, with all of life’s ups and downs. John Campbell, the famed author and mythicist formulated the hero’s model and it was so successful in books and movies such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Lion King. I chose my book title and sub-title “Selling Ethically: A Business Parable Connecting Integrity with Profits” to clearly describe my book as a business story that focuses on selling and sales ethics rather than general business ethics. The sub-title was chosen to show how your integrity is truly aligned with your business success. There is a powerful and surprising link between sales ethics and profits.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I had several excellent business mentors in my life. Each person shared with me their unique abilities. I am most grateful to the authors of my books. I wish to acknowledge my books. They are my friends, teachers, and mentors. Their words enrich my soul and allow me to learn about myself and the world around me. My library holds millennia of knowledge and wisdom. My books let me hope and dream.

For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit why you are an authority on the topic of sales?

I try to stay humble, so it is difficult to label myself as an authority. I do have a half century of sales and marketing experience in a variety of industries. I can apply this business experience to current sales scenarios, successfully.

Let’s shift a bit to what is happening today in the broader world. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the COVID-19 pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty and loneliness. From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to our families and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Ethical sales professionals are continually challenged to bring a high degree of empathy and integrity to the selling process. However, in the midst of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the stakes are even higher. Millions of people across the country and around the globe have faced illness, death, and economic hardship in recent months. Authenticity Is Key. Now, more than ever, whether it’s in our personal relationships or professional networks, no one has patience for false sincerity. In other words, if a salesperson lacks empathy for a customer’s situation, the relationship will suffer, and repeat business and referrals will not happen. Yet, as struggling salespeople know, closing deals, securing commissions, and making a profit also matters more than ever in our precarious economic climate. How can a sales professional balance empathy and integrity with the pragmatic need to earn an income? Consider a proven sales approach that offers a win-win to both seller and customer: a soft sell. So, why is soft selling especially important during a pandemic, or in any other crisis? Because your customers are under significant stress. And taking a high-pressure, hard sell approach will only escalate their stress levels and make your pitch extremely unbearable.

Ok. Thanks for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. As you know, nearly any business a person will enter, will involve some form of sales. At the same time, most people have never received any formal education about how to be effective at selling. Why do you think our education system teaches nearly every other arcane subject, but sales, one of the most useful and versatile topics, is totally ignored?

Yes, I agree it is totally ignored. I graduated college with a 4-year degree in business management. There were only three courses in Marketing and no courses titled Sales. The marketing courses had only brief overviews of the selling process. I believe the topic of sales is considered low esteem by academia. In addition, the practice of selling is more an art than a science. Sales is primarily based on lessons learned in your real-life selling experiences. The educational system holds the sciences at the highest level. Even when the creative arts are taught there is a foundation of solid principles often based on scientific principles. Selling skills and sales principles are disputable, difficult to prioritize, and often resides under human psychology.

This discussion, entitled, “How To Be Great At Sales Without Seeming Salesy”, is making an assumption that seeming salesy or pushy is something to be avoided. Do you agree with this assumption? Whether yes, or no, can you articulate why you feel the way you do?

Yes, I agree. A salesperson should avoid being overly aggressive. You can be great in sales without being pushy. Most salespeople have been real-time schooled in hard sell techniques and tactics, accompanied by tricks of the trade, like bait-and-switch. A traditional hard sell approach is direct, forceful, and overt — no beating around the bush. This method of salesmanship is also described as aggressive and high-pressure, or worse, relentless and manipulative. Does hard sell get results? Sometimes. Does a hard sell win a customer’s trust and loyalty? Never. In contrast, a soft sell approach is designed to avoid alienating and angering potential customers. Rather than pressuring customers into buying, it aims to persuade them. Soft sell techniques are restrained, subtle, friendly, and casual. Salespeople who excel at taking things soft tend to be more likeable and more trustworthy. An ethical salesperson needs to have empathy and be cognizant of the customer’s emotions. A soft sell approach is better than a hard sell. Overly aggressive, hard sales tactics might give you a very short temporary win, but you risk losing the more beneficial — and profitable — long-term customer relationship. As the sages say, you might win the battle, but you’ll definitely lose the war.

The seven stages of a sales cycle are usually broken down to versions of Prospecting, Preparation, Approach, Presentation, Handling objections, Closing, and Follow-up. Which stage do you feel that you are best at? What is your unique approach, your “secret sauce” to that particular skill? Can you explain or give a story?

Sales prospecting is the start of everything. You need to find qualified potential customers before you can sell anything. I enjoy this first preparatory step. The rest of the sales process is your methodical actions based on your sales techniques, selling skill level, and experience. The more time a salesperson can devote to uncovering information about the buyer’s background, colleagues, habits and their likes and dislikes, the better you are prepared to engage successfully. As the great President Abraham Lincoln replied when asked what he would do if he had only six hours to chop down a tree, he replied, “I would spend the first four hours sharpening my axe.” Thorough preparation is the secret sauce to selling success.

Lead generation, or prospecting is one of the basic steps of the sales cycle. Obviously every industry will be different, but can you share some of the fundamental strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

My first step is to work my customer base and build out. Who are your best customers? Why? Which customers complain the most? Turn those lemons to lemonade. Customer referrals are the best and easiest way to grow your sales. However, only happy customers will give you their colleagues as referrals. You need to build a good customer relationship and establish trust. After you pick the low hanging fruit, cold calling is the next level. Online information is an excellent source to identify your high-quality sales prospects. Vital information from their company website, business associations, and social media is easily available and free. This type of cold calling is a very efficient and effective strategy — remotely and all from the comfort of your desk.

In my experience, I think the final stages of Handling Objections, Closing, and Follow-up, are the most difficult parts for many people. Why do you think ‘Handling Objections’ is so hard for people? What would you recommend for one to do, to be better at ‘Handling Objections’?

I believe that handling objections is the most difficult part of the sales process for most salespeople. However, if you are an active listener, you can answer their concerns during your sales presentation. Too often, salespeople keep talking and feel that they need to finish their sales pitch before they answer buyer concerns. Then, they walk into a wall of objections. It is important to be proactive. Handling objectives is a wonderful way to restate your product and service benefits and it affords you the opportunities to “trial close” throughout the process. If there are no objections or concerns, you may not have a serious buyer.

‘Closing’ is of course the proverbial Holy Grail. Can you suggest 5 things one can do to successfully close a sale without being perceived as pushy? If you can, please share a story or example, ideally from your experience, for each.

Yes, I agree that closing the sale is the final frontier. Here are 5 proven sales practices that allow you to achieve sales success.

  1. Have Empathy. Truly understand the buyer’s needs and intent. A salesperson should not be self-centered and only be concerned with selling by any means.
  2. Be Honest. Provide full disclosure of your product offering, including possible limitations regarding the buyer’s requirements. Don’t take a hard sell approach of partial truths, omissions or hiding product defects.
  3. Be a Problem-Solver. Give truthful answers to a buyer’s questions and be forthright. Find solutions to a customer’s problems by softly probing the customer’s needs and pain points. A salesperson should not hard sell his or her product or service with no regard for the customer’s real needs and problems.
  4. Act as a Consultant. Be a true partner in the sales process and help your customer achieve his or her goals by fulfilling their needs. A salesperson should not manipulate the buyer through fear, false scarcity, luring by bait and switch, slandering the competitor, or other dubious selling techniques.
  5. Have Sales Integrity. A soft selling approach still needs to be persuasive (but not manipulative). Your sales goal, as always, is to make the sale! It is your code of ethics, your honest actions, and your soft, caring manner that will save the day. A salesperson needs to sell ethically, satisfying the customer by providing the right product or service.

You can effectively close sales in an ethical and soft selling manner without being perceived as pushy. There are hundreds of closing techniques but if your sales presentation was done well, the sales prospect literally closes the sale themselves. When this happens, you know you handled the sale properly. I do have several “trial closing” techniques that I prefer best. Here’s my top 5 closes: the Alternative Choice Close is very soft and effective such as “would you prefer delivery this week or next week?”. I also like the Affordable/Cost-Effective Close, the Reverse/Limited Availability Close (only if it’s true), Testimonials/Everyone-has-one Close, and the Be-the-first-one Close.

Finally, what are your thoughts about ‘Follow up’? Many businesses get leads who might be interested but things never seem to close. What are some good tips for a business leader to successfully follow up and bring things to a conclusion, without appearing overly pushy or overeager?

Sales follow-up is essential. All sales leads have value. Some leads are more immediate then others. As they say, you need to pick the low hanging fruit first. It is critical to build your sales funnel of potential sales and nurture the sales prospects over time. Some sales prospects you can reach out to more often than others. You need to know your sales prospects well enough to build a long-term relationship so when they are ready to buy, you are there,

As you know there are so many modes of communication today. For example, In-person, phone calls, video calls, emails, and text messages. In your opinion, which of these communication methods should be avoided when attempting to close a sale or follow up? Which are the best ones? Can you explain or give a story?

Email correspondence is the friendliest since it allows the customers to reply on their terms. Phone calls or in-person visits are more intrusive and require more planning in order to build a relationship on the customer’s terms. Texting should never be used since it defines your urgency not your customer’s timeframe.

Ok, we are nearly done. Here is our final “meaty” question. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to know that my book made a significant difference in the world. To know that buyers will no longer fear sellers, and sellers will no longer mislead buyers. To know that sellers will truly believe that “Ethics is Smart Business” and they will build better customer relationships and profitable businesses. To have people apply the golden rule, to treat others as they wish to be treated, on a business level as well as a personal level. To have goodness and equality in the buyer-seller relationship. I would like to impact the world by helping to herald-in a global marketplace based on mutual trust and cooperation. To make the world a better place.

How can our readers follow you online?

My website is:

My LinkedIn is: @JoelMalkoff,

My Facebook business is: @theethicsgiver,

Thank you for the interview. We wish you only continued success!

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