Since most people are distrustful of salespeople, we have to build trust. They need to understand that we are here to help guide them to a decision that is going to be a great fit for them. Qualifying does that.
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 John Hill.
John is an entrepreneur who is absolutely passionate about sales. He has helped dozens of entrepreneurs and sales teams close more deals while saving time. In addition to founding Adapted Growth, his consulting company, he is also a host on a weekly podcast, Sales Throwdown, focusing on personalities in sales and how to have better conversations.
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 been in sales roles for about 20 years, all combined. I moved into B2B in 2011 and then in 2014, a friend approached me about helping him grow a website design agency. We were not developers, so I focused on the sales side of things. A tight sales process and good CRM habits allowed me to run a deeper pipeline than I was ever able to manage before, and I got really focused on data and psychology in selling.
In 2017, my partner and I decided to split ways, on good terms, and I took a job with a startup. When that didn’t work out, I knew I couldn’t go work for somebody else again.
I decided to turn my side hustle of helping people set up CRMs and sales process creation into my main focus. I have been on that journey ever since.
There is so much room to improve the perception of sales from every viewpoint, whether you’re a business owner, salesperson, or prospect, that I really want to focus on helping people think about selling differently. I have lots of business ideas around this idea; I just need the time, focus, and revenue to build them the right way.
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 split with my former partner and went to work for the startup, it was a disaster.
I had basically been in sales my whole adult life, and I thought I wanted a break. Instead of selling, I was an accountability coach for students of this business. For the first three days or so, I was super excited. But I realized pretty quickly that I was already missing sales.
And then layoffs started happening. After the first round, I thought maybe I could help. With my sales background and knowledge, I tried to convince them to let me help with their sales team. I’d never been in a position where I had absolutely no effect on the bottom line, and my ego about that made me think I could there.
They let me help a bit, but when I started trying to completely change their system because I thought I could make it better, I was told to stay in my lane. And then during the next round of layoffs, I got the ax.
But that got me to where I am today. I learned that I have no control over other people’s business and sales process, so I started my own. I also learned that I need sales in my life. While helping others succeed was an exciting new challenge, I found a way to do that and sell at the same time!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We launched the Sales Throwdown Podcast in September of 2019. We focus on talking about personalities in sales using the DISC personality model. Depending on where you sit in that model, you view things differently. For example, you, the salesperson, might want a lot of facts, data, and details. And sometimes covering all that information will kill your opportunity because the person you’re selling to doesn’t want any of that. They just want to see if they can trust you to do a good job. So knowing where they fit in with DISC helps you to know how to approach the conversation and helps you be able to shift your natural communication style and priorities to better fit theirs. It helps with both sides of the conversation.
The show is somewhat unique because each one of the four of us sits in a completely different area of the DISC model. We talk about how we approach different areas in selling and how each of us communicates, so you can really get a feel for the different personalities in real-time.
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?
My business partner in the web design agency had been focused on sales improvement for a long time before we worked together. When he started talking to me about managing our sales around KPIs (leading indicators) and not just results (lagging indicators) my thoughts around sales changed completely. I had already explored the idea that focusing on the process is way more sustainable than focusing on results because of my history as a poker player, but I never applied it to selling until working with him.
Before buying into the idea of KPI’s, I was not really able to accept a “no” from a potential client. I needed a “yes” to get my needs met, and I felt like I failed if I didn’t get it. Shifting to a process that is built to save time and run a deeper pipeline allowed me to stop spending time chasing unqualified prospects and to sell much more confidently.
He also introduced me to both DISC and sales coaching, which started my journey down the rabbit hole of learning everything I could about sales and selling psychology.
For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit why you are an authority on the topic of sales?
I was not really “good” at sales until I started working with my web design agency partner. I had a huge amount of ego around my sales ability and it was largely unfounded. My early success in B2C sales can be attributed to being in the right place at the right time and not around my actual ability.
My first role as a B2B salesperson was in the realm of medical devices which is one of the most competitive industries in the United States. I struggled endlessly in that role. Looking back, I’m thankful for it because, without that struggle, I never would have forced myself to shelve my ego, listen to my former partner, and become coachable around improving.
Since then, I have left no stone unturned when it comes to selling. I listen to tons of audiobooks and podcasts, I pour over books about selling, work with coaches, and really try to challenge all my assumptions about selling to see if they are valid or not.
I have sold investments, medical devices, websites, marketing campaigns, premium-priced courses for coaches and consultants, and my own consulting services. When I meet someone who sells a product or service that I am unfamiliar with, I instinctually begin to think about how I would sell it. What are the pain points, what are the qualifiers, what would my 30-second commercial sound like?
I’ve read that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in something. When I look at the time I have spent on sales calls, breaking them down after the fact, helping others look for opportunities to increase their conversations, and practicing role-play conversations with others, even just in my truck with my daughter in the back seat, I am way past 10,000 hours.
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?
It is pretty crazy out there and we don’t have that much control over it, so I focus on the areas I do have control over, my processes.
Process allows you to remove the emotional component from your professional day-to-day, and that saves your mental bandwidth for other areas. Steve Jobs was famous for wearing the same “uniform” each day. With only having one thing to wear, he didn’t waste any brainpower on that decision and was able to save it for other, more important areas.
I am lucky that I have been working from home for a number of years now along with my partner, Melissa. Our workday has not changed too much from how it was running before COVID-19, but I know that for many people, working from home is new. It sounds exciting, but in reality, there are a lot of unique struggles that arise when you work from home in normal times, let alone in the middle of a pandemic.
If you are working right now, the number one thing you need to do is set expectations with your family. My daughter knows that if I am on a call, unless it is an emergency (we have defined what that is), it can wait. That took some time and some reinforcement, but it is worth it. I don’t answer friends’ phone calls or text messages when I am “on the clock.” I live completely by my calendars, and I keep the appointments and agreements I make with myself.
I write out the work I have to do each day, tackle the hardest thing first, but I don’t let myself end the day until it is done. I communicate with my family about this and thankfully they are supportive because my days can get a little long.
Process and routine are a couple of key concepts that I picked up from being in the Army. Many of our routines are tied to things we don’t have access to right now; driving to work, the gym, Friday night poker game with friends. Since those anchors are not there, you have to double down on creating new routines to see results when the days are blending together.
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?
This is something I have thought about a lot over the past few years. I decided that I wanted to get into sales because, after coming home from the military, I was unsure about the idea of going back to college and finishing with a degree. It seemed to me like sales was going to be the best way to make a decent living without a degree.
As a whole, our culture looks at the profession of sales negatively. Dan Pink wrote a great book called, “To Sell is Human” and it talks about how the majority of people have negative thoughts about “salespeople” but admit to the idea that part of their life is about getting someone to “move someone” to do something, which is what selling is really about.
The sales industry is treated like a career you take when nothing else materializes. I know plenty of college graduates in sales roles because it was the only thing that they could find after graduating. But even though it’s often looked down at, those who are successful will often make more than their schoolmates who enter into other areas of the workforce.
I think the other reason that it isn’t taught is that our society still views sales as something you’re either born to do or you’re not. Not enough people view it as a learnable skill. And a lot of those that do only learn more about it to get better at what they’re already doing.
We are starting to see a shift in this as colleges are beginning to offer sales tracks, but changing a stigma as big as the one around the sales profession takes time.
This discussion, entitled, “How To Be Great At Sales Without Seeming Salesey”, 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?
It depends on how you define the term “salesey.” If you see it as meaning a salesperson that only cares about getting their needs met and making the sale, no matter what, then yes. That is something to be avoided.
But if ‘salesey’ only means ‘assertive,’ then I have to disagree. There are plenty of reasons to be assertive in a sales role while still avoiding being pushy or salesey.
When you are dancing with someone, one person usually leads and the other follows and no one makes a fuss about it because it is customary. I think of sales in the same way. I have had hundreds of these conversations, my prospect has had way less. So it is up to me to lead the conversation, and that starts with setting expectations or explaining how the conversation usually goes to make sure we get the important areas covered. But I still do this in a way that works with their personality and avoids the conflict that happens with pushy salespeople. And I make it about their needs, not mine. When I am working to make sure that the prospect and I are working towards a goal that suits both of us, even if that means I’m not the right provider from them, I’m not being pushy. I genuinely want the best fit for both of us.
Most of what gets in our way when it comes to being successful in sales is our own limiting thoughts and beliefs.
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?
Since I don’t sell at the enterprise level, my take on the stages may be a little different. I look at it as Prospecting, Introduction and Setting Appointment, Qualifying, Proposal, Handling Objections, and Closing. For me, follow-up is only needed if I didn’t do a good enough job setting expectations about what happens after we close.
Qualifying is the most important part of the sales cycle for me. It’s something that I feel separates my selling ability from others, and I talk about this a lot, because I think we have lost this crucial part in the process somewhere along the way. We all know it’s something you’re supposed to do, but not enough salespeople are doing it well, and I believe it is a key separator between those who kill it and those who don’t.
Since most people are distrustful of salespeople, we have to build trust. They need to understand that we are here to help guide them to a decision that is going to be a great fit for them. Qualifying does that.
Let’s take it out of sales for a moment and into another area, health care for example. You have some elbow pain, you go to the doctor and he doesn’t ask any questions to understand the problem. All he wants is to get you over to a surgeon for a consultation for surgery. You would probably pump the breaks and go look for a second opinion.
A good doctor is going to take time to diagnose the problem through questions and an exam. A good salesperson takes the opportunity to ask questions, build trust, and diagnose the problem before they try to fix it.
This is commonly referred to as consultative selling, and it works. Your prospects will not let you fix their problem if they don’t think you understand what their problem is.
Thorough qualifying will also save hundreds of hours over time. If you qualify well around known objections before you present, the handling objections stage becomes much easier. You will also have to do way less follow-up after the presentation because there is more trust.
While I was selling websites, I was having my first conversation with a potential new client about a website. We worked exclusively in WordPress sites, but the client and I never talked about the platform we used. When I presented the scope of work and pricing, they told me that they were unsure and needed some time.
I followed up and they told me no because they didn’t want a WordPress website due to what they had heard about it from other people. I spent about 45 minutes building the scope, and an hour presenting it to them. If I had asked about technology upfront, we could have gotten to a “no” sooner or had a better conversation about if it would be a good fit for them.
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?
Prospecting is honestly my least favorite part of selling. I don’t mind getting a “not interested” or “we are happy with who we use now;” that is not the issue. I just really don’t like how much time it takes. So while I do it, I try to do it as smartly as I can.
Every salesperson loves referrals, and I am no exception. The sales cycle is shorter and the percentages go up because there is already some trust since it was a referral.
One of the main ways I prospect is focusing on referrals. I use LinkedIn as a way to connect with people who work adjacently to me, meaning that their clients are usually good for me as well. For instance, marketing agencies and lead generators are great people for me to network with for referrals because what I do allows their clients to spend more with them.
They can handle more leads, which allows them to increase their lifetime client value, and then I get a client from it. It is a win-win for everyone involved. The big part of this way of selling is that you have to be open to giving referrals to the people you are networking with, as no one wants to send referrals to a “taker.”
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’?
This is probably my sales soapbox. There is an endless amount of information about “overcoming objections” on the internet. It turns the whole concept of selling into an “us” vs “them” environment that is not helpful to either the salesperson or the prospect.
At the end of the day, it is about trusting that the salesperson is going to do right by you. When you take your time in qualifying them, asking questions to really understand their situation, understanding their expectations, and how they want the product or service delivered, you are really building trust.
That trust will allow you to work through those last lingering concerns, collaboratively, when they do pop up after you present the solution to the prospect or client.
‘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.
Being able to present the opportunity to a well-qualified prospect is something that makes any salesperson get excited. In most cases, we tend to get too excited. We pick out the things we want to hear, rush to a pitch too early, and that invites a lot more follow-up and chasing.
One of the best ways to close is by examining the expectations of the call, both yours and the prospects. Left to their own devices, most prospects won’t take action around making a decision when we fail to be clear and assertive, not pushy, about next steps. Too often, we enable them to make our lives harder. Building enough trust to make sure your prospect knows you truly want this to be the best fit for them and framing the call around the idea that you are expecting a decision at the end keeps that from happening. It will stop a lot of the dodging that prospects do when they don’t feel empowered enough to say no.
The temperature close is one that I use in pretty much every call I am on. When I am about 75% of the way through the talking points and presentation, I will stop and ask them where they are on a scale of 1–10. This will lead to me uncovering exactly what they still need to hear from me for them to feel comfortable moving forward.
Before you present, reset the expectation that the presentation is about finding a mutual fit. And if it isn’t, ask to have a discussion about what makes it a bad fit. You might uncover an objection that could be overcome. Also, giving them permission to talk about what doesn’t work increases their confidence in being able to give you an answer quickly. I often see prospects settle into the conversation at a deeper level once I make my statement about being ok with a no, and that allows us to have a higher quality conversation.
I like to go for a “no” as quickly as I can. I will make an offer, they say that isn’t what they’re looking for, and that is exactly what I was hoping would happen. Then I can ask them what it would need to look like to be a good fit. They tell me, and then I have the opportunity to build a custom version of my offering that makes sense, or I can leave it as a “no” and move on to the next deal.
My last one is not really a closing technique as I don’t do it after the presentation, but it does set me up for better conversations about what they are looking for. I ask them the magic wand question. “If you had a magic wand, what would a successful relationship look like?” You can also ask “If we were to fast-forward a year of us working together, what do we need to have delivered for it to be a success?”
I have used this last one when someone is unsure about delivery and asks for a discount. I ask them what I would need to deliver over a trial period for them to feel comfortable so that we can have a conversation about moving up to the non-discounted rate.
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?
Follow-up is where most sales fall apart. Most of my clients struggle with the follow-up process because they are not assertive around getting a next step. In my view, if you don’t have a next step that is agreed on between the salesperson and the prospect, you are working without a net. I don’t ever want to work without a net.
Most prospects are not actively dodging the salesperson, they are just busy. Salespeople get jaded because of the amount of time they put into their deals. They become entitled and start hoping it works out, and that is where everything falls apart. Hope is not a sales strategy.
Many people know that they need to get back to it, but they just don’t have the time. Since they know the pattern of a salesperson already from past experiences, a follow-up is viewed by them as something they plan to get back to, but suddenly a week has passed and there is another email follow-up from the salesperson.
You have to set expectations around the timeline and follow-up. It’s also important to give prospects a clear “out” if it isn’t a good fit for them. When we don’t do that, we fall victim to having to deal with what the prospect thinks we want to hear, “let me think about it,” so that they can make a clean getaway.
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?
I spend a lot of time focusing on the psychology of sales as much as I do any techniques. When we are speaking with a prospect, we have a lot more control over our tone, body language, and other nonverbal parts of the conversation that have a bigger impact on the prospect anyway. Studies show over and over again that “how you say something” is more important than what you say.
When we are eager to jump into email, text, or any other written medium, we lose the ability to control tone. The prospect gets to read our messages with whatever tone they inject into it. That makes it difficult to ask important questions, and build trust.
Don’t willingly move to a written communication if you don’t have to.
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. 🙂
Many people view selling as a skill you are either born with or not. This is incredibly hurtful to the profession of sales as a whole because if the skill is innate, you probably think you can’t really do much to improve it. When we view it like that, sales goes from being professional to personal. Any no you get from a prospect is not just a no to a product or service, it is a no to you, the person.
This view of sales as a skill bordering on being a special power also increases the pressure on salespeople. Supposedly, a great salesperson can get a yes from anyone. They can sell a woman in white gloves a red popsicle. These ideas mean that if you can’t always get a yes, you’re not good at sales. This leads to too many businesses having to deal with unqualified prospects and more stress and pressure on everybody involved.
I grew up with a stutter, and I still stutter occasionally. And, based on my personality and our culture around sales, I never should have chosen sales as a profession, and I shouldn’t be as successful as I am. But I never let those things stop me.
The culture needs to change. It should be taught in schools, it should be talked about as a skill that you can always improve, and it should be about the processes and conversations, not about the win. And that leads to an even bigger movement of the world being able to trust salespeople, probably for the first time ever.
How can our readers follow you online?
First, thanks for inviting me to do this, I hope that people reading this think about sales differently in the future.
As far as following me online, there are a few good places to check out depending on your focus.
The podcast is on all podcast services, Youtube, and Spotify. Just look for Sales Throwdown. We are @salesthrowdown on all social channels. Right now, we’re doing live lunch recordings on Fridays at noon central during COVID-19. They are on Facebook Live, open to the public, and we would love to answer questions around sales, personalities, and increasing the quality of conversations.
Adapted Growth, www.Adaptedgrowth.com is the name of my consulting company where we work with small teams to implement processes and tech to reduce the amount of time spent selling and get better results.
My personal blog, where I talk about my journey as a sales-focused entrepreneur is at www.Johnsmallmountain.com.
Thank you for the interview. We wish you only continued success!