A Christian perspective on selling
JOHN OBERG writes that a disarming conversation is essential to effective sales. When we humble and give of ourselves for the good of the other (which is ultimately also for our own good because we gain by giving), our potential customers experience our silent witness to Christ’s love. Christian sellers put buyers’ needs before their own . . . .
by John Oberg
I recently heard from a vice president of sales wanting to resolve his Christian beliefs with his management style. How could he teach his people to engage with customers in ways that aligned with his beliefs while still increasing sales?
How do we balance truth and love in today’s work environment? How do we love one another when we have a revenue target to hit? Our Christian perspective on selling is founded on two related ideas: relationship-building and stewardship. When we handle these well, we create a circle of trust in which both seller and prospective buyer can be honest and transparent.
Indeed, our entire philosophy can be summarized in one sentence: Have a disarmingly honest conversation. It’s in this environment, where we humble and give of ourselves for the good of the other (which is ultimately also for our own good because we gain by giving), that our potential customers experience our silent witness to Christ’s love.
Salespeople are often singularly focused on closing the deal, with their sales targets causing them sometimes to pressure the prospect. Over time, some prospects have become predisposed to expect to be manipulated. They perceive dishonesty, tend to respond in kind, and ultimately think of “Christian salespeople” as hypocrites. When sellers don’t properly manage their enthusiasm and customers bring a defensive mindset, relationship-building stalls, sales cycles become longer and more indirect, and the sales process feels adversarial.
Setting aside (and repudiating) those who justify lying or trickery to sell, good-intentioned salespeople who want to help their prospective clients often end up fostering this adversarial atmosphere. This usually happens in one or more of the following ways: 1) Their “solution” is for a problem the client either doesn’t have or doesn’t consider important; 2) their method for solving the problem is unacceptable to the client; or 3) the customer just doesn’t trust the salesperson.
The obstacle here is not that the salesperson is being dishonest. The obstacle is that the parties are talking past each other; the seller has not established a conversational framework that makes the prospect feel safe to be completely transparent about what’s most important to them. Indirection and mistrust then become the forces guiding the encounter. It’s the salesperson’s responsibility to create an environment where the prospect can be vulnerable in sharing information with no fear that the salesperson will use it as leverage when it comes time to close the sale.
In fact, the ability for either party to say “No” is fundamental to any honest sales conversation, and we should clarify the acceptability of “No” early and often in the sales process. In any sales call, while some outcomes are more desirable than others, the following four should all be considered acceptable by management and sales reps alike: 1) Yes, I’ll buy. 2) I’m interested; let’s move on to the next specific step. 3) I’m not the right person to talk to, but will ensure that you talk to the right person. 4) No, I don’t think this is a fit.
The one outcome that is not acceptable is an ambiguous path forward: “Call me back,” “I’ll think about it,” or some other nebulous outcome. This leads to bloated sales pipelines, inaccurate forecasting, and wasted company resources. Bad stewardship. By accepting “No” as a legitimate outcome, we can shorten sales cycles by helping salespeople waste less time on deals that have no hope, cleaning up the pipeline and clarifying forecasts.
So again, how do we balance truth and love with revenue targets hanging over our heads? If we focus on the good of the other person, establish a safe environment for honesty, and listen, we’ll be able to provide either a solution to their problem or be candid about the lack of fit. In any case, a Christian salesperson’s perspective on selling puts the buyer’s needs before his own. We need to ask ourselves: Are we truly reflecting Christ’s love or are we more like the Pharisee (Lk 18:9-14) who exalts himself? The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.
In the same way, managers must be able to put their own perceived good behind that of the company and that of their salespeople — both within the company and in their personal callings. Reducing pressure through management of the reps’ behaviors, helping salespeople keep full pipelines of legitimate opportunities, and providing solid processes for uncovering and qualifying new opportunities will help salespeople perform more effectively. This process won’t always result in a sale, but we can be confident that it will systematically produce the right outcome for the prospect and add more sales overall as reps won’t be wasting time on deals that have no hope of closing.
JOHN OBERG is president of Legatus’ Austin Chapter and a partner at an international consulting firm focused on revenue growth.