The hardest selling lesson of all

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Happy St. Patrick's Day from the Marketing Department

In my new role as VP of Marketing Technology at SHIFT Communications, I find myself once again heavily engaged in a profession I thought was a distant part of my past: selling. Selling was something I last did (full-time) as a technical recruiter, way back in 2000-2001. My company put me through the Tom Hopkins bootcamp and had us skill up on as many different methods of hard selling as possible. Back then, it was the old school “grab ’em by the tie and choke ’em till they buy or die” methodology.

Today, however, there are so many different ways to sell, and much of what I learned back then doesn’t apply any more because it stopped working years ago. The one lesson from the old days that stuck with me and still guides me in the selling I do today was the hardest lesson of all to learn way back when. For those who aren’t familiar, technical recruiting is probably the most difficult selling job of all, because the product (candidates for jobs) can un-sell itself. You can find what seems like an ideal placement for a company, an ideal candidate, and in just a few minutes that candidate can make such a horrifyingly bad impression that a month of work and preparation can evaporate.

What killed more of my deals back then, though, was a lack of understanding about the hardest lesson in selling, the lesson that could have made me a much more successful salesperson than I was in the brutal few months that I did sell professionally before I was unceremoniously shown the door:

Never sell something you don’t have.

It seems so simple, so trite, but it’s actually one of the most difficult lessons to learn, because in the heat of the moment when you’re trying to land a big deal, it’s so incredibly tempting to exaggerate, even just a little bit. It’s tempting to offer things that you think you and your company can deliver on to try and beat out a competitor.

The worst I got burned on this back then was a placement for a Java developer. I had a job order from a client for an Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB) developer and I thought that my candidate could step up to the plate and be able to do that. It took me over a month to negotiate the first interview because the hiring client was very fickle about what kind of candidate they were looking for. The placement seemed like a good fit; the candidate was pleased with the company and definitely pleased with the idea of making 100K/year, a significant step up from the72K they were working at.

However, EJB and Java development are very, very different things that require very different skill sets. Within 15 minutes the candidate was done with the interview, and I lost both that deal and the hiring client, who was understandably irritated at being sent someone who wasn’t at all qualified for the position. I sold something that I didn’t have, a candidate who fit the bill, and I lost badly, so badly that it was the reason I was fired, and rightfully so. Losing a deal is bad. Losing a client is very, very bad.

That experience made such a bad impression on me that I left the profession of selling entirely, but the lesson was so strong that it’s guided the informal selling I’ve been doing ever since then. For example, back when I was writing Marketing White Belt, you didn’t hear about it. There was no promotion, no pre-sale, no hype cycle, because I could not in good conscience sell something that I didn’t have. When it was done, published, and live, then you heard about it. Today, in my new role in selling our services at SHIFT, the one guarantee that I can freely give is that I will never sell you something we don’t have.

Never, ever sell something you don’t have, and you will avoid one of the harshest lessons there is in the selling profession.

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5 responses to “The hardest selling lesson of all”

  1. Great post, Chris. Reminds me of my decade in big 4 consulting, where the enterprise software sales guys (they were always guys) made ridiculous promises of what their software could do for our mutual clients, often with us in the room (I remember kicking a few under the table). The clients bought it and we (the systems integrator) were left holding the bag and having to customize the software from what it actually did to what they promised. Everyone lost.

  2. Be honest about the solutions that you can provide and you’ll have no problems.

  3. Martin Smith Avatar
    Martin Smith

    Thanks for this post Chris. You make a good point about selling things you don’t have! I don’t think I’ve been burned yet for selling something I didn’t have, but I try to embrace that gray area between having and not having.

    Do you think the client would have been more open to you saying, “I have a Java developer that I believe has the skillset to be a strong EJB developer. Feel free to say no, but would it work for you if I brought him in for an interview?”

    What I will say that I have been burned by in the past is a lack of communication. I’ve come to learn that sometimes the facts aren’t as important as how you communicate them.

    I think there’s value in pre-selling your book before it was officially available because faithful fans might place weight on being the first to have it, which might mean dealing with delays, but getting it shipped straight from the factory before it was in your hands and available for everyone.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that although you may not have the final deliverable, the information that you do have is valuable too, and worth selling as long as the communication is clear about what the other side is getting.

  4. Chris, I have a corollary for you. Never sell something you’ve never done before.

    I see a lot of consultants and service firms making the same mistake that you did. Listening to a client’s problem and saying, “How hard can that be?” then selling their potential expertise.

    It’s hard to make money on something you’ve never done before. Harder still if you’ve sold yourself as an expert!

    Tell the prospect, “This looks a lot like something I’ve done before — but I haven’t done *exactly* this thing. Can we work on figuring this out together?” The truth is if they can find someone who IS an expert, and who HAS done this before they should get the work! If not, then be honest and learn how to do something new together.

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