when introverts fail at sales
In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.
— DAVID OGILVY,Confessions of an Advertising Man
Alex Murphy's dream-come-true was fast becoming a nightmare.
With financing from two family members, he had set up his own videography studio. Professional-grade cameras, cutting-edge software, boom mics, an impressive roster of talent — Golden Arm Media had everything going for it.
As the owner and face of the business, that fell to Alex. Unfortunately, like many people who begin with subject matter expertise and then create a business out of it, he didn't have a knack for sales. In fact, as an introvert, he kind of hated it.
After junior high, he had developed a pronounced stutter, resulting in a lack of confidence. Since he was already somewhat shy, this only increased his natural aversion to casual conversations with strangers. His discomfort with social situations persisted through high school and college as well.
Fast-forward a few years to Alex starting his videography business from scratch. It wasn't an established business with an existing customer base. He didn't come out of another business with a portfolio of client projects or an extensive network of people and businesses to tap. He had to build his client roster from the ground up.
So if we're taking inventory: a natural introvert with a stutter (made worse during times of stress) ... with an aversion to creating small talk (a normal trait of introverts) ... a skewed self-perception and the lowered self-confidence resulting from it ... who faces the challenge of forming new relationships that comes from all those factors ... puts himself in a situation where his livelihood depends on being able to sell intangible services ... to complete strangers. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn't it?
When he got on the phone or in front of potential clients, he didn't know what else to do but talk about videography and business. If they tried to make small talk or if they happened to share something personal, Alex would just simply clam up. There was a long, unnatural pause while both sides figured out how to get out of the conversational sand trap they'd somehow stumbled into.
We often say, "People do business with people they like." Having spent hours with Alex myself, I know he's a likable guy. But in a sales situation, he had a hard time getting over the hurdle of creating basic rapport with the potential client, much less establishing the necessary trust to persuade them to buy a customized professional service like videography.
So sales sucked.
THE PROBLEM WITH INTROVERTS
We introverts live in a world (or, at least, in Western culture) that looks up to people who act like extroverts. (Even though a little digging shows that extravert is actually correct, extrovert is the far more common spelling. I've chosen to stick with it for convenience's sake.) We often describe the leaders we admire as outgoing, charming, and charismatic. Successful people look and act extroverted. Therefore, extroverts are the people we believe we should model.
That doesn't work for introverts like you and me. It goes against who we are, how we're wired, and how we think. Sure, we can pretend to be extroverts and learn the tricks that mask our introversion, but at the end of the day, we can't escape our DNA. Asking a hard-core introvert to get excited about working the room is like hiring a performing artist to get excited about accounting: It's just not in their nature.
Carl Jung defined introverts as being inwardly focused while extroverts are outwardly focused. In another explanation, he described how these two types of people draw their energy: introverts from being alone; extroverts from people. In practice, that means an introvert can spend energy networking a crowd or performing for an audience, but we recharge our batteries primarily from being alone. Extroverts, on the other hand, can work in isolation, but they recharge from going out with a group of friends or being in a crowd of people.
Take me, for example. I may look like an outgoing extrovert on-stage and afterward while staying for questions or workshops, but once I get home, I turn my phone off and TV on, sit by myself for a few hours — no other lights or noise — and zone out to recharge my batteries. While I love helping people, the act of interaction depletes my energy. Contrast this to some of my extroverted colleagues who get a rush from being on-stage and then look forward to spending a night out on the town.
Speaking directly to Alex's situation, those who've studied introversion point out that we often hate chitchat and small talk, preferring to talk about things that matter, or "meaningful conversations," as many put it. Who cares about who won the game last night when you're there to get a job done?
One telltale trait of introverts is what some experts call "reflecting internally." It means that introverts do a lot more thinking before they speak. I have one coaching client who often takes so long to answer a question that we had to switch to Skype so I could tell the difference between him thinking and the call dropping. Extroverts, on the other hand, more commonly just "think out loud" For us, though, our aversion to small talk comes across as being awkward, shy, uncaring, antisocial, or downright rude. We're not. That's just how it looks.
Alex, however, didn't see himself as any of those things. In his mind, he was just getting down to business. That's why he was there, after all. He didn't quite know what to do with clients talking about their child's recital or their plans for the weekend. Those things were ultimately inconsequential in a meeting about videography. It was almost as if Alex was trying to have one conversation while the person on the other side of the desk was having another. Getting through the sales meeting often became an awkward dance for both parties.
Once Alex had gathered all the information he needed and left the potential clients, he'd go back to his office and spend hours creating a proposal, sometimes as long as thirty pages. As soon as he was done, he'd excitedly email it to them. Then he'd wait for days, weeks, or even months to hear back — only to find out they had gone with someone else.
He watched as his dream circled around the drain. The few clients he did land never quite covered the bills. His start-up funds were rapidly dwindling. He had borrowed from his father and maxed out his wife's credit cards — both of whom also worked for him. If his business failed, it would not only wreck their finances but also cause them to lose their livelihood. If something didn't change fast, he was looking at the same hard realities facing nearly every failing business: unpaid bills, layoffs, and ultimately closing the doors for good. His wife, Sarah, later shared with me that because of the overwork and lack of results, she was shutting down emotionally. In her own words, "It was just an awful, awful place to work."
To say Alex was desperate would be an understatement.
Of course, that desperation only fed back into the downward spiral. The harder things were, the more anxious he got about each potential project. If you've been on the other side of the table, you know what it's like to interact with a salesperson who reeks of desperation. When prospects smell it, they sometimes try to take advantage of it by negotiating for a lower price or more deliverables (or both). Most of the time, though, it makes them uncertain, leaving them wondering if the salesperson will be able to deliver.
Does the service provider lack confidence because they are desperate or because they're out of their comfort zone? If they're desperate, then they must not be very good, right? Nobody wants to do business with someone who's failing. Nobody likes dealing with a salesperson who's practically begging for the sale. If they're out of their comfort zone, it must mean that they don't have much experience, right? We want to place our bet on those who have proven themselves (and who will still be there come tomorrow).
Alex was referred to me by a mutual friend who'd just met him. I saw his work and was impressed by his talent, but not his salesmanship. I have a soft spot for small businesses like his. While I like working with corporate clients, I know that all I'm doing is helping a successful enterprise become even more successful. It's just not as soul-enriching as working with a small-business owner, where I know that my work could potentially change a life. There's something heroic about people with enough skill, passion, talent, and belief in themselves to launch a business. It kills me to see those entrepreneurs fail at their dreams. I've watched mom-and-pop stores open, only to see the seats and aisles in these businesses go empty for a long time before they eventually shutter their stores. I've seen tradesmen with their equipment sitting idle in the garage, or home-based professionals with their calendars sitting empty, before having to go back to their old employer. I think of how stressful it is on a family: life savings lost, loans due, dreams crushed, divorce. In fact, I saw this happen to a friend's family when I was young. His parents saved every nickel to pursue their dream of opening a restaurant. I remember the excitement of the grand opening and how bright the future seemed. About a year in, I noticed that his parents didn't get along as well. A few months later, they closed the restaurant and eventually got a divorce. His dad moved to another city, and I was able to see my friend only half as much. A small business has the potential to completely change your life — for better or for worse.
Despite a great product or service, clients and customers who love them, and people who pour their heart and soul into their venture, why do so many of these endeavors go under? They'll tell you their number one problem is the same as any other business's: They can't get enough clients or they need more customers.
After selling to solo entrepreneurs and enterprises, after consulting with founders and C-level execs, after founding a few multimillion-dollar businesses, and after creating and running the now-nationwide Small Business Festival — which I'm proud to say Inc. listed as a "top 5 must-attend" conference for small businesses — I'll share with you something that you might already know or suspect in your heart of hearts: The introvert's roadmap to success doesn't look like that of an extrovert.
We're different and we should embrace that.
WHAT HAPPENS WITHOUT SALES
Red Motley said, "Nothing happens until someone sells something." I have to disagree, Red: Plenty happened to me precisely because someone didn't sell something.
Because of a visual disability misdiagnosed as dyslexia, I graduated high school with the reading speed of a sixth grader. That, combined with braces and chronic acne, left me horribly shy and unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. Instead of going to uni (you Americans would say "college") after graduation, my dad advised me to take a year off and get a job instead. After a year out in the real world, I'd have a better idea of what I wanted to do for a career and, therefore, what I should study.
A couple of months before high school graduation, I found a weekend job about fifteen minutes down the road in Melbourne working as a part-time assistant for John (many names herein have been changed to avoid embarrassment). He'd formerly been an engineer for the manufacturer Caterpillar but had been retrenched (aka laid off). Afterward, he became a real estate agent working with a large agency called Elders, first in the company's Kilmore office and then opening its new branch in Craigieburn.
I wasn't the person out front speaking with customers. I was the guy in the back doing paperwork with a look on my face that said, "Please, please don't talk to me" I wanted to remain invisible; the thought of selling to customers scared me witless.
With nowhere else to go, though, it was possible that this might be my livelihood for some time, so I studied everything John did. I'd always had something of an entrepreneurial streak, so it was neat to watch a new branch office being set up. I observed John go back and forth with the property manager to negotiate his rent, set up the utilities, and begin to work on the office itself.
Contractors came to bid on remodeling the space, which included building partition walls. After looking at their quotes, John decided that he could save money by doing the work himself. He was an engineer, after all. He spent months building the walls, painting, moving furniture, arranging the office, making sure the signage was perfect, and getting all the details just right. In fact, he often came into the office in overalls instead of a suit, so prospects usually mistook him for a construction contractor. When he introduced himself as the real estate agent, it wasn't long before they showed themselves to the door.
After weeks of this, one day John walked in and said, "Okay, it's time for us to drum up some business." I wanted to say that that wasn't my job, but I reluctantly got in the car. While heading out to a neighborhood, I could feel my angst growing, thinking to myself the whole time, Oh my god, he's going to make me talk to people.
The extent of it was us driving to one neighborhood, parking the car, and dropping flyers into mailboxes (which I've since learned is a federal offense here in the United States). We didn't even knock on any doors, much less attempt to talk to anyone. I still remember forty-five minutes in, John saying, "Okay, that's about enough for the day. Time for lunch"
As a fresh-faced kid who knew next-to-nothing about business, I had no idea how sales happened. I was so relieved; all we had to do was play mailman!
Apparently, an educated professional engineer didn't know much about sales, either. In a short space of time, the Craigie-burn office was shut down and John turned out.
He went on to find another job, but what about his up-and-coming office assistant? What happened to the high school student who wasn't going to uni and had nothing else lined up? What happened to his plans of spending a year to find himself before going to college? I'll tell you what happened to him: He was left with zero ideas, zero contacts, zero skills, and zero options. That's what happens when your livelihood depends on someone else ... and that person fails to sell.
The result: People get hurt and dreams die.
THE MYTH OF THE SALESMAN
Looking back, though, I can easily see now why John failed. He simply wasn't a salesman. He was a typical engineer: an introverted, analytical problem solver. Nothing he learned could have possibly prepared him for selling real estate services to homeowners. Going out to meet new people and drumming up business was simply not in his nature.
It's not that he wasn't smart; obviously, he was. He wasn't lazy. But rather than focus on sales, he focused on doing things he was already good at. You could say that he was trying to save money by doing the work himself, but the truth was he hid from doing something that made him uncomfortable. Instead, he did what we all tend to do: gravitated to what he knew well. What's more, for introverts, the thought of selling their services isn't just unpleasant; it can be downright terrifying. Many of the introverts I work with can relate. They like doing what they're good at, and they hate doing what makes them uncomfortable (as do most people).
So, they concentrate on the work. Business owners often go into business for themselves because they're great at their functional skill. Lawyers start their own firms because they know the law. Electricians start their own electrical contracting companies because they're good electricians. IT professionals start their own consultancy business because they're proficient with a specific platform.
But just because you're good at something — or even great at it — doesn't mean that customers will automatically show up at your door. Even if you pour money into advertising (usually not the best solution to your sales problem), you still have to speak to people when they walk in or call you up. Marketing may turn up an interested prospect, but there's still a gap between the customer knowing what you do and actually wanting to buy from you. You still have to sell.