The Art of the Sale

Smarter Sales


I was talking with a veteran sales professional and we were discussing what makes a great sales person? Are people born with the sales DNA or is it learnt? Art or science? Making this question more challenging, the journalist asked me to list my top five essential characteristics of a great sales person. Just five !! The bigger challenge was more about what characteristics to leave out. What would or wouldn’t make the cut.

I have been selling or marketing for over 30 years. Along the way I have witnessed super sales skills and also learnt from my own mistakes. I have looked and listened to others, and tried to replicate winning behaviors and characteristics of successful sales people all over the world. I am not suggesting that a sales approach in Paris, France will translate into success in Paris, Texas but there are common traits.

Too many companies undervalue the tremendous value a well-trained sales team contributes to the success of the organization. When I worked in Germany I was given a customized German street sign that said “Wirallelebenvomverkauf”, which roughly translates to “We all live from sales”. Nothing happens until somebody sells something.

Before I share my top five list, I am of course assuming that the company has…….

  • Recruited the right fit Rock Star sales people

  • A motivating incentive plan that has effective stretch goals

  • Clearly defined performance measures and recognition program

  • Top shelf training program that continues to raise the bar

  • A “C” level sales champion to crusade internally on behalf of the sales team

  • The best sales tool box and tools to get the job done

Here is my short list of five winning characteristics that help define the Art of the Sale.

  1. Trust

Gaining trust and confidence from your customer will accelerate your conversion rate. You have to demonstrate that you know more about the customer’s company than they do. Devour annual reports, press releases, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and related articles. You have to show that you understand the goals of the company, and you have to position yourself as a reliable asset that will help them meet and exceed their goals faster. This means being open and candid and the ability to confront reality. Don’t get sucked in to the hype of your product or service. Can you deliver on time, at the agreed price, and working as promised? Can you share “bad” news constructively?

Trust is earned. When your presentation is over and the lights are turned back on it comes to down to the simple principle of whether you trust each other. If the answer is yes you will both find ways to reach consensus and a deal. Successful sales people have figured out that trust is the fastest route to results. See more about the Art of Trust here

  1. Resilience

Success is not an overnight phenomenon. It is not easy. Success is a demanding. It is not giving up. The below statistics are more urban legend than reality (cannot trace a definitive source) but seem reasonable. The key question is how long it takes to close the sale.

  • 2% of sales are made on the 1st contact

  • 3% of sales are made on the 2nd contact

  • 5% of sales are made on the 3rd contact

  • 10% of sales are made on the 4th contact

  • 80% of sales are made on the 5th-12th contact

Having the right mindset and drive to pick yourself up after every time you are knocked down defines a winner. It defines resilience and it reminds me of the famous Vince Lombardi quote “It does not matter how many times you get knocked down, but how many times you get up”. Listening to many successful business owners, they all share the fact that success was eventually gained through a number of failures. But they all learned from what went wrong and did not repeat the same mistake twice.

Part of resilience is an honest understanding of your sales pipeline. So many sales people look at the sales pipeline through rose-colored glasses. What is the reality of your situation? Do you have your prospects listed with identified needs, anticipated close date, percentage of probability and an estimated gross revenue? With this simple tool you will have created a basic pipeline tool with a snapshot on your future sales. This tool keeps you honest and adds to your resilience factor as you keep knocking on doors to increase your ratio of success.

  1. Engagement

I have been fortunate to have led a number of global sales teams for iconic brands including Disney, Best Western, Choice Hotels and others. Many times I came across sales people who were brilliant “closers” and average “door openers”.  At the same time I have met great “door openers” and less than stellar “closers”. Naturally we’d focus on the weakness and try to raise the bar to Rock Star status. It didn’t happen all the time and we made changes. (So many organizations continue to employ poor performers which sends a negative message to all other sales people).

Getting inside the organization and engaging is the most important aspect of the sales process, especially if the sale has a large dollar value. Based on the product type or service being sold, there are varying degrees of complexity. More functions become involved with the purchasing process from both buyer and seller. This allows you to introduce subject matter experts and “a closer” if that is a skill that needs more work.

Filling the sales funnel is crucial. An empty sales funnel is a recipe for disaster. Getting your foot in the door and getting more qualified leads in to your sales funnel will only accelerate your success. Fundamentally, sales is a numbers game. The more sales calls you make, the more prospects will fill your pipeline and a certain percentage will turn in to customers.

If push comes to shove, I would prefer to recruit a great “door opener” than a great “closer” because in my opinion, this skill is tougher today than it’s ever been. Making personal relationships, gaining initial traction and demonstrating value is an incredible skill.


  1. Diagnose – Identifying the Pain

Remember that you cannot offer the remedy until you really know the symptoms. That’s like a doctor giving you a prescription without the examination. This is where great listening skills come in to play.

Every company has its pain points. These are the identified barriers to success. It’s what keeps “C” level executives up at night. You are the Knight in Shining Armor that will provide a solution to help make the pain go away. Your initial relationship building has enabled you to get inside the fortress. Now you start gaining valuable insight that will help you close the deal. This period of due diligence is an essential part of the process. You have to demonstrate a high degree of empathy through knowledge and understanding. You begin to identify pain points and frame up needs, timing, price sensitivity, and a decision-making process. A good tip is to always know way ahead of time who will actually sign the agreement. You don’t want to start the sales process all over again.


My father used to remind me that God gave me two ears and one mouth and I should use them in that order. Nobody likes the slippery tongued salesman (except the slippery tongued salesman). People do like to be intrigued, engaged, and understood. Gaining traction on a business and personal level will pay dividends and is the foundation for a long-term mutually beneficial relationship.

5. Don’t sell yourself Short

Great sales people don’t sell their product or service short. Getting the sale through discounting is not helping your bottom line or reputation. Once you discount it is virtually impossible to climb out of that hole you dug for yourself. Your integrity is at risk if you do not value your product or service. There is a reason you are at the bargaining table. Your prospect has a need and you have the solution. You are holding a highly valuable card – the value card. You have identified the pain points and your solution has intrinsic value. The price placed on value is variable. Like beauty, value is in the eye of the beholder. Value is a perceived concept. Is your pricing reasonable in this context? Do you have the confidence in your  product or service and are you prepared to walk away from a sale, if necessary?

Make sure your conversation is focused on the value of your product or service and not focused on the price. Naturally this is always at your discretion but leave that price negotiation as an available option when you start talking volume or term length.

Final Thoughts

The Art of the Sale is  (forgive the cliché) a journey not a destination. Successful sales people view customers as investments. It’s about the long haul and how one extends the life time value at a mutually beneficial pace.

If you control a sales and marketing team and budget, power up your calculator and look at your top performing sales people and see what impact a reasonable lift of 15% in sales revenue will have on your bottom line. Invest in great sales people and effective training. See if you can clone that sales Rock Star’s DNA, improve marginal performers, ensure accountability and remove those that continue to underperform………….and hire smart.  Your future customers will reward you for it.


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