The art of better selling

Business school curricula have become increasingly ambitious and inclusive in recent decades, but there’s one subject that’s still seldom taught formally: sales. This is no doubt because it’s an extremely broad church, with many industries and sectors having very specific approaches. Frankly, teaching sales in all its breadth and depth would leave precious little room for anything else.

Yet there are some basic concepts that can help any sales process, and small businesses in particular would do well to become familiar with them. First and foremost, perhaps we should try to define in very simple terms what we actually mean by “sales”.

We could infer, for example, that the role of sales is to help customers to buy. This much seems obvious enough. But such an interpretation overlooks a crucial nuance. It might be more instructive to say that the role of sales is to encourage customers to better explain their needs so that a company can make the decision to buy easy for them.

The key point here is that the art of selling is a two-way affair. It’s about communication. It requires dialogue. So how should the conversation start?

Any meaningful sales campaign is likely to begin with a USP analysis. This is a given. Yet there should be more to the task than a company merely taking its own product and those of its competitors and comparing their respective merits.

Sophisticated sales processes go much further. They ask open questions so that a business can truly understand customers’ needs and the problems that require solving. The aim should be to synthesise as much information as possible before making a considered value proposal.

What happens in the absence of such an approach? It’s usually an unfortunate case of “firehose” or “spray and pray” selling ­– showering customers with a torrent of information in the hope that something will stick. I once saw a novice sales manager talk without pause for 45 minutes, never once allowing the prospective client to interject, thus steadily reducing the body language of those around the table from relative alertness to simmering resignation.

Relatedly, it’s too frequently forgotten that benefits drive sales. Features matter as well, of course, but it’s benefits that truly make a difference to would-be buyers’ perceptions.

In other words, although it’s easy to rattle on about what a product can do, it’s far more useful to showcase tangible advantages and explain how customers’ needs are likely to be met. This is why an accurate and effective pitch is nigh on impossible if what customers want hasn’t been established in the first place.

It’s also important to recognise that trust is crucial to sales. Every one of us takes this for granted for when we choose a tradesperson to work in our home – we might even rank trust above price in such a situation – but many companies fail to think in the same way when it comes to selling their products.

A skilled salesperson always looks to establish a relationship. Sometimes this might be achieved through becoming a respected adviser to a client. It can be a question of volunteering expertise in return for confidence – and, by extension, sales.

Finally, it’s often necessary to overcome objections in order to progress sales. The most common include lack of budget, lack of sign-off authority, an inconvenient timeframe and issues around capability or credibility.

Most of these tend to be little more than glorified brush-offs. Even so, it pays to delve deeper and appreciate their root causes, as this offers a fighting chance of surmounting them in the future – for instance, by establishing value recognition or collaborating to deliver workable solutions.

It’s only right to concede that this brief survey of sales is exactly that – we’ve just scratched the surface – but it at least equips us with some handy fundamentals. To summarise:

  • Engage in dialogue.
  • Root this in a firm understanding of customers’ needs.
  • Focus on showcasing benefits rather than features.
  • Recognise that trust is crucial.
  • Be prepared to encounter, understand and overcome objections.

It’s by no means the be-all and end-all. But it’s a start.


David Falzani MBE is an Honorary Professor at Nottingham University Business School’s Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and president of the Sainsbury Management Fellowship.