3 Truths about Selling to People

If you travel a lot with work—as I do—it exposes you to a much wider variety of ways that people experience the world around them. But travelling can also make us keen observers of human beings and how they do business with each other.

If you’re paying attention, you start to see there are truths that never change, no matter where you go.

In a sense, human beings all run on the same software, but have a cultural layer on top that which comes with its own set of assumptions. This sometimes gives us the mistaken impression that we’re defined more by differences than by common characteristics.

Selling is no exception. It’s a human enterprise: not a cultural one. And it’s an activity bound by truths that transcend language, geography and beliefs. 

There are three universal truths about selling to people.

First, we are hardwired to trade with each other.
Second, buyers and sellers often struggle to understand each other.
And third, we make excuses for what we don’t understand.

That first truth is all around you. Trade is what we all do. Every day, no matter where you live, people exchange one thing value for another thing of value. Whether that’s knowledge or products or services, trade is the glue of human social development. There’s never been a point in the history of civilization where we didn’t engage in trade. It’s that old, and that fundamental.

And that’s why the second truth is tied so closely to the first one. For as long as we have been engaging in trade, there’s been a tension between buyer and seller. As much as we are hardwired for trade, people often struggle to understand each other’s motives and actions. It’s why a buyer can get turned off by a seller’s behavior, and why a seller can get frustrated by a buyer’s behavior. People are complicated.

Selling is a skill that some have a natural knack for, and others have to really work at refining (and it’s also why some never succeed). The best seller in every marketplace is the one who knows this and works hard at mastering how people tick and why.

That’s why in every city I visit, and at every workshop I give—no matter whether it’s across town or halfway around the globe—I see top-tier sellers in the crowd who have succeeded by challenging the conventional wisdom of what others are saying about the buyer. Back in 2008, when conventional wisdom said that nobody was buying anything until the financial markets settled down, some of those top sellers had their best year on record.

That takes us to the third truth about people in sales. We make excuses for what we don’t understand.

This is the most damaging truth for anyone in business today, because it’s the one that gets ignored the most. People tend to observe a behavior in isolation and then decide it must be universally true. That’s why I regularly end up having conversations with frustrated sellers at workshops who complain “everybody is saying no…nobody’s buying.”

It’s never everybody. It’s somebody. And those are vastly different ideas.

Absolutes are damaging, because they generalize from a specific negative. The last time I heard that claim from someone—that no one was buying anymore—a couple of probing questions uncovered that their organization’s sales were up 5% over the previous year.

So either the facts were wrong or this person’s impressions were wrong. I’d put my money on the latter. 

When faced with a sales challenge, it’s not that everything has gone wrong, it’s that something has gone wrong. It’s not that everyone isn’t buying, it’s that someone isn’t.

So, what can you do with these three truths about people in sales?

Recognize that buying is no more likely to go out of fashion than breathing. There’s always going to be an element of misunderstanding between buyers and sellers, and that’s it’s our job to root out the excuses that stand in the way of finding more customers and selling more.

Find out what is working well in your market. Stop focusing on what isn’t or what’s not meeting your expectations of what you feel ought to be working. Make sure you have a clear and fair definition of what sales success needs to look like in your marketplace.

Remember: excuses are infectious. They spread especially quickly if they come from the top of a hierarchy. If the VP of Sales in your organization talks openly with staff about how “no one is buying,” or that “this is a terrible market,” they create a mindset that cascades down across the organization, enabling all the worst behaviors in sellers rather than summoning the best ones.


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