Sales 101 & the Hard Conversation: A Basic Path to Sales Success


A swarm of bees. If I can help catch a swarm of thirty thousand bees, you can sell.

After some twenty-five years in sales I find myself in an unusual situation.  The customers I speak with are buying my product and by in large, are extremely happy with it. This happy-customer phenomenon makes me stop and take stock of exactly how I got here. Why do I have happy customers?  I want to understand how I am able to sustain customers and grow business even in the face of hard conversations about pricing, service levels, competition, and product shortfalls.

My professional sales experience runs the gamut, from electronic and electrical distribution, automotive industry component supply, and finally to consumer and professional software sales. Before and during college I worked sandwich shops, sold cigarettes, vended soft-serve ice-cream.  And back in fifth grade, I started out delivering newspapers and mowing lawns. When I look back across five decades of transactions and interactions with customers, all jobs share that same basic fact: you provide a product or a service to a client in exchange for money, and you want to repeat the exercise.

In my experience success, in selling is dependent of three major factors:

  • Product Development – the value of the product or service you provide
  • Marketing – the way your product or service is presented to the world
  • Sales – the way you treat individual customers across all transactions. Do your customers trust you?

The chances are good that, as a sales person, you have minimal control over the product that you sell. Until your organization is confident in your ability to manage and develop customers, you are going to expected to focus on your primary job – sales. In my most recent role I’ve been slightly more involved on the product side.  I brought some expertise in the product I sell, but the product itself was already affordable, valuable, and in demand. This makes my sales job a whole lot easier.

Related Concept:  I believe sales success to be eighty percent luck. Right place, right product, right economy, right time.  Most high and mighty sales people you meet – just plain lucky.

The Part-time Marketer

So let’s forget about product value. Let’s assume, as a sales person, you only have control over your marketing and your selling approach. The chances are good, if you’re in sales you’ve probably been asked to handle some marketing elements from time to time.  That can mean your company is not spending much money on marketing. Your company may not have a marketing director on-board or perhaps your top-dog in marketing is a place holder, someone asked to plug a hole while the company focuses on other things.

Your part-time marketing effort is restricted by a tight budget that’s as limited as your time. Remember, if your official position is in sales you are going to be measured on sales results, not on how much time or money you dedicate to marketing. Marketing is often treated as a ‘we’ll get to it’ thing. One company I worked for always referred to the sales department as ‘marketing.’ So don’t quit your day job. 

When marketing you need to make sure your company’s Search Engine Marketing (SEM), usually a Google Ad Words campaign, and organic Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is active and generating traffic from Google, Bing, and Yahoo Internet searches.  You’re going to need to become a little conversant in the SEM/SEO aspects of the marketing world. You can hire a consultant or an agency to help you with SEM/SEO at a reasonable cost, but you have to search.  Contact me and I’ll recommend one. SEM (paid) and SEO (free) are critical processes to generating leads and in many cases are responsible for most e-commerce sales. If SEM/SEO is not working at your company and it doesn’t look like you’ll be allowed to make it work – leave right now. It means the business is stuck and you will fail. I guarantee you that your competitors are using SEM/SEO and it’s working for them.

Related Concept:  Don’t put sales people in part-time marketing roles. It takes six months to just come up to speed on the latest marketing technologies, which detracts from their selling focus, which means you will fire them. Hire a marketing director.

Do not waste the company’s money on trade shows, banner ads, print ads, TV ads or radio ads. Those are all obsolete methods of advertising.   I suppose there are a few businesses that can still drive local sales results with the right TV ad, but it’s generally not for you. For most of you it’s SEO or get out of marketing.

The Comfy Chair

SEO works like this. A potential customer types words into a search engine and clicks on a search engine’s returned results and lands on your landing page. Those landing pages are designed to make your customer feel confident they’ve come to the right place.   Organic search and paid search is like trapping a mouse. You use keywords as the bait. You place your mouse trap ad on the Internet as if it were the kitchen floor. And you hope to catch a mouse, or in our case – a customer.

Think back to college. Was your room the party room? That customer you seek is like someone who comes to your dorm room to party.  When they look into your room they need to see a comfy chair or two, maybe a bong, a cool poster, perhaps some liquor and glasses, some cool music should be playing, and your room is clean.  If they feel at home, they decide to stay and party.  It is the same with your landing page for your potential customer.  Upon landing there your future customer should immediately feel like they made the right choice by clicking on your site. No creepy off topic subjects to distract, just signs of your authority and clear pathways to answers and calls-to-action or purchasing.  Ah! Your customer is ready to party.

Deliberate Courteousness

Not every client will buy right off. Most are going to require some hand holding. That’s why you have a job in sales. You’re going to probably have to respond to an email.  It could also be a phone call, but most people today use email. This is especially true with younger customers; and they are gradually holding sway. Regardless of the channel, at all times be deliberately courteous.

Deliberate courteousness is dirt simple. It what your mom tried to teach you – a combination of politeness and common sense. It is also surprisingly absent in many sales interactions. I have to remind myself in the face of occasional rude customer, be deliberately courteous.

Related Concept:  Respond. RESPOND! Don’t let emails atrophy. Don’t set a spam filter trap for customer emails. Don’t be that guy who writes: “Janet, I’m sorry I didn’t respond two months ago. I just found your email in my spam filter.” NEXT! This happens all too often.

Start your email response with a ‘thank you.’ “Thank you for your interest in Specialty Dog Brushes.”  This simple and easy step immediately tells your customer that you are glad they contacted you and you are ready to help. Don’t say too much in this first email, perhaps an answer to an obvious question, or maybe clarify time zones for a meeting. Make it polite and professional with a ‘thank you’ signature and your full contact info.

Now your customer knows they are dealing with a professional. Your job is to keep them thinking that way.  Every comment you make, every email you send, every conversation you share counts. It all adds up to your professional persona in the eyes of the customer.

And don’t forget to spell check. We all misspell words. I may even have some grammar or spelling issues in this post. But, please spell check and think through your grammar. It matters. When a customer compares your email, with three misspelled words, to your competitor’s perfect email, guess who wins?

If you get phone messages, call back. Do it right away.  I have been stunned by the amount of customers I call back who express how thankful they are that I actually called back. You know what that means? That means sales people generally do not call back. Remember that. You can stand out from your competition just by calling back promptly. Your simple response puts you on the winning track. How freaking cool is that?

Related concept: The more you act like a professional the more you become a professional. No one has to know about your failures in a previous life. Act and you shall become.

Selling Method – Be Yourself and Know Your Product

Now that customers are calling and considering your product, you must answer their questions. Be honest and forthright. Over time, it is through speaking with customers that you will learn how your product solves business problems.  Listen carefully and answer their questions thoughtfully and succinctly.  Ask clarifying questions about how you can help them. Above all be honest and sincere. Be yourself.

There are many heavily marketed selling methods and sales pipeline management schemes that can help you generate sales and effectively manage your sales revenue funnel. You should explore these tools with an open mind and selectively apply some of the methods they purport. I particularly like, The Funnel Principle   Just remember: 95 percent of the customers you speak with today will be almost as educated as you are about your industry and your product. The Internet makes it easy for buyers to research products and companies in detail. In a way, it’s a buyer’s market simply the Internet exists.  When people get smart about products and companies they easily see through methods and scripts. So, be yourself and answer their questions with sincerity. If you don’t have answers tell them you’ll get back to them, and do just that. It is an opportunity to show follow through.

I’ve observed several sales-strategy gurus enter and exit companies over time. It is generally a painful yet somewhat entertaining exercise to watch. One ‘guru’ was an alleged expert at a particular selling methodology. He followed a particular process exactly, always listening to the customer, tying the customer requirement to the product and the product back to customer benefit; always asking for the order. For process he got an A grade. Unfortunately he sold nothing. One of his clients was the largest oil and gas company in the world.  That energy industry buyer’s comment on this ‘expert’ sales person was simple, “That guy was worst sales person ever.” The finest sales strategy on Earth can’t overcome an offensive personality.

Related Concept:  The typical customer greeting, “How can I help you?” should define your role as a sales person. You get paid to help.  Help is your consistent role throughout the customer relationship.

I am no sales guru, but here’s a list of the primary selling skills that work for me:

  • Always review the customer’s website to better understand their business
  • Be an active and responsive listener – use empathy, repeat back what you’ve heard
  • Resist the urge to speak (this is different from listening) – over time this becomes easier but may be very difficult for some of you talkers. Often a customer will sell themselves while you take notes
  • Tie the customer’s stated requirements back to your product’s benefit. Try to focus on just three major customer requirements. Look for a requirement that your product uniquely addresses (that is not price)
  • Try to politely ask questions that reveal who the customer is and how they process decisions
  • Don’t talk about competitors unless asked to. Tread carefully here – saying positive things about competitors can build your industry authority. Trashing a competitor can destroy your credibility
  • Write down key points and follow-up items. Sound like a no-brainer? Do it. Write it down.
  • The customer is not always right and you must master the art of correcting without insulting; communicating without pontificating
  • Don’t ask for the order. That’s obnoxious. Ask what more you can do for your customer

Be patient with your customers.  You have nowhere else to go. You are paid to answer their questions and hold their hand through processes. I know on bad days it can feel exasperating. Remind yourself – helping this difficult customer is exactly what you are supposed to be doing right now.

Early in my career I worked in industrial controls distribution.  There was a low-level engineer that worked for one of our relatively small accounts. This guy was a royal pain. He’d come in our counter area at odd hours and demand detailed support. He was a very picky and sometimes down-right rude.  My associate Ray had the account and the patience of Job with this customer.  I’d head home on a Friday night and Ray would be bent over the sales counter, eye-to-eye with this guy, debating wiring diagrams. Several years later that customer had been promoted to lead engineer at a major Maine business and awarded a massive stores contract to our company. You just never know who you are talking to. Way to go Ray.

Sales Happen and So Do Hard Conversations

If you are selling a solid product that people need, and your SEO is working, you are going to get the clicks and calls.  If you treat people courteously you will get the calls back and sales will happen.  But now comes the hard part. Once people get to know you a little, and especially after they spend money, they expect your product or service to display real value. There will always be points where your product or service falls short of expectations. Nothing is perfect.

Unmet expectations could happen for many reasons:

  • Some customers just naturally expect too much
  • You may have deliberately or inadvertently over promised
  • Customers might be used to another product or service and yours requires they use new work-flows
  • Customers might just ask for something because ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’
  • Some customers are in over their heads and demand excessive support to get comfortable
  • Your product or service might not be up to par with market requirements – in technology this happens on a cyclical basis

How do you have the hard conversation with these valued customers and not lose sales? First of all, you do it by having the conversation. Don’t avoid it. If you avoid the hard conversation all the work you’ve done up to this point is lost.  Your customer will feel ignored, demeaned, or just pissed off. They will lose respect for you.  Your college dormitory is no longer a place for them to party. They will take their business to a place that feels more comfortable.  So step one is to decide to have the conversation.

  1. Decide to have the conversation
  2. Think about your response. Thank the customer for asking. Come to the conversation with ideas, suggestions, or workarounds
  3. Use the phone. If the conversation is hard – you should use the phone not email
  4. Use open language. Engage the customer’s ideas and concerns. Repeat their major points back to them to make them feel heard
  5. If the requirement is complex, bring the issue to your higher-ups. Tell the customer you will elevate the issue – and actually do just that. Good companies want to hear about customer objections. 

Related concept: Email is less effective with hard conversations. Emails can easily present an inadvertent harshness in tone.  When in doubt – pick up the phone.

I have found when I follow this hard conversation approach my relationship with hard conversation customers almost always improve. And in the long run, the product I represent becomes a more effective product because of the plain feedback I received.

This process won’t save every customer. There will always be lost customers. No sales person keeps 100% of their customers. But by having hard conversations in a positive and open manner, with follow-up, you will gain a reputation as a person of your word; as a sales person who feels like a partner, not like a vendor.

Here at we experienced a rare service break-down due to a software glitch.  There were multiple customers impacted and many called us wondering when things would improve. It took a few days and it was stressful. But in the end every one of those customers thanked us for fixing the issue and the reason they thanked us was because we kept them informed the whole way through. It was frustrating for the customer but they knew we were on it.  Make the hard conversation call.

Make your customers feel at home. Welcome them to your world with comfy landing pages, positive emails and phone greetings. Be deliberately courteous. Listen more, talk less. Keep the customer interested by responding to questions and don’t avoid the hard conversation. This will serve you well in your current role and in roles to come, because sooner or later your luck will run out and you will have to spin the wheel once more and take on a new sales role (and maybe marketing) in a new organization.

Related concept: Treat your associates and reports exactly as you would a customer. There’s a golden rule there somewhere.  Follow it.

Geoffrey Ives is Vice President of Sales for www.MapBusinessOnline.combusiness mapping software for sales & marketing professionals.  He would be happy to receive comments or answer questions about this article.

About Geoffrey Ives

Geoffrey Ives lives and works in southwestern Maine. He grew up in Rockport, MA and graduated from Colby College. Located in Maine since 1986, Geoff joined DeLorme Publishing in the late 1990's and has since logged twenty-five years in the geospatial software industry. In addition to business mapping, he enjoys playing classical & jazz piano, gardening, and taking walks in the Maine mountains with his Yorkshire Terrier named Skye.
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