The Key to Success in This Economy: Learn to Sell

BlogHer Original Post

There was a time when the worst thing you could ever call me was a salesperson. The word connoted dishonesty, opportunism. Salespeople tried to foist things on you that you didn't necessarily want. High angle view of two businesswomen with two businessmen in a conference room

Non-salespeople love to demonize salespeople as shallow and money hungry. Sure, salespeople tend to be paid better than "cost center" employees; Kris Dunn of Fistful of Talent explains why:

Let's face it - Sales Pros are the ones who bring home the bacon, so everyone else can fry it up in the pan.  They're the hunters, you're the farmer.  They start from a scoreboard that says "0" every month, while we're still trying to figure out what a scoreboard looks like for most positions in the organization. ... Guess what?  The market pays for those who drag the carcass home to the tribe.

I started my career on the opposite end of sales, broke and self-righteous in print editorial, where content and commerce (advertising) could co-exist but never comingle. As an editor, I recall cordial but guarded meetings with my company's salespeople, sharing content concepts they could sell for sponsorship, but never could they try to influence the content. Content was sacred. And those salespeople, while perfectly nice creatures, needed to be slapped on the wrist lest they muck up the product with branded filth.

And then I became a salesperson.

It was a gradual process; at first I merely helped salespeople develop compelling concepts that tied into content, but when the flagging online startup I was working for desperately needed revenue, sales became my job. In order for me to stay employed during the internet bust I had to sell, and I was good at it.

I now have a totally different take on salespeople. I respect them, much like I respect soldiers on the front line of battle. They put themselves out there so that the creatives/producers can live freely in a democratic society (wait, I'm mixing metaphors).

Seriously, though, selling provided me with a skillset as fundamental to my career as basic math. After I moved back into more creative pursuits I found that my stints as a salesperson made me exponentially better at getting my work noticed. And yes, better at getting paid.

I still believe that good content cannot be influenced by commerce, and creators still need to draw a line between selling their work and selling out, but selling one's work or oneself is not an act of treason. Sales instincts are not hard to hone; so many of us have them without realizing it. But we stop ourselves short of selling because, I believe, of our biases around it. By re-casting our frame of reference around selling, whole worlds open up. Consider the following:

Creative work is sales work: I think it's fitting of the times that advertising and marketing behemoth Ogilvy is sponsoring a contest through its OgilvyOne Worldwide group in search of the greatest salesperson.

Says Rory Sutherland, vice chairman for the British operations of Ogilvy & Mather in The New York Times:

“There’s an interesting case to be made that advertising has strayed too far from the business of salesmanship,” which is unfortunate because it can be “a good test of how well you understand people and your creativity.”
The contest requires entrants to submit to the agency's YouTube channel their two-minute pitch of a red brick--the rationale being if you can sell a red brick you can sell anything. The winner will win a three-month fellowship at Ogilvy.

One could argue that Ogilvy is getting some cheap sales help in a pinch. I would argue that this agency--known for it's creative work and strategy building--is acknowledging the critical importance of sales as a necessary component of creativity. Good ideas don't sell themselves. Someone has to present--or sell--them well.

Good sellers are really experts in value: Some of the best salespeople I've encountered don't actually sell; they spot value where others don't. As someone who has worked online much of her career, I've seen sellers who notice traffic trends, find the most resonating conversations online, and then figure out ways to package this information in ways that are valuable to others.

Solopreneurs or bloggers can do the same by looking at their sites/businesses and seeing where value already lies, not just what others will pay them to build. Why are people coming to your site? What do people expect when they come to your blog? And if you don't know what that is, what do you want that to be? And how will you create it? See, selling is actually a creative act!

Good sellers have good relationship skills. I found that the better I got at selling, the better my communication in my personal relationships as well. That's because good sellers are good listeners; they aren't one-sided communicators. 

I love this piece from Jennifer Williamson at Brazen Careerist, who writes about the parallels between dating and selling successfully.  To do both well you have to know some inherent rules of human interaction, like this one:

"Look good. You don't have to be a perfect 10 to make it in the dating world or in the business world, but you do need to put some effort into your appearance. When you're confident in yourself and you look the part of a successful businessperson--nice suit, nice haircut, nice portfolio case--people make assumptions that you've already made it. It makes your work of convincing them to hire you that much easier."

Sure, a blogger is going to read this, recoil and say, "But it's all about the writing, not the pretty package!" (And that's why we all get dressed up for BlogHer, right?) We know intuitively that appearances, and yes, salesmanship (a nice blog design, a decent bio pic, site optimization) often get people through the front door, and then we can impress with our brilliance.

Sellers are better negotiators. I was sucky at negotiating salary or freelance rates until I started selling. Having sales experience took the emotion out of negotiating for me: This is my price, and this is what you get for that number, any questions? I became used to hearing the word no and could move on quicker to yes. And I became accustomed to feeling out what the market would bear, and what others were charging for their services (a must if you are to stay competitive and not get shortchanged).

Sellers learn fast, and don't wallow when they see others doing it better and for more. They become energized by this information.

Selling isn't a sacrifice, but a favor you are doing for yourself. I'm with Yvonne at Joy Unexpected: There are times when I see all the shucking and jiving going on around me by other bloggers and wonder, OK, but what about the writing? Isn't that what's going to bring me readers? However, my sales experience has also bestowed upon me a certain, shall we say, pragmatism, especially when I look back at the reams of heartfelt content that I've produced over the years (and yes, some of it shlock that I churned out for the sake of posting something). I would love for it to be used somehow.

For some of us, optimizing our content means building an online scrapbook or archive for our families; for others it means packaging it for a book, portfolio, or other platform-building entity. A question I would urge you to ask yourself: Have you bothered to package your business in a way that, in effect, sells your work? If you are a blogger that has low traffic but loves the act of blogging the answer may not matter. But if you are questioning your investment in your blog or business because you aren't getting a literal or emotional payout from it, you may be on the precipice of deciding that yes, you need to start selling your work. And that means reaching out, or simply engaging in opportunties that are coming your way, and deciding how you can 1) create while 2) getting paid.   

When I was a freelance writer I bumped up against the realization that I had to have something to show for my hours writing in coffee shops. I figured out the time of day when I was less creative (afternoons) and reserved those hours for making calls, crafting pitch emails, developing proposals--in short, making the most of my work.

Salespeople are translators. I suppose that selling means convincing people, but good salespeople do more than that; they make solutions apparent. I was recently interviewed about my work at BlogHer and asked how I convinced brands that blogs were a good investment. I clarified that I didn't have to convince anyone of anything, but rather showed them data indicating the growing influence of bloggers and situations in which bloggers successfully advocated for brands. And I put them in the heads of the bloggers, showing them what was meaningful to them. This was enough to make apparent to our first customers the need to be involved in blog marketing.

Similarly, as a small business owner you've developed an expertise and speak a language that others don't. That language is unique to you. You may notice that your readers come to you because you can always scrounge together amazing food from cheap, basic ingredients, or because you have a way of talking about getting organized in a way that readers don't feel intimidated. In essence, you can translate meaning in ways that others can't. Determine what it is you translate better than others and offer it up to those who will derive value from it. That's selling.


Jory Des Jardins writes on business and career topics at BlogHer, and on her personal blog From Here to Autonomy


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