University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Confessions of an Entrepreneur: What I Have Learned About Selling

Blocks with green arrows

December 11, 2019 | By Mark Zweig

Share this via:

I was very lucky that I learned how to sell very early on. It started with selling bicycles on the street corner by my childhood home at age 8 or 9, then moved on to motorbikes and motorcycles at 12 or 13, and cars by 16. I started working at age 12 or 13 selling bikes at a local bike shop — something I did all the way through college and grad school. I was good at what I did and made more money than any of my friends because I knew something about how to sell.

But I really learned about selling when I got my first job out of grad school at 22 and went to work as the youngest employee of a small executive search and management consulting firm based in St. Louis. My boss — the firm founder and owner — had at one time worked for Xerox Corporation and helped create and implement their national sales training program. His name was Mike Latas, and I was fortunate to have worked for him for three years at such a formative time in my career.

Here’s some of what Mike Latas taught me about business-to-business selling, along with some other lessons I have learned over the past 50 years, most of which will apply to any type of selling:

  1. If you want to sell anything, you first need to decide who you are trying to sell to. You need a list. As obvious as this may seem, many so-called professional sales people do not start with a good list of potential clients or customers. What organizations could be buyers for what you are selling, and who in those organizations could make or influence the decision to buy? This has to be your starting place.
  2. Selling is a numbers game. It takes a certain amount of calls to get through to whom you are calling. It takes a certain number of conversations to get a meeting, it takes a certain number of meetings to make a proposal. And it takes a certain number of proposals to make a sale. Once you accept that given enough activity the probabilities will bear out certain results, you know that the more calls you make, the more you will sell of whatever it is you are selling. And the more you do it, the greater the certainty of selling something becomes.
  3. Selling is helping. Not everyone is a natural seller. Many people are afraid of it or feel that it has to be a win-lose process or that it requires dishonesty, so they are (naturally) reluctant to fully engage in selling. But if you embrace the idea that selling does not require lying or “getting over” on someone and instead is all about helping, you will find that you become much more effective at it. No one will buy anything from you that they don’t want or need. If you, as the sales person, help your clients or customers get what they want or need, you are helping them, not harming them. Knowing that selling is helping is critical to your ability to do it.
  4. Clients or customers have to trust you before they will buy something from you. But they won’t trust you if they first don’t know you and like you. This is why effective sales people ask lots of questions to get their buyers talking about themselves. Effective sales professionals also share information about themselves — sparingly and appropriately — with their clients or customers. It’s a widely accepted fact that people like other people who show an interest in them. No buyer will trust you if they don’t know you and like you first. Understanding this is critical to your success.
  5. Weak sales people give everything away. One of my mentors in the architecture and engineering business that I worked for in the mid-80s taught me that it’s easy to sell dollars for 85 cents. At that time, we had a partner who bragged about selling $3 million in services but we lost money on every project he sold. What this means is if you over-rely on discounts and price reductions, you may sell a lot but you may be harming your business over time. Not only will your firm not make what it should, you will jeopardize future profitable sales due setting a pricing precedent.
  6. “Ask and ye shall receive.” No client or customer will buy anything from you if you don’t ask for the sale. I learned this lesson when Mike Latas called us together one morning in the conference room and said we needed cash. He told us to ask for a retainer or advance payment from every potential new client we spoke with, but if we couldn’t get one the fallback position would be to work for them anyway. A few days after, I was talking to a potential new client in New Jersey who had a need for our services. I quoted him a fee for the job and then did what the boss told us to do and asked for an initial payment before we could start. I was fully prepared to quickly cave in on my request and tell them we would go to work anyway, when the client surprised me and asked what address he should send a check to. That taught me a very valuable lesson I would never forget. Years later when I started my own business, I got advance payments from every client we worked for which proved crucial to our ability to bootstrap the growth of what became a multi-year, Inc. 500 fastest-growing company.
  7. Call your past and current clients and customers for no reason. Once you have clients or customers, check in with them every so often just to talk. Having no agenda whatsoever beyond seeing how they are and what’s happening in their lives is an incredibly effective way to cement relationships with them, helping them to better know, like and trust you. And of course, more often than not, new opportunities to sell will become apparent.

Selling is a skill that can be learned. The problem many people have is that they never get the training they need to overcome their misconceptions about selling and teach them the basics they need to be successful. That’s a shame, because learning how to sell is a skill that can help in every aspect of your business and personal life!

Post Author:

Mark ZweigMark Zweig – a leading expert in management and business for the architecture, engineering, planning, and environmental industry – is president of Mark Zweig, Inc., which has been named to the Inc. 500/5000 list of fastest-growing privately-held companies; chairman and founder of Zweig Group – named to the Inc. list three times – and entrepreneur-in-residence teaching entrepreneurship at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.