Likability in Sales?

Equal Focus Yields Best Results

In a recent Harvard Business Review article by J. Keenan, the relative importance of “likability” in the sales process was analyzed.

While most people quickly consider likability to be a key requirement to sales success, Keenan instead refers to this as a myth!

“Being likable is not a necessity to succeed in sales,” Keenan writes. “And those who focus on it as a priority are destined to fail.”

The article goes on to cite a study of 450,000 salespeople and found that among the highest performers 89% said they do not need to be liked, but among the poorest performers 86% said they do need to be liked. Possibly more important, the those with weaker sales records tended to believe that their ability to make friends is their greatest asset.

Keenan’s reasoning is sound. Making “likability” the key priority is not the best path for a successful sales career. Instead, sellers should focus on trust and value. Likability is important, but it is not the priority; in fact, the path to likability may well be paved with combinations of trust and value-added information.

Keenan said, “The key, I teach sales teams, is be an expert, not a friend.”
He then shares three crucial steps to demonstrating expertise and, if you consider the consequences, becoming more value-added.

  1. Dig for root causes. Determine the problem you can help a prospect solve or the objective you can help them achieve. Those who focus too much on being liked often fail to uncover the real source of a buyer’s problems or goals. In many cases this is because prospects haven’t figured out the causes themselves. The article goes on to share data from a study indicating sales professionals who are assertive and willing to present alternative views outperform “relationship builders” by a wide margin. Often called “Challengers,” this more assertive group represented 40% of top performers in sales, while relationship builders accounted for only 7%.
  2. Don’t stop at the first “yes.” Sometimes, we get a terrific response from a prospect. They’ve bought into our offer and want to make it happen. But our credibility as an expert can be overturned by a more prudent competitor. To avoid this pitfall, Keenan suggests always being engaged in learning more and more about the functional area you’re selling to within a business, whether it’s sales, marketing, HR, or IT.
  3. Learn the process, not just the problem. “To close a deal, you also need to become an expert on the process it takes to make a sale go through,” Keenan says. This involves not only mastering your organization’s selling process, but also understanding the prospect organization’s buying process. Understanding the steps we must take is the first part (i.e., executing our sales process). But we must also know who will be involved in the decision making – both decision-makers and influencers – understand their priorities and plan accordingly with respect to how they should be involved.

Relationships are critically-important in sales; and the most effective “selling relationships” are built on trust and mutual respect, which are often earned by being value-added. So, it’s best to place an equal focus on being “likable” and being “value-added.”

“All things being equal, buyers might opt to work with someone they like personally,” Keenan concludes. “But in sales, “all things” are virtually never equal. Your quick wit, warm demeanor, and offer of tickets to a ballgame might be nice extras. But every time you try to schmooze about life instead of drilling down on the sale, you take focus off of your expertise. You just might find yourself going to that game with some prospects who like you — but buy from your competitor.”

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