This issue hits pretty close to home for us at Vivisum. As a small, relatively young business, we’re not strangers to the pressures and frustrations around “selling” and “business development.” To be perfectly honest, we struggled with these concepts for a long time. Part of the difficulty was reconciling the seeming disingenuousness behind the concept of “selling” and our own deeply held company (and personal) value of Genuine Human Connection. Another difficulty we faced as a small business with few disposable resources is that sales in the traditional sense takes up a lot of time. We wanted it to have a personal touch, so outsourcing wasn’t an option, but when it came right down to it, there were other pressing matters. Finally, we just didn’t feel like we would be very good at the whole selling thing.

Our expertise lay in other areas like market research and strategic consulting, and we certainly didn’t consider ourselves salespeople. All of these factors came together in a perfect storm that culminated in essentially putting off the whole selling thing, which if I had to guess, isn’t too uncommon for organizations like ours. In a sense, we were on the right track in feeling this way. While the reality is that in order to run a business you have to sell your products and services, being averse to the sleazy salesman trope was a sign that we viewed this relationship as something more than negative reciprocity. We wanted to align with our mission of doing meaningful work, and part of that is helping increase our clients’ ROI with our services. It turns out that a simple shift in mindset towards “sales,” as we began to realize, actually aligns very well with a culture bent on human connection and meaningful work. Here are a few principles that we discovered along the way:

Selling is about giving more than you take.

Sounds like the chorus of a Beatles song, but it’s true. Believing in your products and capabilities and their long-term payoff for your customers can eliminate that icky feeling around sales. If you have something of value to offer, you’re doing the world a disservice by not making it known. If you truly believe in the thing that you’re selling, you’ll never be sleazy.

Just shut up and listen.

Customers in any industry are constantly inundated with sales pitches demanding their money for things they don’t even need. If you own a business in a consulting-based industry like market research, the focus is about what your customers need from you, not the other way around. Pitches should be clear and to-the-point about what you offer and why you’re different from your competitors, but at the end of the day, it’s the voice of your potential customers that matters. Listen to what their needs are, avoid the kneejerk reaction of “We have just the thing!” and keep listening.

Selling can be values-driven

I remember watching a TED talk a couple of years ago (forgive me for not linking to it, I can’t remember what it was called) about how people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. When we sat down a few years ago as a company to really figure out what we’re about and how to communicate it, we made sure to tie everything back to our values. I’ve been told many times since then that our values and the vital importance they have in everything that we do is something that sets us apart. A lot of people are looking for meaning in what they buy beyond the product itself, so don’t be afraid to get into the squishy stuff. In sum, the successful salesperson of today is a complete reversal of the stereotypical sleazeball. Be humble, connect with the humanity in you and your customer, and pontificate as little as possible. After all, business is a deeply human endeavor, and selling is ultimately about genuine human connection.

Ellen Hart is a Senior Associate Consultant at Vivisum Partners. She specializes in in-depth qualitative research in healthcare and nonprofit fields.

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