The most successful sales professionals understand that memorable and impactful buying experiences are based on how much a customer feels you understand them—and how well they feel they understand you.
Part of this understanding means being authentic: comfortable with the things that make you human. Humans are fallible and vulnerable. They’re occasionally late. They have children who drive them crazy. They struggle with getting PowerPoint presentations to work. If you embrace this vulnerability and allow glimpses of it to show, you will help your customer trust you more. They will know that you are not perfect—but you are genuine.
Getting Ego Out of the Way
Occasionally, I get to work with a, let’s say, “self-oriented” sales professional. If I’m scheduled to do a ride-along with this salesperson to meet a customer who is also self-oriented, I know I have my work cut out for me. Most of the time, I know within thirty seconds of sitting down at the conference table if the meeting is going to tank. When two egocentric individuals aren’t able to get out of their own heads long enough to understand each other, there’s little chance of developing the high trust needed to get to authentic, emotional territory. If you’re protecting your ego, you’re not showing vulnerability, so there won’t be a sense of authenticity created by your words. Usually, in these situations, I will jump into the conversation and help the sales rep and myself be more vulnerable.
Say you’re a couple of minutes late to a meeting. Instead of being Mr. Stuffy Super-professional and saying, “I apologize for the delay,” try saying something like, “I’m so sorry, I need to stop trusting Apple Maps instead of my own sense of direction. I’ve lived here my whole life!” Your customer will likely relate and you will probably get a chuckle and turn the situation from “I’m inconsiderate and a bad guy for being late,” into, “Ha, technology fail, maybe everyone trusts apps too much.” It shifts the whole tone of the meeting.
There is one big, fat disclaimer to this vulnerability thing: Your explanation has to be the truth. It has to be a real vulnerability that you’re owning up to. Do not make up traffic on a major highway if that isn’t the real reason you’re late. Sincerity, honesty, and authenticity are all table stakes; don’t mess with this. Faking vulnerability is the opposite of being authentic and will backfire—badly. If there’s any hint of dishonesty in what you’re saying, go home, because ain’t no one gonna buy anything from you right now.
Also: don’t overdo it. You don’t need the customer thinking you are a scatterbrain who doesn’t have your act together. It’s a fine line; be real, but don’t let yourself look like a mess.
The Mask of Eli
I was reminded of how crucial it is to be authentic, sincere, and vulnerable in interactions with customers when I met a coaching client named Eli.
I’ve been working with sales professionals for a long time. It takes a lot to confound me. Eli managed to do so. He was so stiff that it was almost intimidating. He was also uber-professional, so I couldn’t get anything near vulnerability from that guy.
I didn’t enjoy talking with Eli—again, this is something that RARELY happens to me when working with sales reps. Eli was confident and answered questions in a matter-of-fact way that made me want to shake him and say, “C’mon dude, can you please just be real for a minute?”
Without a doubt, it was the most impersonal conversation I had ever had with a sales rep. Ever.
Eli wasn’t egotistical, he was just rigid, and wearing his professional, protective mask. His facial expressions (or lack thereof) and body language didn’t help, either. I left that first meeting worried that I was going to seriously screw up the engagement. I don’t typically do well with people that have such thick armor and huge walls up around them. I carried on, though, thinking this was a great opportunity for me to grow my skill set.
The second meeting completely threw me for a loop. It was as if I were speaking with a completely different person. This version of Eli was much more personable, not at all the automaton who I had met previously. He talked about his family and about how much he loved his job. He indicated he wanted to improve his ability to “connect” with others, as he knew it was holding him back.
This was the conversation that officially made me “Team Eli.” He was real and vulnerable, and that just made me want to help him more. I remember that our conversation went much longer than the allotted 45-minute coaching session, and as opposed to our first conversation, I was very okay with that.
It was months before I had a strong enough relationship with Eli to talk to him about my personal experience with our first meeting. He had been talking about a first client meeting that he went to that didn’t go very well because he felt the customer just wasn’t engaging. I knew exactly why this was the case.
I used my first meeting with Eli as an example to teach him about the importance of being authentic, personable, and vulnerable. I explained to him that I suspected the customer not engaging had something to do with feeling intimidated or uncomfortable based on Eli’s persona. I told Eli that customers need to see the Eli that I’d met in our second conversation, and that the first Eli I met was not going to get him very far with most customers. He understood exactly what I was saying, and he acknowledged that he was aware of his struggle with this.
We worked on this over the course of several months. I’m proud to say that Eli came a very long way. Understandably, he still backtracked to acting as the standoffish Eli when he met with someone who seemed overconfident or egotistical. That would take more time for him to get past—and I’m not sure he even needs to.
Being authentic, vulnerable, and personable is imperative to creating the types of trust relationships required to beat the bots and your competition. Get more confident with being the “real deal” when you meet with customers. If you do, I can promise you (and so can Eli) that they will much more readily engage with you and want to continue conversations with you. Not only that, but when you are vulnerable and real with your customers, they can’t help but want to reciprocate. It’s hard to be an egomaniac when you are dealing with someone who is humble and sincere. It makes it safe for others to trust you because they’ll believe that you won’t take advantage of them.
Don’t underestimate the power of vulnerability as you try to create customers for life.
Anita Nielsen is a sales performance consultant with over twenty years of experience in B2B sales and support. As an advocate for salespeople, she is dedicated to coaching and equipping professionals for success. For her efforts, she was named one of the Top Sales Enablement Consultants of 2018 by Selling Power magazine.
She is the author of Beat The Bots: How Your Humanity Can Future-Proof Your Tech Sales Career, and a Sales Performance Coach for the Forbes Coaches Council, an invitation-only community for successful business and career coaches.