Small Business Owners Think They Suck at Sales, but They’re Wrong

small business owner selling

small business owner selling Like many people who started a business based on their area of expertise, I had no idea how to actually run a business, especially when it came to sales. I heard that a “pipeline” was helpful. I heard you were supposed to find the “project sponsor” and “budgetary owner” and figure out if the owner had committed budget. Fortunately, a few people in the niche of pricing consulting, or people needing pricing consultants knew who I was, and would call me to ask for help. We would have a discussion about what they were trying to do, and then I figured I was supposed to do something that a sales guy would do, but I wasn’t sure what that was. Finally, the client would figure out that while I knew a lot about pricing, I didn’t know anything about sales, so they would suggest that I send them a proposal, and hint that I should be sure to include certain things, like costs, and deadlines, and language about their key objectives that their executives would want to see to approve the project. I felt like an idiot. The strange thing was, it worked like a charm.

Then I started learning. I learned how to “sell.” I learned how to talk about how awesome Mimiran was. I had swagger and confidence. I knew to say “I’ll send you a proposal.” I no longer felt like an idiot. Wow, did that feel good.

But there was a problem. Proposals took longer to get signed. There was more back and forth. More questions and concerns. I read more sales books and developed a “sales process”, or at least an excuse for one. I tried to be more like the “professional” sales reps I met, and against whom I was sometimes selling. The more I succeeded at that, the less I seemed to succeed at sales.

Somehow I came across Barry Rhein (if you haven’t taken his sales challenge, do it– it takes about 10 minutes and you’ll be glad you did). I even found someone willing to sponsor me to attend one of his training classes.  I was now in a room with 100 actual sales people for 2 days. Barry never mentioned pipelines. He only mentioned budgetary owners to say that they rarely exist anymore, and you usually need to convince a committee of people to buy, where anyone has veto power. So what do you do? You figure out what the customer wants. How do you do that? You ask them. You listen. You ask them some more and you listen some more, until you really understand (often better than the customer), what they need and want. Then, if you can give it to them, you can describe how to do that. A lot of the professional sales people had a really hard time. They were trying to undue years of “sales processes.” I only had to unlearn a few months of what I had “learned.” I could go back to being the guy who really cared about solving the customer’s problem, with a bit more savviness about the buying process and other political aspects of making the project successful.

The great thing about the state of problem expertise/sales ignorance (can I call that PESI?) is that you really care about the problem, your passion and expertise shine through, and you don’t put the buyer on the defensive with typical sales nonsense. You focus on the problem and you don’t know enough about sales to focus on your checklist, your quota, your pipeline, or your TPS reports. I realized that you really want to focus on the customer, including their problem, but that’s not too much of a stretch. I would always ask how people planned to measure the success of the project, because, heck, wouldn’t you want to know if you succeeded? I just needed a bit more focus on things like the buying process, that lay outside the project itself, but were still essential to successfully completing the project. Sure– there are some problems that don’t require deep expertise, and following a sales process is the key to success. But most people who start a business around their expertise have expertise in something hard. Knowing how to solve the problem is more important than the salesmanship.

Professional sales reps, fancy CRM systems, and all the trapping of an enterprise sales process have their place– in the enterprise. Small business owners should have their own version of this, adjusted to their needs. But if you’re a small business owner, who, like me, started off as an “expert” in something but realized you didn’t know how to sell, take heart. You’re way ahead of most of your sales-y competitors. While they are thinking about their (admittedly important) quarterly number, you are thinking about how to solve your customer’s problem. You can’t help it. It’s what you do and what you love.

So if you’re a small business owner, or even a one-person shop, feeling like you don’t know how to sell, don’t worry, you probably know how to sell better than most sales people. Stay focused on the customer and solving their problem. Don’t discount your value or your prices. (Shameless plug: you can use Mimiran to send online proposals, complete with pricing information, much faster than you can with Word. You can also get your proposals closed faster, since you can see when your prospect is actually reading your proposal. Check it out– it’s aimed at people like you (and me) and you can try it free for 30 days. This helps you handle some of the “professionalism” aspects of selling, like having nice proposal templates, while you get to focus on what you’re good at and what you love.)

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