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Are Salespeople Born Or Made?

Furniture World Magazine


Are the best salespeople born that way or are they made?

"He's a born salesperson" and "He's a natural at it" are the words we hear from time to time. In his Art of Poetry the ancient Roman author Horace wrote: "For my point I fail to see the use of training without natural ability or of natural ability without training." Earlier another Roman had written that at times it happens that someone with natural ability but with no formal training out-performs someone without natural ability despite his formal training. He hastened to add that when someone with natural ability also has formal training, the result is always remarkable. Brian Tracy, noted trainer and consultant, has often stated that salespeople are rarely born champions; they get that way through persistently working on a winning attitude. John F. Lawhon, author of Selling Retail, exclaims again and again that selling is a learned profession. I agree, After seven years of intense application to the study of selling and after twenty years of selling furniture, I have concluded that the vast majority of salespeople who fail, do so not for lack of ability but for lack of formal training, lots of it and on-going.

It makes no difference how the champions acquire their selling skills; through a sales educational system provided by their stores or through their own personal efforts. The important thing is to acquire the skills. I might mention, however, that self-taught champions usually admit that if they had to do it all over again, they'd call in for help.

Good sales training is like ethics in one important sense. Both have the same objective: good performance. In fact, Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics wrote that the purpose of this book was not, as in other studies, to acquire theoretical knowledge. "We are...conducting this study," he wrote," in order to become good, else there would be no advantage in studying ethics." He went on to offer the following analogy: "The function of the harpist is to play the harp; the function of the harpist who has high standards is to play it well. A function is well performed when done so in accordance with the excellence appropriate to it." Following Aristotle's lead, we might say that the salesperson of high standards is the one who performs his role in accordance with the excellence appropriate to it.

As for the appropriate excellence in salespeople, Lawhon would say that it consists of providing the customer with the information needed to make the best buying decision. Michael Le Boeuf, author of How To Win Customers and Keep Them For Life, would say that the salesperson's excellence consists of living up to the title of his book. Both authors are correct.

What should store owners look for in a "good" sales training program before committing to it? There are many requirements, some of them based on the nature of their stores, but I feel there are several most would agree on.

First, I would advise store owners to see to it that the prospective program allow for training a trainer. Too many programs, otherwise good, fail because they do not provide for someone already in place to keep the training on-going. As soon as the outside consultant completes the initial training phase and leaves, the program collapses. A word about who that trainer to be trained should be: someone preferably with actual sales experience but not necessarily so. As one ancient writer put it, "A sharpening stone, although it cannot cut of itself, can sharpen the iron that does the cutting." That is, after all, the role of the sales trainer: to help give salespeople the winning edge.

Second, store owners should absolutely insist that the program provide a system for measuring progress. SERVA REGULAM ET REGULA TE SERVABIT, ran a Latin maxim: "Honor the yardstick and the yardstick will honor you." No sales trainer has preached the necessity of adhering to that yardstick as much as Lawhon. "What gets measured improves." Nor should this ever be left to the discretion of each salesperson. Experience has shown that left to their own discretion, salespeople will either not measure their own progress or they will give false readings. Most of us have an exaggerated sense of just how we rank among our colleagues.

Finally, store owners should require abundant and frequent role playing as well as the coaching of salespeople's actual selling on the floor. Both are essential to the ultimate objectives of sales training. Remember what Lawhon says: "Selling is a learned profession." Like learning to play the piano, learning to sell depends on "doing" and not on bookish studying alone. Remarkably, in this regard, Lawhon grasped about selling what the ancient philosophers grasped about ethics: it is not enough to acquire working habits. They must be good working habits. That is the reason why they defined both virtue and vice as working habits. Virtues, they said, are good working habits; vices are bad working habits. Repeated practice of an improper greeting will always end up with a bad greeting (a vice); practicing the proper greeting again and again will always end up with a good greeting (a virtue). Those wishing to read more about the way to develop proper selling techniques should read Lawhon's chapter on acquiring habits. A word of caution, however, if you possess his videos. There he states that he sees no difference between habits and skills. This would appear untenable, I feel. Smoking and drinking coffee might be habits. They are hardly skills.

To conclude, unless store owners believe that salespeople are for the most part natural born salespeople, they should investigate the sales training programs that are out there, choose the one that suits them best, and do their choosing on the basis of some of the requirements we mentioned in this article.

Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at pmarino@furnifo.com.