The Power of Quiet Selling

Whether or not you’re in the sales profession, you probably find yourself selling something every day. Maybe you’re selling a new idea to a colleague or selling yourself on taking the stairs instead of jumping on the elevator. To live is to sell.

Although we often have to sell, many of us aren’t comfortable with it. We may associate selling with the classic extroverted salesman, whose mantra is “ABC”—Always Be Closing. But the truth is, playing to our unique strengths can make us much more effective. 

For more than 20 years as a corporate lawyer, I had to adapt to situations dominated by extroverts. I then left the practice of law to spend the next dozen years selling software to lawyers at large companies. I worked to convince conservative, skeptical lawyers to change the ways they were managing their work.  

What I learned through trial and error was that my introverted preference to advise and teach, in contrast to my competitors’ attempts to persuade and dominate, helped me to stand out and take our company to a leading position in the market.

Here’s what worked for me:

Ask thoughtful questions that will help you (and them) understand their priorities. By asking questions, you invite the prospect’s active involvement. You approach a decision together. This isn’t overt persuasion: your questions lead to a collaboration between you and your prospect and encourage them to reach their own conclusions.

For example, rather than just claiming that “our software automatically tracks budget performance by matching up vendor spending with budgets,” I would ask whether the prospect was using budgets and how they were tracking them. For those who weren’t using budgets, this question usually caused them to begin to consider whether they should be doing so, without triggering a defensive reaction. For those who were already using budgets, it caused them to think about what wasn’t working and made them receptive to a discussion about solutions that would help.  

After a series of such questions, an informal partnership would tend to form, opening the door to working together on finding the best solutions to meet their needs.

Educate instead of persuade.  Rather than being a traditional “salesperson,” I was more comfortable playing the role of a teacher, guiding prospects through a collaborative exploration of their options. Through detailed discussions, presentations, and written information, I helped them learn about the relative merits of their alternatives. For prospects engaged in a formal bidding process, I even prepared a bid template for them to use to ensure that they collected the same key information from all vendors.

As a result of this collaborative approach, my prospects considered me their trusted advisor. I helped them design and conduct their selection process, narrowing options to those most practical for them and ensuring that nothing important was overlooked when they made their decisions. When I found ways to be genuinely helpful and became part of the prospect’s process, our solution often had a leg up on the competition.  

Follow up with even more questions to help them reach their own conclusions. Once the situation has been clarified and a prospect’s needs defined, further questions can help identify the relative merits of potential solutions. Ronald Reagan, the “Great Communicator,” was a master at using questions to drive home a point. A single question during his election turned the tide of public opinion in his favor: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” That simple question caused voters to assess themselves how they felt about the incumbent administration rather than being told what to feel.  

Similarly, rather than directly pointing out the merits of whatever you are proposing, ask questions that might cause the other person to reach their own conclusions about how they might benefit from your product or service, including their savings and other positive results. This self-persuasion leads to a more solid commitment than a traditional sales pitch.

Learn to work with extroverts who are eager to act or cut off a discussion. What can you do when a prospect interrupts the discussion to try to reach a quick conclusion or attempts to poke holes in what you’re saying? When faced with this type of challenge, I will generally explain that they are much more likely to end up with a better result if they invest the time upfront to understand their current needs and the range of potential solutions.

If someone repeatedly argues with whatever I say, I will suggest that perhaps they are still thinking about how to make the effort that will be necessary to reach a good solution. I’ll then offer to come back when they are ready. This generally leads to one of two results: either the devil’s advocate then argues that they are in fact ready and would like to move ahead, which we then do, or someone from the group says that they would like to move ahead now, indirectly letting the skeptic know that they are interrupting the process that the group wants to follow. Either way, we generally all get back on track together. Patience and calm win the day.

Build a solid reputation by helping professional organizations and publications. Introverts often excel at generating creative insights by stepping back and contemplating the world from different perspectives. Professional publications are often looking for articles that present such new insights. They’re an excellent vehicle to build your reputation.  

I created an annual member survey for our customers’ primary professional organization and then wrote about the results in a monthly column in the organization’s magazine. By providing this information, I built relationships that eventually garnered invitations to speak at the organization’s conferences, directly to audiences of potential customers.  

Be patient—the relationships you build will generate even greater rewards down the road. Any lost sale or other setback is only temporary. By helping each sales prospect without expecting something in return, treating them with respect, and educating them, you will build relationships of trust that can become the foundation for future sales. The people you help will remember you when they move into new positions, go to new organizations, and talk with colleagues at other businesses that may be interested in your product. You may get a call from someone who years ago bought a competitive product and now feels they made a mistake and wants to move forward with you. This has happened to me several times and is particularly gratifying. Make it your top priority to build relationships rather than make sales. You will be the one who gets the call long after the fast-talking salesmen have given up.

I set up ticklers to call interested prospects who aren’t ready to buy immediately, one of whom I followed from a very small company through several acquisitions by larger companies. After six years of annual calls just to provide him with updates, during which time he started working for one of the world’s largest companies, he told me that they were finally ready to buy. Although his company considered other vendors, we were in the lead position because of the relationship that he and I had formed during our annual conversations.

What comes to me naturally as an introvert helps me as a salesman. Using my innate strengths also makes my work more fun and fulfilling. At the end of the day, I know that the meaningful personal and professional relationships I have nurtured will continue long after any sale.