If sales is essentially a task of carefully identifying customer needs and meeting them, then much of the folklore and images surrounding selling is nothing more than useless baggage or myths that are passed from one generation of salespeople to the next as if they were sacred and infallible truth. Salespeople can be far more successful if they free themselves from the constraints of worn out beliefs. A place to begin rethinking selling is with these nine myths.

SALES MYTH 1. “It worked then and it will work now. Our salespeople just need to work harder.”

Sure, some don’t work very hard and others don’t work smart, but most salespeople want to be conscientious and successful. The major problem is not with salespeople.

Far too often, sales managers fail to recognize that today’s environment is quite different from the way it was when they started in sales. It was probably a time when face-to-face contact was essential. The primary means of relationship building was to get in front of the customer. This was necessary because it was the most effective method of communication.

While there’s value in continued personal contact, the customer has far less time today to “see people.” This is the why wireless communication is so popular.

SALES MYTH 2. “Just give us something new to sell.”

Not having something new and exciting to sell is a major complaint of salespeople. If they only had something new to sell, they could break records. Translate this myth into everyday language and it comes out something like this:Selling something new or different is easy.

Don’t tell that to Stephanie and Bonnie Brenner of Brenner’s Fine Clothing & Gifts in Sitka, AK. Their 3,000-sq-ft store sells thousands of pairs of French Dressing jeans each year. They recognized that women over 35 were not wearing jeans because of poor fit.

When they began featuring French Dressing jeans, a Canadian brand, and talked about fit, sales zoomed. Because they understand what women want, they aren’t asking for something “new and different.” They just want more shipments of French Dressing jeans.

SALES MYTH 3. “Selling still takes the personal touch.”

It does, of course, but it all depends on what is meant by personal. In the past, salespeople talked about having “a great relationship” with their customers. Whether this meant taking them to lunch, dinner, or a golf outing, or getting them tickets to a sports event, making the sale depended on some type of bonding. Salespeople have always wanted their customers to like them, whether they happened to like the customer or not.

A significant shift has taken place, and salespeople sense it. While the old trappings linger in some industries more than others, such as the hvacr trade, the best way to define “personal touch” today is being good at what you do, taking a personal interest in the customer’s success, and serving as a resource.

SALES MYTH 4. “A good salesperson knows how to push the customer’s hot buttons.”

Anyone adept at selling that focuses attention on the customer and listens carefully for buying cues. Unfortunately, that’s all many salespeople do. They don’t attempt to probe and develop a larger perspective or a deeper understanding of the situation. They go only as far as they feel is absolutely necessary.

More often than not, these turn out to be one-time sales. It doesn’t take much for the customer to figure out that what was purchased and whether it failed either to satisfy expectations or meet objectives.

Selling is not about “finding the hot buttons.” That only blinds a salesperson from using his or her talents, experience, and knowledge to serve the customer.

SALES MYTH 5. “My customers know where I am. They call me when they need something.”

Some salespeople actually boast about how they have their customers call them when they are ready to buy. They see no need to do anything more than be available for the next order.

Again, the times have changed. Today’s customers are far more aware of the available options than they were in the past. The Internet lets them search for other suppliers and other sources.

It isn’t enough for customers to need what you sell; they need to need you as well.

SALES MYTH 6. “I know my customers like I know the back of my hand.”

Yesterday’s salespeople often viewed themselves as “gatekeepers,” intermediaries between the company and the customer. They were the only ones permitted to make direct contact. When they said, “my customer,” they meant it.

While knowing customers is essential in selling, it is extremely dangerous to assume that knowing implies having a hold on the customer. You may know your customers, but you may not know what they are doing and thinking.

The most dangerous assumption is to act as if a customer is satisfied, loyal, and not looking elsewhere. While salespeople like to think that they have the customer under control, it is far more accurate to view today’s customers as free agents who are constantly making new discoveries, getting information easily, and who do not feel beholden to salespeople.

SALES MYTH 7. “When it comes right down to it, it’s always price.”

While there is always some price sensitivity, what customers really want is value for their dollar. However, this does not mean their only interest is price. If that were true, no one would be writing with a Mont Blanc pen.

Bob Mulrooney is successful in selling dealers on Agway equine feeds against lower-priced competitive feeds because he educates them as to the differences in the products. Customers want value for their dollar. They expect to pay for the results they need. If they cannot differentiate one product or service from another, it only makes sense that they will choose the one with the lowest price.

Saying that price is all that matters is an indication that customers have not been educated.

SALES MYTH 8. “Successful sales is a matter of overcoming objections.”

Sales trainers jump on this one. They see selling as overcoming one objection after another. “When the salesperson has exhausted every objection, it’s time to ask for the order.” There are variations, but that’s the theme.

That isn’t the way the owners of Pools for Pleasure make sales. This suburban Indianapolis pool and spa company sells nearly 300 in-ground swimming pools each year. Surprising as it may seem, they don’t focus on the pool itself or the equipment that goes with it. They take time to figure out why the customer wants a pool.

If anything, objections are an indication that the salesperson has missed the experience the buyer is seeking, whether selling to consumers or businesses. Just answering objections does not necessarily lead to the sale.

SALES MYTH 9. “Selling is a game. The goal is to outsmart the buyer.”

Here’s the most pervasive and perhaps the most destructive myth of all. As one sales trainer expressed it, “It’s getting the customer down on the floor and putting the gun to his head.”

Selling is not a game. It has nothing to do with winning and losing or getting a so-called advantage.

There’s no rah-rah. No hype. No posturing. No macho madness. Selling is a process of aligning the resources made available by the salesperson with the needs of the customer. This takes skill, knowledge, and competence.

Without question, the cynics will suggest that stripping away the myths takes the adventure and excitement out of selling. Adventure and excitement for whom? The salesperson?

Just remember, selling isn’t about salespeople; it’s about customers.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He can be reached at 617-328-0069; 617-471-1504 (fax); j_graham@grahamcomm.com (e-mail); www.grahamcomm.com (website).

Publication date: 01/29/2001