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This is Part Two on how to build a sales system that works. Read Part One, Part Three, and Part Four here.

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Isn’t it curious that sales, the lifeblood of every small business, is so damn hard to get right?

You started your business because you believed you could make or do something that other people wanted, but then you struggle to find a way to talk about it with them so they’re moved to say, “How can I get some of that?”

You want so badly to connect with prospective customers. You want so sincerely to experience your salespeople connecting with them. And, it hardly ever feels like there’s enough connection going on, enough excitement about the product or service you’re so invested in, enough prospects turning into customers.

If you really want to turn that around, first think about building a sales system in your company. Then consider this rarely-appreciated notion: Sales is not about closing.

Closing is an old-school idea that may work for those hard-core salespeople, but it leaves everyone else feeling like everything that just happened was wrong.

Sales is about opening. It’s about facilitating prospects with care in opening up about what they really want and need. It’s about giving them room to feel what they’re really feeling. Of course, prospects want things like product knowledge, insight and solutions from the people they buy from. But, if you want your sales process to feel both meaningful and fun, and also maximize your lead to sale conversions, you have to learn how to give your prospects an opening experience.

Fortunately, the problem and the solution are one and the same. People—all people including prospects—speak in symbolic expressions. A symbolic expression is a shorthand people use to capture a set of experiences and the meanings they associate with those experiences.

Let’s say you have a sales process where you regularly ask prospects about their goals and they often say something like: “I’m determined to be successful.” What ‘success’ means to them comes from the experiences they’ve had in their lives and the meanings they give those experiences. Your definition of ‘success’ comes from your experiences and what those experiences mean to you. And, it’s most likely that your definitions are not the same as theirs.

To you, success might mean becoming a multi-millionaire. To them, building a culture of ownership throughout the organization that is valuable in and of itself, and also adds real value to the business, might be their definition of success. Since your prospects are speaking ‘symbolically’ all the time, you can’t assume you’re both talking about the same thing.

Unless you enter your prospects’ reality and ask what something means to them, you’ll automatically impose your definitions on the person you’re speaking with. And that’s the recipe for disconnection that makes it much more likely you’ll lose the sale even if you have the perfect solution for them!

Let’s look at another example, a symbolic expression we hear all the time: “We’ve made some mistakes in hiring.” It means something very specific to the prospect that he or she isn’t sharing. If you receive those words, without entering your prospect’s reality, you’ll create horizontal or superficial movement in your sales conversations. When you assume you understand people—when you really don’t—you actually leave them feeling disconnected from you, whether they’re conscious of it or not. Horizontal movement is what happens in most sales conversations. It looks like this:

Prospect: We’ve made some mistakes in hiring.

Salesperson: Hm, how many employees do you have?

Prospects express something that has meaning to them that they’re not revealing, and the salesperson barely registers it and then changes the subject. The more prospects experience that you’re not curious about what they really mean—again, whether they’re conscious of it or not—the less they’ll feel your interest in them. Your interest in them—your willingness to enter their reality—is the most meaningful gift you have to give your prospective customers, whether they buy or not. Because, most likely, no one else is interested in their reality and they’re starved for it.

Every symbolic expression is an opening opportunity, an opportunity to help prospects open up about what they really want, what they really need and how they’re really feeling. Opening opportunities create vertical movement in a sales conversation that take people on a journey that is new, real and alive. Here’s what vertical movement looks like:

Prospect: We've made some mistakes in hiring.

Salesperson: Oh, what mistakes?

Sounds simple, but if you were to listen to recordings of your sales calls or those of your salespeople, you’d be shocked to find out what a tiny fraction of the time that level of ‘contact’ is actually happening. If you start orienting you're listening to hear the symbolic expressions/opening opportunities offered by people in conversations—whether they’re with your prospects, employees, friends or your spouse—you’ll begin to see how much people say that’s a door to a deeper level of what’s really living in them. When you can hear these expressions, try asking questions like:

  • What do you mean?
  • Can you tell me more about that?
  • When does that most often happen?
  • What's that like for you?

With practice, you’ll start to connect with people and enjoy your sales conversations in ways that would have never happened otherwise.

One thing you’re likely to discover in the process, though, is how often people deflect or avoid answering the question you’ve asked. When people answer a different question than the one you’re asking, notice it and find a way to ask the same question even a slightly different way—with as much real care as you can muster. Just because people aren’t accustomed to someone being interested in them doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile to learn how to enter their reality and connect with them there. They may be surprised and even a bit uncomfortable, but they’ll appreciate it, whether they express it to you or not.

If you’re not satisfied with the sales results you’re getting—if you and/or your salespeople aren’t connecting with enough of the prospects you get in front of—then do yourself a favor and assume there’s something you’re not creating in your sales conversations. Connecting with prospects means putting your reality aside long enough to meet your prospects where they are. Everything you want to accomplish in your business depends on it.

Ilene Frahm

Written by Ilene Frahm

Ilene joined EMyth in 1982 and partnered with Michael Gerber in building the company during their 17-year marriage. Over that time, she collaborated with Michael on The E-Myth Revisited as his editor and publishing agent, as well as on a number of his other books. Ilene worked ON EMyth not just IN it, making it possible for her to retire as EMyth’s President in 1999 while continuing to serve as the company’s board chair, a position she still holds. In 2020, Ilene returned to company operations as its CEO to support a new executive team, and everyone in the company at every level, in their leadership. Since her return, Ilene has created an original, customer-centered approach to sales and coaching, Uncommonly Genuine™ Engagement, which is designed to help small business owners open to their blindspots so they can grow in their leadership. She lives in Gig Harbor, Washington with her husband, Gerrit.