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Small Business Owners Don’t Want to Learn How to Sell

Hiding behind technology doesn’t drive sales—THIS WILL.

May 5th to 11th is National Small Business Week in the United States. For more than 50 years, the U.S. president has issued a proclamation that dedicates the first full week in May to celebrating America’s entrepreneurs and small business owners.

There’s plenty to celebrate. More than half of Americans either own or work for a small business, and those companies create about two out of every three new jobs in the U.S. each year, according to the Small Business Administration (SBA). In fact, 99.7 percent of all U.S. employers are small businesses.

These companies tend to be founded by people with deep expertise in their fields and an inspiring vision for the future. But they often lack one critical business leadership skill. They never took the time to learn how to sell.

The Sales Leadership Gap for Small Biz

Most small business owners founded their companies based on their experience within a certain industry or professional role. Perhaps they came from marketing, IT, product development, finance, consulting, or customer success. But very few came from sales.

It doesn’t matter their gender, geography, or culture. They didn’t learn how to sell in their previous roles. Selling isn’t in their lexicon. In fact, they think sales is a four-letter word.

(Yes, I know it’s five. But it’s easy to understand the confusion, considering how many pushy, arrogant salespeople give the rest of us a bad reputation.)

On the flip side, consider this: 15 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs started out in sales, making it the third most popular background among these successful leaders. Only financiers (31 percent) and engineers (18 percent) outnumber salespeople among top executives.

Still don’t think it’s important to learn how to sell?

The Sales Avoidance Phenomenon

You might be thinking that just because small business owners lack sales experience doesn’t mean they don’t want to learn how to sell. I disagree, because I’ve seen their avoidance in action.

This phenomenon was reinforced for me when I conducted a roundtable at the Watermark Conference for Women. There were four other tables with different topics, and three 25-minute rounds. Participants rotated tables each round, but they only had time to attend three of the five roundtables.

I set up my table with handouts, worksheets, and books. I looked forward to discussing why referrals were the fastest business driver and how to create a measurable, impactful referral sales plan. I waited and waited. Was anyone going to come and learn how to sell by referral?

A few finally did, a few more at round two, and several more at round three. But there was space for 12 people. I looked around and noticed that other tables were full or almost full. I wondered what topic could be more relevant to business development for small business owners than referral selling.

The other topics were:

  • Elevated Pitch: Communicate Your Value in Less Than 30 Seconds
  • Public Service for Small Business Owners
  • Self-Care for the Self-Employed
  • Steps for Start-Ups: Legal Considerations

These are all important considerations for a small business, but without sales, there is no business.

It was then I decided that many entrepreneurs don’t have any interest in sales, or they’re afraid of it. Often, they make a big mistake—hiring a salesperson too soon so they won’t have to learn how to sell. That’s an expensive proposition for any company, let alone a small business.

Why Entrepreneurs Don’t Learn How to Sell

What gets in the way of sales? Why are business owners in such a rush to run away from anything that looks like selling?

It’s called call reluctance, and it affects everyone—even seasoned sales pros. You might think call reluctance only affects cold callers. Actually, no. There’s even more call reluctance when asking for referrals, because it’s the most personal lead generation strategy. We put our reputations on the line and risk being rejected.

One client told me, “I’m not sure of the reason, but I have never been comfortable asking for referrals.” And another, “I think I’ve told you before that I have a mild-to-moderate case of call reluctance. Even warm opportunities I’m following up on create anxiety.”

So, business leaders defer to anything but asking for referrals and spend money on marketing campaigns and cold calling. (Or hiring companies to call for them.)

If this sounds like you, it’s time to call it what it is—call reluctance, or the fear of self-promotion. You don’t want to appear pushy and arrogant by tooting your own horn.

But if you’re a business owner, you should be tooting it. Because you built something from nothing. Because you’re putting in the hard work to bring your vision to life. And because you actually need to sell to stay in business.

In Sales, It’s What You Know and Who You Know

Most business owners don’t realize that they have a large network they can tap into for referrals. Most importantly, they have relationships from past companies. What they also don’t realize is that people will refer them because of the trusted relationships they’ve developed.

It doesn’t matter if your business is new or established. People don’t refer companies, they refer people.

Referrals are the #1 way to expand your business. Get a referral introduction from someone your prospect knows and trusts, and you get the meeting every time. No more struggling to get the right people. No more hoping someone else would “do sales.”

Sales is not a four-letter word, at least not when you sell by referral. Referrals are about the relationships you’ve developed. They’re based on trust, not cold calling. You’re not a pushy and aggressive salesperson, so you won’t come off like one.

As a small business owner, you need to maintain a healthy cash flow and manage your costs. There’s no cost to referrals. Sure, you need to send a thank-you note. You might even send a small gift or make a charitable donation after the fact. But there’s no huge marketing cost and no investment in a costly salesperson. You will need to hire a salesperson at some point when your business can afford it, and perhaps you have already. But as the company’s leader, you still need to know how to ask for referrals.

Learn How to Sell by Referral

Now’s the time to build your business through referrals. They’re your biggest competitive differentiation. You get in early, build strong relationships, and get the business. My clients report at least a 50 percent conversion rate from prospect to client, and most say it’s more than 70 percent.

Think of the impact asking for referrals could have on your business—while still protecting your cash flow and increasing sales. Now tell me, are you ready to learn how to sell?

Ready to change the game? Let me know your interest in building your referral skills by entering your name for my Summer 2019 Virtual Referral Selling Workshop Series. Registering only indicates your interest, not a commitment. We will send details by mid-May, and then you can decide.

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