217: Is Sales Natural or Learned?
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Is there one way to do sales? Should you model your sales abilities against another person? What if you do not share their personality? In this episode, Steli and Hiten discuss whether sales is natural or learned. Listen in as they share their own experiences in sales and what defines a successful salesperson. Hiten and Steli also give their take on whether or not you can be the best salesperson in the world.
Time Stamped Show Notes:
- 00:05 – Today’s episode is about sales – is it natural or learned?
- 00:48 – People have a false impression that they have to be like Steli to be good at sales
- 01:20 – Based on Hiten’s experience, sales is a learned skill because it is just about communication
- 02:16 – There is no natural sales persona someone has to have in order to be good at sales
- 02:31 – Steli says sales can be learned, but there may be natural traits that people have that can help them
- 02:58 – Even introverts can learn the basics to communicate well and be effective in selling
- 03:38 – You do not have to perform better than other salespeople, you just have to do good for your own purposes
- 04:53 – Being loud or communicative also has it risks in terms of sales
- 05:11 – They can be overwhelming to people and not know when to listen
- 05:38 – Introverts also have positive traits they can bring into sales such as listening well
- 07:07 – Hiten learned about sales when he had to raise money for the first time and failed
- 08:38 – In Hiten’s consulting business, it was his co-founder, Neil, who was doing the sales
- 08:55 – Hiten realized sales is about compelling someone to believe in you
- 09:14 – Hiten had to raise money again from investors for Kissmetrics and was successful
- 10:21 – Hiten learned a lot about sales from Ben, who was the first VP of Sales for Kissmetrics
- 11:03 – Hiten realized that sales is present in all interactions and it is about the communication, exchange, and also providing value to people
- 11:34 – The best sale is when you are able to build a relationship with another person
- 13:06 – Steli ran a sales process on a vendor
- 14:00 – Steli says sales is result driven communication
- 15:22 – People are always selling, you just need to get better at it
- 16:24 – Shortcuts are a waste of human potential and energy and this is the same in sales
- 17:33 – Steli says people have the misconception that they have to be like him to be good in sales
- 18:13 – Steli shares how his friend, Patrick, is his opposite when it comes to personality
- 19:21 – Patrick was in a meeting with a company founder that he wanted as a customer for his startup
- 20:03 – Patrick asked the founder if he knew Steli; he also told him Steli would not allow him to walk away without asking the founder if he could be their customer
- 20:49 – The founder agreed to be his customer
- 21:07 – It was not easy for Patrick’s personality to do the sale, but he was able to close it
- 21:33 – Steli says you may not become the best person at sales, but that you can always get better at it and be effective in sales
- 22:08 – Hiten offers an alternative belief—“I do not believe that everyone cannot be the best salesperson in the world”
- 22:32 – As long as you’re getting results, you ARE the best
- 23:04 – End of today’s episode
3 Key Points:
- Being good at sales is a learned skill.
- Sales is result driven communication.
- You do not have to fit a certain personality type to be great in sales; just know that you can always work to improve yourself in this area.
Hey everyone, this is Steli Efti.
And this is Hiten Shah.
And in today’s episode of The Start-up Chat, we’re gonna talk about sales. The question that we want to explore today is is sales natural or learned? This is a question I get quite often and this is also one of the things I like the least about all the compliments and nice things people say about me. Which is that I think that often times when people hear me, especially on stage, they falsely get the impression that they would have to be as outgoing and as loud and as colorful as I am to be good in sales. And nothing could be further from the truth. I just want to talk about this selling, is it natural? Is it learned? What is it? Can I learn how to be good at sales? Or do I have to be born with it? Is it kind of a gift, or something like that? I know that you have a bunch of thoughts on this topic as well.
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I’ll throw it out there and start and I’m curious what you have to say. Based on my experience of working with founders and even their teams as well as in my own companies, if somebody, I feel like sales is just like anything else, where if somebody is really focused on learning the core principles of it, they can learn it. I say that because to me sales is very much just communication. It’s just like anything else. If you’ve never been on a date, you go on a date and you communicate and you figure out what dating’s like. It’s just like sales. If you’ve never sold anything before, you just go do it and then you learn what it’s like and then eventually, especially with things that are business oriented like sales, unlike relationships, I know there’s courses and learnings you can have on dating and stuff, I’m sure. I’ve heard about some of those, I have been literally been married since I was in my early 20s and dating since I was 15 the same person. But anyways, to me, yeah, you can learn it. You don’t have to be born with it. I don’t think there’s a natural sales person sort of persona that somebody has to be in order to be in sales or do sales.
I couldn’t agree more with you. I do believe that selling can be learned. I also do believe that there are certain talents or certain personality traits that some people have, that will make it easier for them, to sell or to be good at it. I do think that there’s a little bit of both, like nature and nurture in it. I do think even if you are the most anti-social, even if you’re somebody that is very, very introverted and does not like to interact with people, has difficulty communicating effectively with others, especially in person. Even if you have real challenges with that, I think that you can learn all the basics to communicate well and I think you can learn to be really effective in selling. If you compete with somebody directly who has a lot of natural talents and gifts, that loves people, that somebody tha is very charismatic, somebody that is very caring, that connects easily with people, that people are drawn to and that person learns the basics as well, that person works as hard as you are, yeah, it’s gonna be difficult to perform better. But you don’t have to perform better than the best sales person on this planet. That should not be the benchmark. You just need to be performing well for your purposes, whatever it is that you’re trying to sell. You just need to be getting better in it. Especially if you’re a founder, even with an engineering background, learning the basics of effective communication and learning how to sell, will help you in so many ways. Not just about closing customers, but attracting talent, attracting investment, getting your story out there. Just it’s gonna benefit you in all walks of life because really, any time you communicate you’re selling in one way or another. So, I want to talk about some of the, so, so I think we both agree, sales is not totally natural. I think I added to it that I do believe there’s certain personalities that might thrive, but I want to highlight one thing. Because I think usually when people think about the ideal personality composition for somebody that’s good at sales, we always think about loud people. People that like to talk, people that like to be social. People that like tension, people that are very competitive. That kind of a very loud character. If you’re the opposite of that, being very loud has some benefits, being very communicative has some benefits, but it really has also a ton of risks in terns of selling. These people, they need to learn to listen. They need to learn how to shut up. They need to learn how to use that intensity of their personality at the right moment but how to not overwhelm people. So they also have challenges and if you’re a quieter person, maybe you have to learn how to be a little louder, maybe a little bit more social, but you have a lot of benefits. You might be just an amazing listener. You might be more thoughtful. You might be more caring. When you say things, they might carry more weight because people know that you’re not just talking all day long making tons of promises. So, there’s real benefits and strengths to being that type of personality that I think those people don’t think of themselves that they have certain strengths if they wanted to learn. They see all these things just as weaknesses and I think that’s absolutely wrong. And yeah, sales can be learned. Now, let’s talk about this a little bit. I’m curious, because you’re always learning. Right? And you are not a sales person but I can speak from experience, you get sales. You get it. You’re a good sales person. If you need to, you can be a very good sales person. You might never think of yourself that way, but you get it. You’re also the type of person, just in general, from my observation, that would never say to himself, “I’m not the type of person that can do x, y, z.” That’s a limiting belief that you would never adopt. So you’re like, “Well sales, sure. It’s simple. I can learn the basics. I can do this. It’s not a problem, anybody can.” Was there ever a time, has there ever been a moment or a period where you learned a ton about sales that kind of changed your mind about it? Were there any kinds of sprints or moments of learning about sales? Or did it just always happen just marketing and sales is always been a blur, you’ve always been learning and you don’t even know how you picked up all that know how? How is your experience been with learning some of the abcs of sales? I’m curious about that.
That’s a great question, thanks for the compliment. I wouldn’t want to say I’m not good at things cuz it’s not good in itself. I probably learned more about sales when I had to raise money for the first time and I failed at Crazy Ed. And that was because we just failed at it. We, there’s a whole bunch of reasons. Some of them were just our business and the market timing, others were our own pitch and all that. And now I’ve learned that I could have pitched that business in a much different way and actually raised money at that time, no problem. So I think for me, I actually learned it first by having to sell investors or fail at selling investors on the opportunity to invest in my company. The reason I say that is, that company was specifically, all sales were happening online. We didn’t have to talk to people to sell. Cuz we’re talking about more like inside sales and talking to people, in order to sell. Because I think the online sales stuff is much more copy marketing product and other things versus when you’re actually having to pick up the phone and get ideally five figure or greater a year deals. Maybe four figure depending on your economics. To me, I learned it then and the reason is, I really didn’t understand sales in the same way because we used to have a consulting business from 2003 onwards. I was actually not doing most of the sales, I would get involved in helping out and thinking through it, but that was more selling services, which to me is a lot different than selling software, in a lot of ways. In a lot of ways, it’s similar. I never thought of us having to do sales. One of the reasons is my co-founder Neal would just do the sales. He, I think you would put on the spectrum of more natural, maybe like you, if you want to look at it like that than myself. That I was a natural in sales, like I was born selling, kind of thing, I think both of you are much more born selling than I was. That was probably my first shot, when I realized I failed at it and I realized that it’s just communication. It’s story, it’s compelling someone to really believe in you. And then after that, at Kiss Metrics, for the longest time we actually didn’t hire a sales person, and then eventually we did. I learned more about sales at that point and it just brought me back to, we had to raise money for that business too and we were successful. So I think I got good at that sales process, if you want to call getting money from investors as a sales process, you can. I don’t really look at it like that, but that is where I think a lot of sales principles do apply.
I do think so, yeah.
Then when having to hire a sales person, a sales leader in the company, in a lot of ways we screwed it up. Not because of the person, actually the first sales person at Kiss Metrics is this gentleman named Ben Sardella and I think the world of him in so many ways, and I think the feeling is mutual. I just bumped into one of his team members at a coffee shop today, ironically. He was like, “Hey, are you Hiten?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m Hiten.” And he’s like, “Do you know Ben?” And I’m like, “Yeah, of course I know Ben.” And he’s like, “Oh yeah, I work at Data Dives.” I was like, “Oh cool.” Apparently Ben’s saying something about me somewhere cuz I didn’t know this person.
I can tell you for firsthand experience, Ben loves you. Anytime I’ve talked to Ben in person, and I’ve met him multiple times at different events, he always talks incredibly highly of you. And how could he not? But yeah, the feeling is definitely mutual. It’s definitely mutual.
Yeah, I learned a ton about sales from him and a lady named Jodi Maxhen that actually introduced me to him. Then we hired him, he was the first VP of Sales at Kiss Metrics. I think he was the best. We were just really young and there was all kinds of things just going on in the business. He stuck through all of it. To me, I learned it then, but honestly as I think about what I learned from Ben and executing sales and understanding all the things, I just realized that we’re selling all the time. Especially if you’re a founder, even if you’re inside of a company as an engineer, you’re selling something. You’re selling your skills, you’re selling your code. Once I really unlocked that sales is not a bad thing, sales is really just something we’re doing all the time. Every time you communicate, there is a process going on, an exchange, I almost think sales has this thing where it’s called sales and you’re selling people on stuff, and all this stuff. And even sales implies discounts, just because when things are on sale. So this word is weird, in my mind. At the end of day, we’re communicating and trying to provide value to each other. That’s what we’re doing in pretty much every interaction we have or we’re trying, in some cases, we’re just trying to extract value and all that kind of stuff. But at the end of the day, the best sales is when you’ve built a relationship with the person on the other end. Right? We’re doing that constantly with everybody we talk to. I think that was a really big deal for me because that’s why, right now, I can’t tell you that raising money is a sales process. I can’t even tell you that selling software should be considered a sales process, the way that we’ve been taught. I’ll punch line this so that you can give your perspective cuz I’m sure you’ve got a lot to say about this, obviously. But the punch line for me is this, in the early days of sales, people just weren’t inundated with sales people calling them or emailing them or whatever. It was just easy to use these very basic, simplistic psychological relationship building oriented tactics and get away with doing sales. I mean like back in the day, like when sales was first invented, I don’t even know the history, maybe you do. But this is just what I remember. And now, it’s like everybody’s selling. You’re selling all the time. Founders have to sell. One of my biggest lessons was like every time I was talking to a customer or a perspective customer or an investor or anybody, I’m literally doing what most people would call sales. I’m communicating, I’m sharing. I think that the tactics and the tricks, they don’t work. That’s why I actually love, loved your perspective on it Steli. Because when I hear a tactic or trick from you, it isn’t a trick or tactic. It isn’t something that I feel like is scamming the other person. It is more so, language and words. The thing I was super impressed by is what we talked about in a previous episode recently, when you were talking about how you literally were essentially running a sales process on a vendor that screwed up. While in a conversation, you set him up, and then you got him to admit something and then essentially he played himself as would say. Because in that, that was sales to me. That was you convincing him of something, getting information from him, and then basically, in a very respectful way, I think you did it greatly, based on how you described it, you threw it back at him. To me, that was a sales process. You had a goal in mind. “I’m gonna figure out whether this guy is being genuine and honest with me.” And then you went for it. And so to me, that’s communication. You communicated really effectively, and all sales is communication. So I’m gonna stop with that.
Yeah, no, that’s beautiful. I thank you and my definition is really very close to yours. It’s funny. To me, sales is result driven communication. It’s when, whenever-
I like that.
Whenever I communicate and I have an end goal in mind, and this doesn’t have to be, “Give me your money.” It could be just, “Agree with my idea.” Or, “Be honest with your feedback around what I’m doing.” Whatever I’m trying to convince another human being to move forward in some kind of a way, whatever that is, whatever the conversion is, I’m selling. So sales, to me, I think it’s a cliché, but really a significant amount of things that are happening in life are sales. If you have children, they’re constantly selling you on things. And you, as a parent, are constantly selling them. You do it with tonality and you do it with your body language. I always love how grandmothers are pitching certain types of foods to little children, right? And they get all sweet in their voice and all overly salesy cuz they want the little children to like the broccoli or whatever it is. There’s a constant exchange of communication because the little kids, they want the parents to do things for them, or they want to get certain things, and vice versa. So it doesn’t matter if you communicate with the opposite or the same sex, if you communicate with another person because you’re attracted to them, if you communicate with your children, in the family, in business, whenever you communicate and there is a purpose, there’s a result you’re trying to generate or you’re trying to move towards to with the other human or humans, you’re selling. Because we do so much of it, we might as well get good at it. Because you’re doing it either way. You might think you’re not selling, but you are selling, you might just be really bad at it. I think if a major part of what you do in life is selling, communicating and trying to convince people of your ideas, of the things you want the world to move towards, then getting better at it is a good thing for the world and it’s a good thing for you. I’ll give you, I’ll give you … To touch on something else you said before, a big part of the advice I give around sales, and around business as well, and we had discovered this multiple times and laughed, on this very podcast about this, is that a lot of our advice is very fundamental. It’s stuff that’s been true for a really long time and will still be true many, many years from now. We’re not really the heckity, heckity type of people that are like, “Here’s a new little trick that works now but will stop working in two days. But you need to take advantage of it until everybody else is.” That shit is just like, that hunt for short cuts in life, and for what’s fashionable and for what everybody else is doing, that is one of the biggest waste of human potential, time, and energy, right? So most of our advice is very fundamental and that’s the same thing for my sales advice. My sales advice is always very basic shit that will always work. But it’s not difficult to do, it might be emotionally challenging but it’s not very difficult to do. But I don’t have really easy answers for people. One of my favorite examples, I use a common friend of our, Patrick McKenzie, Petty 11, for those of you out there that are hekause folks, I use him often in my presentations. I actually have like just a massive picture of him, the most unflattering picture I could find, sorry Patrick. But the, my whole point is, I bring up this example often times because when I’m on stage and I’m screaming at people and I’m high energy and people are loving it and they are inspired, maybe, and the moment. That’s great. That feels great to me, that feels great to some people in the audience, that’s awesome. But I’m really aware and worried about the distance I have from the audience because of my personality and the potential for people to misinterpret me as like that’s how, that’s the only way to be successful in trying to sell. If I don’t put on a leather jacket and scream at people, I will never succeed. Or I can never do this like Steli, I’m not that type of person, so sales is not for me. I think that that would be, if that’s even just one person gets that impression when I speak about sales, then I made the world a worse place, not a better place. This is something that really worries me and I’m really aware that I can come across that way. So I always bring up, or often bring up, Petty 11 as a counter example to myself. And I go, “All right, I know some people here, they look at me and they go, I need to buy a leather jacket or I need to be more Greek or this isn’t for me, I’m not that type of person.” Sales is not, like I have a certain personality, but you can be dangerous in selling and you can be a completely different person than I am.” I bring up Petty 11 cuz he is, in person, very different from me. The way he dresses, the way he communicates is much more of an engineer, much more of a geek, much more introverted, although he’s an amazing storyteller. And he’s great, he’s learned to be a great communicator, but if we stood next to each other, you would not think, “Oh, these people are exactly the same.” You would think these people seem very opposite of each other. I always bring the example how Petty 11 has learned the basics, the abcs of sales, he understands that if he wants to communicate his ideas, if he wants to grow his businesses, he wants to succeed in certain areas, he needs to just understand selling and selling is important to get money, and money is important for business. And he has a very engineer way of thinking about it. I always bring up this one example that I want to share towards the end of this episode, where he had a meeting, I don’t know if I can say which company, but a multi-billion dollar really great, kind of recent, not recent, five year old start-up that is now a really big business, and it’s one of the newer companies that I really admire and I think that’s gonna be the next kind of Google or Amazon or whatever. So this is a very popular service and he was visiting the founder of that company, and back in that day, he was still working on a sort of start-up himself and he wanted to convince that founder to become an early customer. And so they were chatting, they were chatting, they knew each other, they’ve known each other for a long time, and eventually at the end of the conversation, after Patrick had told this CEO about his new idea and what he’s trying to do and all that, he looked at him and he went, “Do you know Steli Efte?” And the founder said, “Yeah, I know Steli.” And then Patrick said, “Well, if Steli Efte was here, he would not allow me to end this conversation without asking you if you’re gonna become a customer.” And then the founder CEO started laughing and going, “Wow, this is so weird of you to say, this is nothing like you.” To which Patrick said, “Yes, that’s why I said, if Steli Efte was here, he would not allow me to leave this meeting without asking you.” It’s just like, in the most stoic way, in the most Patrick, Petty 11 way possible, in terms of his delivery, so dry and then the founder CEO of the billion dollar company looked at him, laughed again and said, “Yeah, sure, all right. We’re gonna be a customer. I’m happy to be an early customer of yours.” And to me this is, obviously I’m honored that he used me in that meeting that I was able to help, but I love that story because it’s somebody being incredibly effective in sales, and asking for the close at the end of the meeting, although it’s not in his typical personality. And he even went just one step ahead and just pretended I’m in the room and said, “Steli would say this to you.” This is, to me, just one of those examples that I like to share with people and say you don’t need to be flashy, loud, or anything else. If you just learn the basics of selling and you apply them, it’s gonna benefit your business. Anybody can learn to become better at sales. It’s not a gift. You might not become the best sales person in the world, but you can be a really, really, dangerous, you could be dangerous in selling. You can be effective in it, no matter how introverted or whatever you think is kind of anti-sales you are. As we discovered earlier, and as we both said, you know since a lot of things are really result driven communication, and selling is really nothing else, you might as well get better at it. Communication is really, really important if you want to move the world forward.
There’s only one thing I disagree on. I think we’re gonna end it on this. The thing that I disagree on Steli is that I don’t believe that everyone cannot be the best sales person in the world.
That’s an interesting one.
And the reason I say that is, is sales is like you said, result driven, results driven communication. If sales is results driven communication, as long as I am getting results, I am the best. I think it’s that simple. So, I wouldn’t want people on this, especially on this podcast, to think that they can’t be the best sales person in the world. Cuz the best sales person in the world sells effectively based on results and getting results. And we can all get results if we’re doing sales, regardless of where we come from or what we consider ourselves to be. Look at Patrick. He does it his way, he uses you, in the conversation, and he gets the job done. Is he the best sales person in the world? I would say yes, for him, if he’s effective at his strategy, he is the best sales person in the world for what he is doing.
And that is the final word of this episode. Let’s just wrap it up on this, I have nothing to add to this. Very good.
See you next time.
That’s it from us. See you next time, guys.