Sometimes You Have To Sell

When contending for a job, a project, staffing, funding, or a new customer, your argument may be factual and logical but, ultimately, a losing effort. Some of the most important decisions for your team, company, and career will depend on your ability to present yourself and your ideas passionately and persuasively. You need to sell.

You should sell only that which you will honestly strive to achieve. Your audience needs to see the vision and hear the commitment in your words—and then, when you have made a pledge, you must honor it, even if it’s a stretch.

Selling does not come naturally to me. In interviews, this is an area I point to as a weakness I need to address. I am an engineer at heart; I like to be succinct, accurate, and logical. This is how I code—and how I communicate best. But sometimes, I have to step outside my engineering comfort zone and sell.

Some of the lessons I have learned on how and when to sell, and how to approach the issue:

  • Identify the situation. The key is knowing when you must be persuasive and when you must be objective. For instance, when making long-term plans with executives or investors, champion aspirational goals, rather than purely pragmatic plans. But when creating concrete engineering plans with your team, favor reliable, realistic assessments.
  • Sometimes you need to play it safe; sometimes you need to take a chance. If you are selling, there is probably risk involved. If so, represent the potential upside to get others to buy into the risk.
  • When selling, stress the positives. Do this passionately. If you don’t believe what you are saying, no one else will.
  • Bring up only the necessary negatives. Don’t try to fool anyone, but avoid shooting yourself in the foot. In a selling situation, you usually need to get a commitment now and can work out the details later.
  • Confidence is key. You will get questioned, doubted, and criticized. Keep cool and confident and stick to your message. If necessary, you can come back later with more information or a better rebuttal. If you fold when you should be selling, “later” will never happen.
  • As with any conversation, know your audience. Give them confidence in your message by talking to them in the language they understand. Different people need to hear different things. Avoid relaying the message you want to give; rather, deliver the message your audience needs to hear…
  • If possible, establish your credibility and track record ahead of time. Anticipate your target audience and build your reputation with them. If you will be working with many people, try to establish an overall reputation and arrange for appropriate referrals or reference customers. Even better, co-opt folks as allies! If you are selling to someone with whom you have already established a measure of trust, you are halfway home.
  • Practice. Selling is a skill you improve with repetition. There are books (and blogs) on this topic. Find a coach. Consider working with someone on your sales team—they are experts at this. One book you may want to check out is: The Art of Woo, by Shell and Moussa.

The need to sell can come up out of the blue. Many a time I have been dragged into an exec’s office and told something like: “This guy claims his team can do X twice as well in half the time.” The truth (or otherwise) of the claim is irrelevant if I can’t represent my team accurately, immediately, and convincingly. Reread the bullet point above about practice: Practice selling so you do it well when the time comes.

The school of hard knocks has taught me this lesson. Sometimes, you have to sell.