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Anyone can learn to sell

Some people are extraordinary salespeople. But it's not because they have an innate knack

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How many times have you heard someone say, “He’s a born salesman”? Or, “She has a gift for sales”?

Unquestionably, some people are extraordinary salespeople. But it’s not because they have an innate knack, or because there is a genetic component behind the skill. It’s simply because they worked hard at honing their skill.

At the same time, selling, as a profession, still suffers from a tarnished image. Playwright Henry Miller’s Death of a Salesman forever tainted the image of salespeople.

Many techies thumb their noses at colleagues who opt to sell their company’s products rather than help build them. Talented programmers who move into technical sales are considered turncoats by some purists.

After more than a half-century of computing, you’d think that kind of archaic thinking would have disappeared. A contemptible thought for many technical people is acknowledging that everyone has latent sales skills that are never exercised.

Not that everyone should try their hand at selling software, computers, routers or subscriptions to a popular technology magazine. But it’s wise to consider new possibilities that can expand career horizons. Selling is one of them.

All of the superstars in the technical world are extraordinary salespeople, whether they acknowledge it or not. What better example than Microsoft’s Bill Gates? One of Gates’ biggest strengths is his ability to invent the future. That takes innovative selling skills. Gates is a visionary who pondered facts and said, “Out of these possibilities, what can come true tomorrow?” Then he committed himself and his company to making it happen. When the PC first appeared in the mid-1970s, there was less than one computer per 1,000 people in the United States, according to the Computer Industry Almanac. In the next 10 years, computer ownership per capita increased sevenfold. Gates played a major part in making that happen. In 1975, he came up with the concept of “a computer on every desk and in every home.” He was going out on a limb by making that prediction. But he was determined to make it happen. Creating the technology that would change the world is one thing, but making the world believe in it took brilliant selling skills.

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Multimillionaire entrepreneur and technology consultant Bill Lohse once said most techies consider selling to be the dark side of the business. “They have a notion of a salesperson as someone trying to manipulate them into buying something they don’t want,” he says. “Techies must understand selling is simply the presentation of an option or a choice so people can say either yes or no.” Lohse launched several small companies and is the former publisher of PC Magazine.

Lohse contends that techies are likely to naturally adapt to selling because it’s a logical and structured process. Technical people have critical attributes of exceptional salespeople, he says. “To be successful, you must believe in and understand your product,” he explains. “Computer scientists, engineers and mathematicians combine idealism, honesty and passion about their work, which are essential elements in convincing someone to buy. The best technical people are structured and logical thinkers, both of which are critical for presenting products accurately.” Once you taste the rewards of selling, a new dimension opens up, according to Lohse.

Techies don’t think they’re cut out for selling because they’ve been weaned on the myth that technical people are inept communicators, according to Jeffrey Gitomer, co-author with Ron Zemke of Knock Your Socks Off Selling.

So what if you are a poor communicator, as well as maybe a curmudgeon and a loner, too? Does that mean you can’t turn yourself around and become a salesperson? Gitomer insists that anyone can change. “Salespeople need outgoing personalities so they can interact with people,” he says. “But, comfortably communicating with people is a learned skill, just like programming is a learned skill.”

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Lohse agrees. “Even supergeek Gates had to learn to be a salesman,” he says. “Selling is an acquired skill.”

Like everything else in life, practice makes perfect. If you think you’ve got what it takes to sell, start off small, Lohse advises. Don’t quit your technical job until you’ve proven you can handle a sales position. Try selling in your spare time to see if you enjoy it. You might be surprised.

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