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Why we talk about vulnerability in sales

September 3, 2020

Say the word "vulnerability" and what comes to mind? At the moment, it may well be the viral TED talk by Brenee Brown, or her sequel Netflix special. Applying the concept to the business world, you will find the focus squarely on leadership, where expressing vulnerability might lead to more authentic connections at work; dropping the professional facade that may, in many cultural contexts, actually inhibit productive working relationships. But how often do you hear talk of vulnerability in sales?

To be clear, we don't mean vulnerability as a show of weakness in some deadlocked negotiation, where the high power player can move in and close the deal on their terms. We mean quite the opposite. Because, as it turns out, revealing a little vulnerability is just about the strongest and most human thing you can do.

Sales is a human business

The image of the polished, slick salesperson, brimming with confidence and an answer for everything is something that hasn't done many favors for the field of sales. On top of that, this is education, and education is deeply emotional. In sales, we know our product or service, but we also care deeply about the experience. The prospective student we bring into a course is making a decision that will affect the rest of their life, and we should all take that responsibility seriously. So how can those of us in sales really work in a more, well...human way?

Let your guard down

Step into the shoes of the person you are talking to. They have genuine concerns and they want to make sure this choice is the right one. In their place, what would you prefer: a salesperson who tells you they don't know the answer or someone who is clearly trying to pretend they do. If you don't know something, just be honest about that. You can always find out and get back to them, even if that means not coming to an agreement that day. The other person will thank you for it and see that you are genuinely trying to help. Even just making authentic small talk can help. Heather Baldwin gives the example of admitting that "it's been a tough day today" can build trust and empathy right away. However, this is something Harvard don't recommend if you are the one holding all the power, as it can seem like manipulation. It is appropriate in a sales conversation, for example, but not in an academic admissions decision.

Something we touched on in our article about involving the academic team in education branding, is that we need to have the conversation around what we really mean by these "business-like" words. The word "sales" may sometimes not sit well with the admissions team or the education counselors, but it is important that we all understand what is meant by that. Education is emotional, and human, and whether we use the word "sales", "experience" or "process", we are aligned with the same objective; providing learners with the best quality experience possible at all stages in their journey, and making sure that the institution grows and thrives at a sustainable level. Our purpose is the same.

Own any mistakes

We've all been there; giving wrong information can easily happen when offers are constantly changing, courses get modified and a hundred other things. The important thing is to correct it as quickly as possible. Call the person back and let them know what the facts are. It's important not to deflect blame for the mistake, even if it wasn't your fault. A simple "I got that wrong" will be enough; people just want to know that the information their decision is based on is solid.

Be honest about challenges

Vulnerability is authenticity. People want to connect on a real and meaningful level in any interaction. For example, if the institution you work with is priced higher than the other options around you, be open about that. The person you are talking to certainly knows that, so glossing over it will make it feel like a pain point. Similarly, if you're new to the role, or learning a new CRM and can't find the lead information, just say that. These things are not an expression of weakness; you are revealing yourself on a human level and that builds trust.

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It's O.K. to walk away

Sometimes, it's just not a good fit. Whether we are talking about a new institutional partnership, or admitting a student to a masters program, saying "no" is not something we are often recommended in the sales field. This may feel even more counter intuitive in a time when institutions are trying hard to shore up numbers as a buffer against the instability brought on by the global pandemic. However, getting the wrong person or partnership on board can just bring greater issues further down the line, and that is not good for anyone. Saying "we don't think this is the right solution for you" does not come easy, but pays dividends in the long run.

These moments, as with all windows into vulnerability, are opportunities to learn. How do we reach the people we should really be talking to? How can we feed this into our marketing? Insights like this are worth far more than a simple sale.

Sales leadership in times of crisis

Showing vulnerability is not only of value in external conversations, but inside your team too. At the time of writing, education is experiencing an existential shock to the system. Downplaying that to your team will not help anyone. We can all sense bravado; particularly when it is at odds with what we know to be true. Talk about the challenges, admit you don't have the answers, but promise to fight for the team and do everything you can. Vulnerability doesn't just help individuals connect on a 1:1 level; it can galvanize a whole team.

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NEO Sales Academy

We want our partners to succeed, because education is our passion, and getting it right for each and every student is our mission. Our professionals can facilitate training workshops not only about the nuts and bolts of lead conversion and sales funnels, but about relational, values-based interactions with students.

That's why our Sales Academy is about soft-skills too. NEO Academy will work with your team to build those relationships around efficient and value creating sales processes, based on our years of expertise. For an informal chat about how we can work together, just get in touch.

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