Martyn Drake: Like it or loathe it, we all need to build our sales skills

All of us are using sales skills all the time, whether we realise it or not

One of the first things I noticed when I began working with charities was the widespread discomfort with, and in some cases outright antipathy towards, the concepts and language of commerce – most notably the idea of selling.

I’d like to think it’s shifting with time, although in the decade or more that I’ve now worked in and around the sector, I still can’t remember seeing a single job title that contains the word sales, despite the fact that almost half of the sector’s income is earned. 

The real irony though, is that all of us are using sales skills all the time – sometimes proficiently, sometimes much less so, and I’m not just talking about contracted services, or retail, or training and consultancy, I’m speaking about our work in general.

Whether we’re lobbying for change, meeting corporate or major donors, engaging new initiatives with stakeholders, or simply pitching plans to the team or a new idea to the boss, we are all basically selling: our concept, our cause, our organisation, our ideas, ourselves.

We may choose to give if it any number of more palatable monikers – influencing, business development, relationship building, and so forth – but if we want to take advantage of the extraordinary depth of knowledge and technique and skill that’s been developed in the sphere of selling over decades, all we need to do is call it by its name and accept it for what it is.

As Dan Pink put it in his book To Sell is Human: like it or not, we’re all in sales now.

I believe the biggest barrier to accepting that within charity culture is the hackneyed old stereotypical image of salespeople; those ones based on caricatures and our own worst experiences. 

It’s an understandable prejudice, and to be fair, those bad examples of salespeople do exist – hopefully a dying breed, but they’re definitely there, calling you on a Friday afternoon to ask about your life insurance or loft insulation. 

They have one thing to sell, and their plan is to persuade you to want it, or to talk you into submission, whatever works – either way, it’s entirely transactional and serves nobody’s needs but theirs.

By that definition, it’s not surprising it’s anathema to charities. In fact, to any ethically minded individual.

But good salespeople don’t work that way. They listen and ask questions, hoping to understand not just what you want, but why – what’s driving you, what might inspire you, and what they can offer that’s genuinely in your interest to buy, invariably educating you along the way. 

I wrote about this, and about many of the simple practices and behaviours that can improve your ability to sell ethically and successfully, in my last book, The Commercial Charity – still available from all good booksellers, since you ask.

But there are also plenty of other resources and courses that can help you expand your skillset, and become more effective, not just at getting what you need, but at helping those around you get what they need too, because that’s what good sales technique is all about.

And all it takes to access that treasure trove of expertise, is to recognise that selling is an integral, and often essential part of what we all do. And the better we can do it, the more successful we, and our charities and causes, will become.

Surely that’s worth parking our prejudices for.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting


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