Cultivating Confidence Selling

The secret ingredient to all forms of marketing and business development: confidence

I wanted to atone for the article I wrote earlier this summer on the psychodynamics of selling in copy. This article is also about psychology but it’s about the importance of your confidence (not tricks) in your business development efforts, particularly lead generation.

That article told you how to exploit the deep-seated and instinctive behavioral tics that we homo sapiens have inherited from our homo habilis, homo erectus and other hominid ancestors (thanks ancestors 👊). We cultivated them collectively in our gene pool to survive on this planet. That’s why there’s nothing sillier than humans deriding animals for their instinctive behaviors – as if we were any different!

Anyway, you might find it a bit creepy to think about how to capitalize on our instinctive behaviors through sales and marketing language. But that is exactly what copywriters and other salespeople do. Does this message sound familiar? – “You should get/rent/buy/reserve this now because I have other people interested in it and there’s limited availability“. It works, doesn’t it?

And it’s kind of unsettling to know why it works, then put it to use, then see it in action. 

Which is why I suggested in that article that you should employ genuine goodwill and helpfulness. And be selling something good, something valuable. As David Ogilvy said, “Advertising is only evil when it advertises evil things.

Why confidence matters

Now speaking of valuable, I’ve written before about the importance of strong positioning to your sales and marketing efforts; it increases demand by narrowing the competition. It also deepens your skills through repetition – you’re repeatedly solving the same kind of problem so you get better at it.

So why is it, then, that some services providers run extremely successful firms with bad positioning? In the company-culture world, why are some executives extremely successful despite never having cultivated an area of expertise? Sometimes it’s just connections. Often, they do really good work.

But not always. So how do they do it?

The answer is almost always that they have a ton of the emotion we call confidence or self-belief.

Depending on your personality type, this can come across as charm, swagger, quiet, reassuring confidence, challenging, critical insight, or inspirational leadership. Whatever, the case, there is an outsized connection, for owners of services firm, between confidence and success in business development.

Who uses confidence to generate demand and sell?

Liston Witherill, sales coach to consultants, appeals to consultants desire to “sell with confidence”. But who else needs confidence?

Quick digression on terminology: for me, a lead takes many forms but think of it as a measure of demand for your services. And if you put all this stuff (marketing, lead cultivation, sales, pricing/negotiation) into a big basket, one convenient label for it is business development. A sale, or at least a sale worth pursuing, is an exchange which creates profit, which Harry Browne defines as happiness.

Question for you – do you practice business development? Do you conscientiously increase measurable demand for your services in a way that yields leads – which can be cultivated and turned into sales?

In my mental framework, you do, no matter who you are. Or at least you try, like me (I’m working on it!).

I primarily address what I’m saying to owners of complex services firms but we all sell, every working day, all the time. 

As an employee, you sell the value of your work to increase your job security, your leverage, and other ambitions. It’s disappointing to put time and effort into solutions which are never realized, isn’t it? That’s partly because the sale is incomplete. You exchanged your work but didn’t back validation, just your wages. This is why generating demand for, and “selling”, your solutions is especially important in a large organization, with 100s of cooks in the kitchens.

The last time I had an employee position, about a decade ago, I worked at a firm with 3,000 employees total, 500 people in my division, professional services, and 50 people on my team, digital solutions. Making a name for your services as an employee in that context has a lot in common with establishing a great positioning for your firm as a business owner. But confidence goes a long way. (And let’s be honest, it goes way too far, especially in large organizations. But that’s another story.)

I think this is because it’s almost impossible to express the value of your complex services work in specific terms, partly because they are too complex to describe without a very deep understanding of them (which we’re all working on, right?). And partly because they are unpredictable and imprecise. Which doesn’t mean, “not valuable”.

In the digital marketing services discipline, for example,  the calculation of ROI in sub-disciplines such as “conversion rate optimization” and “search engine optimization” is much more of an abstract concept than you’d think. So-called performance marketing can only be calculated in grand, over-arching terms because it is always impossible to equalize out all variables when comparing one period of time to another, which is the basic method for performance marketing.

The fact is that the entire Universe is in constant flux; time itself is nothing. It doesn’t exist other than as a concept whereby we quantify motion. One thing moves relative to another and – voila – time exists. But you’ll ever recreate those unique conditions; Q1 2018 is never the same as Q1 2019. The Facebook Ads’ “lookalike list” is a great concept, but it’s only that: a concept. It is not alike.

So if you can’t sell services based on precisely quantifiable results, if you can’t prove their worth in advance, where do you turn for leverage in the sales conversation? Positioning is probably the most important strategic factor. But deep confidence is fundamental.

A formula for success in selling services

Another sales coach (and marketing expert and author), Blair Enns, has written extensively on the impact of self-belief in the sales process in particular.

The traditional formula for any kind of work, he will tell you first, for broad context, goes something like this:

P = M x A

Performance is equal to motivation times ability

That formula applies to almost any endeavor. You can even apply it to other species, too. The performance of a dog in finding a buried treat is roughly equal to his motivation (hunger) multiplied by his abilities (smelling and digging).

Motivation is pretty self-explanatory but it’s interesting to imagine what that might look like. Drayton Bird writes about doing his best work in his early 40s after he had lost everything at a prior business and staked all of his remaining money in a “startup” advertising agency. He had no plan B. Meanwhile, he had a family to support, a reputation to protect, and only one client… He describes his prevailing emotional state during all this as desperation. Later his agency was acquired by Olgivy & Mather and he became well known for this craft.

The more desperate you are, the better you are likely to do.
– Drayton Bird

Now some dogs are desperate whereas others are well-fed. Some just love the game of treasure-hunting. So there are many kinds of motivation but if you’re desperate, leverage that.

To bring this around from dogs digging up our backyards to professional services, the abilities part of this equation is exactly where positioning comes into play. The narrower and better cultivated your positioning, the greater your perceived, and probably de facto, abilities.

But this formula gets most interesting when we introduce the self-esteem into it. This entire article is about that one little variable.

SP = M x A x SE

Sales Performance is equal to Motivation times Ability times Self-Esteem

So there you have it: selling complex services to other businesses is a product of your drive, your positioning-based ability, and your confidence, confidence in yourself and the rest of what you’re selling.

That confidence is what makes it possible to name pricing that reflects the true value of your services.

And if we don’t name the right price we probably won’t get it. And then both sides lose, because you’ll never, ever do your best work unless you’re getting a fair price. Your compensation is a token of gratitude for the help you’re providing.

Confidence will allow you to guide your client towards expressing the proper amount of gratitude. 

How to develop confidence in the value of the services you provide

Everything we’ve talked about so far begs the question, how do you cultivate that confidence, that “self-esteem”?

There are essentially two ways, which I’m going to break down in a second:

  • Deeply-held beliefs 
  • Options 

I think we’ve covered the deeply held beliefs quite a bit, but I’ll restate them as the outcome of your natural and cultivated skills and talents as applied to your market positioning. That creates beliefs.

There’s a hack for strengthening your hold on those beliefs, though: writing, or let’s just call it self-expression.

Experts write.
– Blair Enns

If you express your thinking about what you do in some way, you may deepen your belief in it (as long as you actually have something of value to provide). So I don’t care how you write or otherwise express yourself, but this is the how.

Maybe you dictate into your phone or computer. Maybe you have a conversation with your colleagues and record it. Maybe a private journal, maybe a public weblog, maybe you draw diagrams. Maybe you constantly do recorded webinars. But there is something about getting those thoughts outside of your head, and into some other dwelling. It will let you pick out the good things from the rest, refine them, and use them to generate and sell demand for your services.

Your self-expression can also double as content marketing, which confers long-term lead generation benefits if done properly.

Let’s talk about options too, because, without them, your deeply held beliefs have no purchase.

“Options” sounds like lead generation, lead flow, but there’s more to it than that. Blair Enns talks about three kinds of options that matter to business development outcomes: clients, leads, and money in the bank.

  • Clients generally means good client relationships, but mediocre or even bad ones will do. There is something about currently being engaged that changes how you present yourself. You are busy. You are not undermined by your own idle hands. A decent substitute for client engagement is structured lead generation such as content marketing or outbound email marketing.
  • Leads, which again, I define as quantifiable units of demands. The key here is that the lead materializes in the form of what I’d call a lead flow. A lead flow should be steady, reliable, and of sufficient volume to create more opportunity than you can respond to. The goal of lead generation is to create a steady and reliable flow of worthwhile conversations.
  • Money in the bank. Because you are selling complex services, as opposed to widgets, their value is closely related to what’s fair. There are few objective pricing measures for your services and that can result in their value being called into question, at which point you may undervalue your own services because you don’t have enough money in the bank and you sense a chance to fix that problem. 

Of course, part of the money solution here lies in finance, which as about far from an area of specialization for me as ballet dancing. Remember that this is an entirely relative question.

What matters, therefore, is not how much money is in your firm’s bank account, and by extension your own, but whether that amount of money is appropriate for your businesses, and your own, financial health. Your risk tolerance comes into play a little but the questions is, do you have control? There is a reason why Ramit Sethi doesn’t accept coaching students who have credit card debt. 

If you have the right amount of money on hand, that will translate to tangible confidence and express itself in your sales and marketing, including that crucial moment when price is negotiated.

When you put it all together, you get not just beliefs, but a (great) feeling, an emotion: confidence. 

In conclusion, business confidence cultivation is an essential practice

Cognitive behavioral therapists are right: emotions are determined by beliefs, and beliefs are determined by actions. And vice-versa. And, yes, there is a virtuous cycle here. The key is to determine what actions to take. 

Let’s recap some prime candidates:

  • Making difficult decisions about who you solve problems for – and who you don’t (positioning)
  • Deepening your insight into your services and your clients through self-expression
  • Building a structured set of lead generation systems
  • Being in control of your personal finances, whatever that means to you and your business

Building true confidence using methods like this is a long game but a crucial one. What if you need to act fast and put money in your account. I also have a very particular opinion: I believe that of everything I’ve talked about here, the surest way to business development success is reliable and consistent lead flow, through systematic lead generation. Nothing builds your confidence like knowing, during a sales conversation, that another such conversation is right around the corner. That’s how I think of lead flow.

But it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. So how about you, is this is a long game or a short one? And what’s the most effective way for you to build your business development confidence?