Busting the myths about salespeople


Welcome back to Leader Talk! In episode 9, we chatted with the remarkable John Arneil, General Manager ANZ at James Hardie.

John is an expert on all things leadership, business, and sales. He specialises in business development management, sales and marketing management, and country management.

One thing that stands out to John about the sales world is the myths and stereotypes associated with the profession. In this article, John explains how sales myths can have harmful repercussions on business and leadership performance. More importantly, he shares tips on how to avoid sales myths getting in the way of a successful business.

Want to learn more? You can read or listen to our chat with John Arneil on YouTube, Spotify, Listen Notes, or Player FM. It’s also available anywhere you listen to your favourite podcasts via Buzzsprout.

Authored by John Arneil, General Manager ANZ at James Hardie.

Whether you’re in sales or not, you’ve probably heard the sales profession being reduced to at least one of these stereotypes: “salespeople are untrustworthy”, “all salespeople lie”, “salespeople are pushy and loud” and so on. After all, aren’t salespeople just commission-driven con artists? As someone with experience in sales, I can confidently debunk these myths about salespeople. Whatever industry you’re in, you’ve most likely experienced some stereotypes about your job, whether they be harsh, glamourised, or just plain false. In this article, I explain my take on how to create a workplace environment that can withstand anything, including negative stereotypes about your profession.

Creating the right environment as leaders
As leaders, it is up to us to create an environment that allows others to thrive. This goes for any sort of leader. For example, teachers may focus on fostering a fun and kind atmosphere suited for early development and learning, and sports coaches might place emphasis on creating an environment of camaraderie and resilience to encourage the best overall team performance. As General Manager ANZ at James Hardie, I consistently strive to create an empowering, supportive, and safe team environment that will bring out the best in everyone.

One way I do this is by ensuring that everyone gets a say in discussions and meetings. As many of you would have experienced, there’s typically a handful of people who tend to keep quiet during discussions, while others are known for being vocal about their thoughts. If you encourage this sort of team environment, you could be missing out on excellent business ideas as the team cannot build upon diversity of thought to deliver innovative plans and better solutions. Encouraging active participation also increases employee morale as it allows team members to get to know each other better while learning more during their engaging discussions. Our team knows that the best idea wins no matter who or where it comes from, which motivates everyone to safely share their thoughts, regardless of their job title.

I encourage active participation in every department, including sales. Often, stereotypes of sales teams prevent them from being actively mentored. For example, there’s a common misconception that salespeople are extroverted, outgoing, and gregarious. Aren’t these prerequisites for a customer-facing role? Not at all. I’ve found that some of the best salespeople are introverts because they are often great listeners and will typically validate thinking with data analysis.

An article by Harvard Business Review found that the best salespeople averaged a 30% lower level of gregariousness compared to below-average performing salespeople. Surprising, right? That’s why I still encourage active participation in sales meetings too, even though many other managers expect their sales employees to be naturally vocal during discussions. By doing so, I’ve encountered an endless stream of innovative ideas and increased team collaboration.

James Hardie’s sales team have exceeded expectations time and time again. Part of this success can be attributed to the supportive and safe environment we strive to achieve at the company. The results of this speak for themselves. Just take Gus Arianto, as an example. When Gus first joined the James Hardie team years ago, he was shy and insecure about sharing his thoughts with the team because he didn’t want to be wrong. It wasn’t long before he realised that James Hardie was a safe and supportive workplace that welcomed a diverse range of thoughts and opinions. As Gus explains, it was the support of his managers and colleagues that led him to open up and become comfortable participating in group discussions. Since his beginnings at James Hardie, Gus has been promoted to Business Development Manager, Sales Manager, State Manager, and is now CEO of Pierlite. Seeing people I’ve mentored, like Gus, continue to grow and succeed in their own lives is one of the highlights of my career. As a leader, there’s nothing that makes me prouder than seeing my team members accomplish amazing things.

Walking the talk and setting clear expectations
In business and personal life, your actions always speak louder than words. While the saying, “walk the talk” may be a cliché, it’s a popular phrase for a reason. This is an especially important mindset for leaders to carry. Making empty promises and listing off values that you don’t demonstrate yourself will drive confusion and disunity amongst your employees often leading to a toxic work environment.

While many people may expect their leaders to provide motivational speeches and monologues about the company’s beliefs and achievements, this is not enough on its own. Actions that align with what you preach is crucial to developing a culture of trust, respect, and loyalty. When people witness how you live by your values and the company’s ethos, business expectations become clear which in turn leads to clarity not only about the “what” we need to achieve but the “how” in terms of cultural standards. This is proven by studies that show how leading by example tangibly increases productivity and service quality.

How to drive profitable revenue growth through your sales team
Whether you want to sell a product or service, salespeople are the middle ground that connects you with your customers. Despite their often negative reputation, salespeople keep businesses and customers connected, and are essential to any business. This doesn’t mean you need to have a dedicated team of sales professionals. Business owners, customer service representatives, and even marketing employees often overlap with sales responsibilities, especially in small to medium-sized businesses. Regardless of what your sales team looks like, investing in a good sales approach can attract more customers, create happier customers, and build stronger customer relationships and brand perceptions.

Throughout my career I’ve often been asked how we have developed such a strong and accomplished sales team. For me, it comes down to a few things, including having a very clear objective or goal that is understood across the team. Ensuring that everyone is on the same page and working towards the same end is key to collective success. This goes hand in hand with clearly outlining the path to success, which is another central aspect of leading a team to the right outcome. I’ve found that a relentless “check and adjust” of the team’s path to success is vital to collective empowerment and productivity. This is especially important in sales as markets are always evolving and the ability of a business to be flexible and adapt is the difference between a growth-on-growth business and one that is not.

There’s a stereotype that salespeople are aggressively competitive and have an “every man for themselves” mentality. This is utterly inaccurate, and leading a sales team based on this stereotype can only create a toxic work culture. The strongest sales teams work together towards a common goal and support each other through day-to-day challenges. A critical way to drive this collaboration further is to recognise the achievements of your sales team. A good salesperson is driven and resilient, meaning that they are constantly seeking new avenues of success and learning from their mistakes. Recognising the achievements of salespeople is essential as it reaffirms their pathway to success and motivates them to continue improving while driving the right team behaviours and culture.

At James Hardie, we host annual Australian business conferences to give awards that recognise the achievements and contributions of the employees who go above and beyond. Any business can benefit from recognising employee achievements, which is clearly demonstrated in a study of 1,500 employees and 1,500 senior decision-makers. This study found that 85% of workers believe managers and leaders should offer praise and appreciation for good work, and 70% of workers report that motivation and morale would improve if managers simply showed more appreciation for employee efforts.

Approaching sales with limited resources
Not every business has expendable sales training or an employment fund. This is especially the case for small to medium-sized businesses that often don’t have the resources to hire a dedicated sales team or to invest in sales programs for their staff. However, there are several strategies that can revolutionise the sales performance of any business, big or small.

If you’re a small business owner, chances are, you are responsible for your business’s sales. Many small business owners do not come from a sales background and often find themselves out of their comfort zone when pitching their products or services to potential customers. One of the best things you can do in this situation is to develop an in-depth understanding of your target audience and how your business can serve them. Ask yourself questions such as who is my ideal customer? Who are we as a business and what do we really offer? What is our unique product or service proposition?

Your ideal customer is somebody who values what your business does over others. If you can understand that person on a meaningful level, you can adapt your approach accordingly and increase your success rate. In essence if you can reach your ideal customer, you’ll be able to close the deal based on your deep understanding of how your business is valuable to them.

Like everything, this is easier said than done. How exactly are you supposed to find your ideal customer? A good place to begin is to start with a group of people in a given geographical area, and then narrow this group down based on your business’s unique set of offerings. Ideally, you and your market will present win-win opportunities, where you offer value to your market, and they offer value to you. While some people in your target market will already be looking for a business like yours, others will have a latent need for what you can offer. Therefore, it’s important to also understand the audiences who have an underlying need for your products and services and approach them differently to customers who already value your business.

Regardless of how much market research you conduct on your customers, it’s likely that you’ll encounter mistakes and oversights the first few times you approach sales. This is completely normal and not something to be discouraged about! The most important thing to do here is to learn and improve. Whether you’re a small business or a corporation, the power of PDCA (plan, do, check, adjust) is undeniable. Following this learning process encourages you to recognise what you could do better and adjust your practices accordingly. When you seek opportunities to continually check and adjust your sales process, your business can only come out stronger.

If your small business grows, you may be considering hiring sales employees. Having a dedicated sales team can allow you to bring in fresh thinking and skill sets that you don’t currently have in the business. As someone with broad sales experience this is the advice I give to anyone looking to hire a salesperson – do not hire based on your stereotypical perceptions of what a salesperson should be. Many people choose to hire overly talkative, extroverted salespeople based on the stereotype that you must be outgoing and loud to work in sales. However, salespeople who do not let others get a word in when they are talking are often poor listeners and struggle to get things done.

It is commonly thought that salespeople do all the talking when it comes to closing business deals, yet the best salespeople listen to each customer’s unique situation to service them best. By listening to your customers, you provide more value to them by aligning their needs and wants with what your business can offer. Rather than hiring salespeople based on sales stereotypes, hire people based on their drive, intelligence, resilience, discipline, and listening ability. The best salespeople don’t blindly sell things to the customer, instead they serve the customer with only what they need that you can provide.

Whether you’re a small business owner or the CEO of a corporation, it is essential to equip your sales team with the tools they need to service your customers best. As leaders, we are responsible for creating a supportive and rewarding environment that allow our teams to thrive and withstand the negative stereotypes that may come with their job. What do you think about the stereotypes of salespeople? What stereotypes have you heard about your profession? Feel free to leave a comment!