S ales skills have become an important part of working life - and not just for those in double-glazing or classified advertising. Many of us, however, are held back by British disdain both for selling and being sold to. Alison Dawkins, one of the UK's leading sales trainers, thinks it is about time we changed our minds.
The ability to sell yourself and your ideas is important for anyone eager to justify a request for better training, to persuade superiors to appreciate your ideas, win promotion or build your responsibilities at work, she explains. The trouble is that unless you actively choose a career in sales, structured advice and training in how to sell effectively are hard to find.
Few pick a career in sales. Many fall into it by chance, or out of desperation. "This has much to do with British people's attitude to selling and salespeople," Dawkins believes. "There's still a widespread reluctance to be pushy, and a mistrust of people who push others to buy."
Most people still think of sales as something "dirty", she adds. "To some, sales people are held in worse esteem than traffic wardens. But that's only the half of it. When it comes to selling, many older people are too polite to be pushy, while many younger people are reluctant because they feel it's `uncool'."
In spite of this, people like being sold to in the right way, she says. "People buy things most days, and if what you are selling is what the recipient needs or wants, your service becomes a valuable part of their business."
Unsurprisingly, Dawkins has a natural aptitude for selling. "My mother was an insurance sales person - I grew up in that sort of environment." Even so, she admits to having suffered from a surprising degree of timidity when she first started work: "For a while, I was even too nervous to make an appointment at the doctor's - the receptionists were so fierce."
All that has changed now, though. Today, Dawkins is a director of Mongoose, the largest and fastest-growing media agency in the UK. A qualified sales trainer, she oversees a 30-strong sales team selling advertising space for numerous publishing companies, including Gruner & Jahr.
Unusually for a media sales business, Mongoose's staff turnover is low, and business is growing fast. Turnover has risen from pounds 4m in 1990 to pounds 9m last year - a figure that is expected to double by late 1999. It is down to a unique approach to selling and staff motivation, Dawkins claims - an approach that may also have resonance for workers in a broad range of other sectors of business.
"People still think sales is a dry old world. By the same measure, recent graduates starting work rarely consider how better to sell themselves," she says. To understand how to put sales techniques to use for yourself, it is important to understand how the sales business's approach to selling has recently evolved.
"The essence of selling has changed radically since the Eighties. Professional salespeople today are more consultative and collaborative - it's not about pushing, but about empathising and understanding. Where once salespeople were hunters, today they're farmers. The emphasis now is on cultivating long-term relationships."
This shift was prompted by the recession. Clients became more cautious and salespeople had to adopt subtler tactics to persuade them to buy. It is an approach that has become dominant in the Nineties; most experts in the field now acknowledge that "consultative selling" is the most effective way to sell.
"Things will never revert back to the `bully boy' approach of the mid- Eighties," Dawkins says. "Today's best salespeople realise that selling is a two-way process, a communication that relies on listening and understanding from each side.
"The salesperson must understand what are his or her client's needs and tailor the approach to meet these requirements. It is important to find this out before you start to talk about what you can provide." The emphasis in any sales pitch should be on the benefits to the recipient, she adds. Important words to remember are "empathy", "understanding" and "engagement". All of which are key principles for any worker looking to influence boss or colleagues by persuading them to "buy" a viewpoint, suggestion or idea.
Applying a basic understanding of sales and sales techniques to such daily workplace occurrences can significantly boost the effectiveness of our communication and self-promotion, Dawkins believes.
Our ability to sell ourselves effectively is inevitably shaped by our backgrounds, experiences and confidence. But basic guidelines can boost our effectiveness (see box, right).
While few of us may get direct access to sales or self-promotional training, it is possible to practise basic techniques with others in the workplace, Dawkins says. "Adopt a practical approach, and anyone can make it work." If a formal scheme does not exist at your place of work, she advises approaching a sympathetic colleague to become your unofficial mentor.
"Feedback is important, as is shared experience, especially from someone who is more senior or has worked in the company longer than you," she says.
"And remember, you've got to sell yourself now, wherever you are. It may have become a dirty word, but it's something all of us are increasingly expected to do if we want to get on in our professional lives."
How to Sell
Be appropriate: "Tune in" to the person you are trying to influence and communicate in a way that is appropriate to them, and at an appropriate time
Drop the ego: Sell your point on the benefits to the person whose decision or approval you are after. Empathise with their situation, then provide them with benefits or solutions if they follow your suggestion.
Be confident: But beware - over-confidence breeds arrogance, and arrogant people do not pay much attention to others' needs or personal feedback
Don't take it personally: If you are met by resistance, do not assume it is because the person you are trying to sell to dislikes you. Remember, there is always another viewpoint.
Don't get aggressive: It is a frequent response to resistance, but do not give in to it. You may have picked the worst time to broach the subject and find you can tackle it again in a week's time.
Close the deal: When you think you have got agreement on what you wanted, clarify this by confirming you can now have that rise, holiday or bonus. You can do this verbally or in writing
Try again: If you have not been successful in presenting your case, do not be afraid to try again later. If at first you don't succeed...
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