The secret to increasing sales in your small business (here’s a clue – it’s not ‘selling’!)

About the Author: Ashley Thomson
Ashley Thomson

When I talk about selling with some of my business coaching clients, I can almost see their skin crawl. They do NOT want to sell. Nope, no way, nada. But the fact is that no successful business has achieved great results without selling. So why the skin crawly reaction when selling is so important to success? It’s usually one of two reasons: a) they don’t know how to sell, or b) they don’t want to sell – which is usually a symptom of not knowing how to sell well.

Here’s another fact: most business owners get coaching for help with the things they’re not so good at in their business, and one of the most common areas they need assistance is sales. So, here’s my number one sales tip:

STOP SELLING! (mic drop) Boom!

(Ok that’s only half of it, but I got your attention!)

So…what do I do instead?

You’re quite right; you can’t just ‘stop selling’ and watch the cash roll in. The other half of the equation is building relationships. But great relationships aren’t formed in one meeting or even one ‘sale’. Relationships are built on trust and time. Time will take care of itself, but to build trust, you must first establish a rapport.

In old French, the word ‘rapport’ means, ‘to bring back’. And that is exactly what you want to do with your customers. Bring them back to your business again and again and make them part of your ‘golden 20%’.

People buy people first

Research from behavioural psychologists shows that you only have 90 seconds to establish rapport with a stranger. A minute and a half. That’s all you get with a prospect before they decide whether or not they would buy “you”.

It is tempting to focus on the questions you might ask: isn’t that how we build relationships, by asking questions? Yes, but not yet. First you need to find your common ground…

Commonality is key to connection

There is a truth behind all our relationships in life: we like people who are like us. Think about the people you don’t get along with. Invariably, it is because you have a sense that they are ‘not your people’. If rapport is the open front door in a relationship, then commonality is the key.

If you’re in B2B (that is you’re a business selling to other businesses), do some research into your prospect before you meet. Look them up on social media (LinkedIn, twitter, Facebook, their website and blog) to glean any areas of interest that you share. A word of caution though: you don’t want to appear ‘stalker-ish’, so don’t get too personal. Use your intel sparingly and introduce it with phrases like “I notice you’re connected on LinkedIn with <insert name of a mutual contact or second-degree connection>” to explain how you came by the information (you don’t want them to wonder if you’re rifling through their rubbish bin!).

If the scenario doesn’t allow for research (e.g. you’re quoting for an electrical job in someone’s home) take note of the environment and read the room. Have you worked in the area before? Can you make an association with some aspect of the home? Again, avoid the ‘creep-factor’ by keeping it light and not too personal.

Making small talk about something you have in common needn’t be ‘clever’ and you don’t have to go on and on. In fact, if the prospect isn’t responding well, don’t press the issue. Simply shift your focus to making a connection in other ways.

Body Language

Mirroring is a powerful rapport-building tool, but it needs to be subtle. If a prospect speaks with their hands, do the same. If they maintain a large area of personal space, don’t get too close. If they avoid eye-contact, don’t hold their gaze for too long.

Take care not to copy their every move – it will quickly become obvious and unnatural. To avoid this, try using your turn to speak as a cue e.g. if you have been sitting down and they stand, wait until you begin speaking to stand up too. This makes your movements feel more natural.

Talk their talk

The same mirroring principles apply to the language you use, as well as the tone and speed at which you speak. People often have a few ‘keywords’ that pop up a lot when they talk. You can quickly work out if they are they an exclaimer (“Great! Fantastic! Extraordinary!”) or if their language is a bit more subtle (“nice, good”). Some prospects may boom in a fast, strong voice. Others may speak quietly and take long pauses to think about what they are saying. By matching their keywords, speed, volume and style, you will quickly have conveyed that you are on their wavelength.


Paying attention is very important to making a connection – you can’t try any of the techniques above if you aren’t looking and listening. Put your phone away, have your materials ready and actively listen to and look at your prospect. Building rapport isn’t just a step in your sales process – your prospect will feel it if you are distracted and disinterested. You should genuinely want to find out more about them; be curious.

Shift that focus

Once you have built a rapport, you may get the sense that it is time to ‘talk business’. Don’t fall back into old traps. Remember this discussion should not be about your company, product or service. Don’t sell! Educate and inform, add value, create opportunity, problem solve, engage and communicate. In short, put the customer first.

Your sales force just got bigger!

Congratulations! Everyone in your small business has just become a sales rep, because the relationship you build with a client needs to be reinforced at every point of contact. From the people who answer the phone to your subcontractors, you all need to be consciously supporting the relationship. In fact, even your clients form part of your sales force: build a loyal customer relationship and they’ll spread the word for you. (link to older blog)


What ‘selling’ used to look like (and why it won’t work)

I get it, this advice goes against most of the techniques that people learn in their good old sales training sessions including:

Cold calling

(and generally just playing a numbers game, trying to sell to anyone and everyone)

As a potential client, being interrupted, when you don’t even know if you want or need the product or service that someone is selling, is a sure-fire way to get any relationship off to a bad start.

Instead: Try to warm up the cold call, “We’ve recently worked for another homeowner/business like yours who was really happy with the results so we’d like to explore if that’s something you’re also interested in?”

Hard core pitching

The thinking that ‘pitch is everything’ is a hard one to shift. Why wouldn’t a prospect want to know about all the great benefits and features your business can offer them? I promise you that they don’t.

Instead: New and effective sales techniques place the focus on the customer; their needs, wants and their ‘pain points’, and how your product/service solves them.

Only answering questions you are asked directly

This old-school technique is akin to lying by omission; it is often used to band-aid over the fact that you can’t truly meet a prospect’s needs.

Instead: If you can clearly see that your product or service doesn’t suit them, be upfront and honest about it. Closing the sale shouldn’t come at the cost of your reputation, which will surely suffer if your clients have a negative experience. The worst part is that they will tell people all about it too!

(Related article: 6 Steps for handling negative reviews)

(*Pro tip: people actually trust you more if you’re acting against your self-interests. True!)

The hard-sell approach

The very worst thing you can do these days is use aggression to close the deal. There’s a reason why hardcore salespeople (think used car guys, shady real estate agents) have had a reputation in the past for being “pushy” and “untrustworthy”. Prospects are savvier than ever to those pressure tactics and they are a real turn-off.

Instead: Ask questions, be honest, be kind. Easy.

Not taking ‘no’ for an answer

It’s the oldest technique in the sales manual, but, sorry, it has to go! Persistence is a great personal quality, but it has no place in a customer relationship.

Instead: If a prospect is not interested, your time (and resources) are better spent moving onto the next qualified lead.


Let’s shake on it

Like cheap suits and sets of dusty encyclopaedias, “selling” is out of style. Relationship-building is the way to increase revenue because your future customers want to do businesses with people they can trust. You don’t have long to build rapport, so make that 90 seconds count. Oh – and even once you’ve shaken on it, remember the deal is never ‘closed’. Good client relationships are like diamonds… they are forever!

Image credit: By NASA (Great Images in NASA Description) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons