Can an Introvert Sell Well? Real-Life Stories

I go into a cell phone store and approach a salesman. Actually, I jump up and down until one we’ll call Cell Phone Sam pays attention to me. Once he starts talking, I hear a combination of a late-night TV hair-replacement commercial, an auction at Sotheby’s, and Charlie Brown’s teacher, all in a blaring chorus of rebates and Anytime Minutes.

I butt in to ask Cell Phone Sam to explain my options for a service upgrade for my cell phone. I try taking notes, but I can’t keep up. I try asking questions, but his responses come in unlimited data speak—all as he helps three other customers.

So I inch my way backward, blast out the door, and stomp down Lexington Avenue, when my Rhinestone Cowboy ringtone rings, blinks, and vibrates in the recesses of my purse. Snarling and out of breath, I fish out my cell, flip it open, and bark into it: “What?”

Thankfully, it’s a friend, who indulges me over our free cell-to-cell connection: “You’ve never liked being sold to,” she says. Running to my next appointment, I get off the phone, fly into a taxi, and before we could make it to Madison, the chatty cabbie asks me what I do. To my horror, I hear myself respond: “I’m a salesperson.”

If you’re an introvert in Cell Phone Sam’s shoes, you’d probably be miserable selling his way: speaking quickly and loudly, multitasking, and ignoring my cues. His ratio of listening to talking was 0 for 1. What’s yours?

How you can sell as an introvert
Here’s an approach to selling that is likely to feel more natural to you:

  1. Give me your undivided attention. If you’re too busy, ask one of your colleagues to assist me.
  2. Ask me open-ended questions to learn more about what I need. For example: “What features are most important to you?”
  3. Invite me to learn as much as I want to, at my pace, and speak my language—not some industry Pig Latin.
  4. Pay attention to my nonverbal signals. When I look at my watch and put on my coat, stop talking. I’m signaling that the party’s over, so thank me for considering, offer me your card, and—excuse me, let me take this call.
  5. Offer to show me my options in writing. The expression “in one ear and out the other” aptly describes how many of us process information. A survey of medical students showed that while 36 percent of the respondents preferred receiving information in a single mode (either visual, auditory, or printed words), 64 percent preferred multiple modes, and 18 percent were kinesthetic learners, who preferred using all their senses (touch, hearing, smell, taste, and sight).

How you listen
During a recent speaking engagement, I asked how many people in my audience of 50 professionals—mostly introverts—had been listened to carefully that day. Only one person raised his hand. While we all seem to want to be heard, many of us aren’t fortunate enough to have that experience on a regular basis.

As an introvert, you’re well equipped to focus deeply on conversations with one person at a time and to offer your expertise. Think of the last time you had a positive experience buying something from a salesperson. How well did the salesperson listen to you and how did that impact the sale? It can be refreshing to your customers when you listen to them carefully, thoughtfully, and actively—and it certainly can’t hurt your sales.

Building relationships that deepen in time
Here’s another take on selling, from an introvert in the financial world. “I’ve seen two kinds of selling,” says a coaching client of mine we’ll call Maria Maldonado, an international banker and specialist in Latin American economic affairs. “One kind is the banker who builds relationships that deepen in time. People who are more introverted do well with these one-on-one encounters. The other is the product people that the banker calls in to ask, for example: ‘Can you sell Treasury or foreign exchange services to this client?’ The product salespeople parachute in, give a presentation to sell their product, and parachute out.” (Of course, if the likes of Cell Phone Sam parachutes in, some clients might run for cover!)

“If you’re an introvert,” says Maldonado, “selling is much easier when you have passion. I always believe in what I’m selling and give a lot of thought about the impact of my banking products on my clients. I get clear about the specifics of how I can help them,” she says, “and that helps convince them.”

“When you gain good clients,” adds Maldonado, “they give you business, you get more opportunities, and you gain visibility in your industry. That helps you to the next step. And one success builds on the other.”

Showing empathy and mimicking
Let’s entertain a cool factoid before we wrap. When someone is trying to sell something to you, how important is it if she or he shows you empathy? “Sorry to hear that you’re not happy in your current apartment because of the high maintenance costs,” a realtor might say. And she adds: “Let me show you some apartments that will save you money while also addressing your concerns about location, security, and aesthetics.” Sure beats her steering you toward apartments with higher maintenance costs!

In my new book, Self-Promotion for Introverts®, I describe a surprising way to show empathy—through mimicry. I refer to the book Honest Signals, by Alex (Sandy) Pentland, Ph.D., which is based on research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I relay this: “[Pentland] describes mimicry as ‘the copying of smiles, interjections, and head nodding during a conversation.’

“He also notes: ‘In both salary negotiations and sales, we have seen that mimicry functions as an honest and effective signal of the trust as well as the empathy required for successful negotiations and financial transactions. What is particularly impressive is the effectiveness of this honest signal: unconscious, automatic mimicry improved financial results by 20 to 30 percent.’

“It’s not clear to what extent conscious mimicry would yield the same results. However, as Pentland also notes: ‘It is hard to consciously fake these signals, thereby falsely communicating your attitude or intention. Method acting does appear to work, however, if you really, fully put yourself into a particular social role. Whether it is as the leader, the team member, or another role, we find that your signaling automatically and unconsciously changes to match. The fact that you can mentally ‘put on’ different social roles and have your signaling follow suit means that we can change our unconscious communications.’ Could this be a scientific basis for the advice to ‘fake it until you make it’?”

While I’m not suggesting that you turn into a mime when you sell your wares, a little empathy is a safe bet and can go a long way. Not to mention listening attentively and sharing your expertise in a way that is meaningful to your customers.

Note: I have changed the name of the client I interviewed to honor her request for confidentiality.

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