”Everyone lives by selling something.”  Author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that statement in 1892 in his travel memoir Across the Plains, but it couldn’t be truer today.

What comes to mind when you think of the word “salesman”? If it’s someone on a used car lot or someone coming to your door with a list of magazine subscriptions, it’s time to think again. Most of us – no matter what business we are in – devote a large potion of our time to sales.

 Better Salesperson

When you interview for a job, you are selling yourself and your skills. When you interview someone for a position in your company, you are selling your organization and its reputation. When you post something on your firm’s social media page, you are selling that event or service. When you lead a staff meeting, you are selling a concept or a strategy.

“The ability to move others to exchange what they have for what we have is crucial to our survival and our happiness,” writes Daniel H. Pink in his 2012 book To Sell Is Human.  “It has helped our species evolve, lifted our living standards and enhanced our daily lives. The capacity to sell is not some unnatural adaptation to the merciless world of commerce. It is part of who we are.”

How can you improve your skills in this critical area of business? Here are five key steps to being a better salesperson, no matter what or who you are selling.

Steps to Being a Better Salesperson

1. Know your customer. In order to effectively sell anything, you need to know some basic information about your customer’s needs. Before you make that appointment, schedule that phone call or attend that meeting, it is important to find out what you can about the other person and his or her company. Use some of the online resources at your fingertips, such as LinkedIn and Facebook, and check out their websites and blog posts. If you have a service or product to offer, determine if they already have something similar in place or if you would be taking them in a new direction. Anticipate questions about how you and your service can benefit their company.

It also can help to find personal details about someone you will be meeting, such as where they are from or where they went to school.  When you know this kind of information, it shows that you did your homework, and it can help break the ice in a conversation.

2. Know your brand. With any sales situation, the underlying issue is to help your customer/client solve a problem, prevent a problem or be better at what they do. When you know the ins and outs of what you offer, you can better tailor it to the other company’s needs. Think in advance of what facts and figures you might need and be prepared to offer pertinent examples of meeting the needs of other clients.

Be ready to discuss how your service will make their work easier. “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology — not the other way around,” a great “salesman” named Steve Jobs once said.

Don’t shy away from difficult issues. If you are interviewing for a job, for example, and have been out of work for a year, don’t try to hide it. Be honest and direct, while emphasizing the volunteer work or studying you have done in the meantime.  A recent Stanford University research study identified the “blemishing effect,” which is a term for adding a small amount of negative information to an otherwise positive message. The idea is that this small blemish can make the rest of your resume or presentation look even better to a customer.  Be careful, though, the “blemishing effect” only works when you present your positive information first.

3. Listen more than you talk. This step sounds easy, but it can be more difficult than you think.  Whether you have been fortunate enough to get an appointment or even if you are snatching a quick opportunity for conversation after a meeting, it is critical to do more listening than talking. After you have introduced yourself and given a brief summary of what you do, ask your contact a question. While you are listening, maintain eye contact.

Then really listen to what is being said.  Resist the urge to prepare your next comment and instead focus on what that customer is saying. Use active listening skills to help you frame your responses such as, “So what I hear you saying is that …”  This way you can get clues as to your customers’ needs so that you can ask a follow-up question or describe how your experience and service will fulfill a certain need.

4. Use a soft approach. Many of us have negative images of salesmen gleaned from television, movies and literature. It could be memories of the unscrupulous door to door salesman featured in a lot of old TV sitcoms or the scathing Always Be Closing monologue in David Mamet’s play and movie Glengarry Glen Ross, which is about cut-throat real estate agents.

You don’t need to use hard sales tactics when you believe in yourself and/or your service.  Work on establishing common ground. If you think about how you can solve a problem for the other person it helps puts you in the proper frame of mind.

Extroverts do not always make the best salespeople, according to Pink. The author says that the most successful salespeople are neither introverts nor extroverts but are “ambiverts” — somewhere in between the two extremes. Ambiverts know when to be more overt and when to be more subtle, gauging their approach according to the situation

5. Focus on building a relationship. No matter what you are selling, you are selling yourself. Your integrity and character are essential to any business relationship. Concentrate on presenting yourself in the best light you possibly can. That may mean you must step away from a conversation when you see the other person is feeling pressured by time. That may mean you need to be at your desk at 4:30 a.m. to make a call to an Asian client. It may mean you need to follow up a meeting with a friendly e-mail or letter.

Many of the means of communication we have at your fingertips can tempt us to make contact with a potential client via electronic means alone. While sometimes you may have no choice other than an e-mail, seek out face-to-face contact whenever possible.  That handshake deal may be even more important than ever.

A National University of Singapore research team led by psychologist Richard D. Arvey found that 85 percent of people believe face-to-face meetings are the best way to do business and that 82 percent believe that meetings bring out the best in people. Even if you don’t get the job or the project, there will be a face that goes with the name, and that meeting will have laid the groundwork for a potential future encounter.  That’s good sales work.