Over the last two years I’ve spoken with over one hundred leaders and senior managers in non-profit organisations about developing commercial trading income.
Often there’s no shortage of ideas. But the real issue comes when we talk about how you might actually sell those ideas, profitably and proactively, to a large number of prospective customers. It’s an issue because around 95% of the time I get the same type of reaction, something like: “The whole idea of selling makes our people feel uncomfortable.”
This is the biggest single barrier for charities in developing profitable commercial income, and unless you can overcome it, you will never get where you want to be.
The reality is this: selling is a critical skill, not just in business development, but in many aspects of our professional lives. No teenager actually chooses a career in sales, and few people, irrespective of sector or industry, have ever been taught what selling really is or, more to the point, how to do it with ethics and integrity. At some point, somehow, it just became a part of our jobs.
So with no formal education, we inherit a perception of sales that sits somewhere between Arthur Miller, Del-boy Trotter and the worst excesses from The Apprentice. We develop the assumption that ‘selling’ is about finding ways to get punters to part with their money for something they neither need nor want. And if that’s what your people think, it’s no wonder they feel uncomfortable. It’s unethical, self-serving, and entirely the wrong mindset.
The right mindset is this: if you what you do provides real tangible value for customers, then it’s clearly in their best interest to know about you. If you’ve a reason to believe they have a problem you can solve, and you genuinely care about them, why on earth would it be an imposition for you to call on them? A conversation with you or your team is probably exactly what they need.
Ethical selling is not about cold-calling and persuading someone to buy from a list of things you’ve got to sell. It’s the opposite. Ethical selling is about helping someone who trusts you enough to talk about a situation or a problem that they have, and working out what a solution might look like for them. If you can provide that solution, all the better. If not, simply through the conversation you’ve helped them clarify their needs, and at some point, when they have a different problem that you can help solve, they will almost certainly call you again.
Profit is not the aim, it’s the inevitable and equitable result of genuinely improving the situation for your customers. If you’re not adding value, you shouldn’t be charging money. If you’re adding a lot of value, then some of that value should justifiably belong to you.
So what does this mean for you, the leader?
It means that it’s your job to help your people understand three things: that ‘selling’ is actually about engaging with people to help them; that doing it well benefits them and directly contributes to achieving your mission; and that ultimately the purpose of a sales call is not to serve your own interests, it’s to see how you can serve someone else’s.
This is the secret of ethical selling and the key to developing business.