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Followership as a Sales Skill

Sales

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Successful sales leaders are great followers first.

For decades, experts have said that leadership is an intangible and therefore unmeasurable. But if you look at any great leader, you see that leadership is clearly measurable. Leaders are determined by their followers. No committed customers, no sales leadership.

In business, leadership occurs at all levels – from the executive suite to the warehouse floor – and at every level in between. Influential leaders, no matter what title they have or role they play, are those with willing followers.


Leadership is merely getting wholehearted followers for a given course of action.

Unfortunately, too many salespeople ignore followership and focus instead on trying to be more engaging, convincing, or interesting. Or, sometimes, they even rely on their positional power and end up, not with committed customers, but with agreements at best, compliance at worst, and marginal business results.

Start from the end

Most successful salespeople prepare for their leadership interactions by establishing a common goal for the call. Leaders understand the difference between goals and strategies. Goals are always outcome-oriented, starting with the end in mind. Strategies involve the planning that goes into reaching a leader’s goal.

The next step involves the conversation you have with a potential customer. Here you express those common goals, and you include three critical elements:

  • A confident statement of the goal which has value or benefit to the potential customer.
  • An invitation for the customer to look at or listen to the goal and strategy.
  • An acknowledgement that the potential customers are decision-makers.

By stating your confidence when you put forth an idea for others to decide on and treating potential customers as decision makers, you have a greater chance of being heard with an open mind and of gaining credibility.

Not everyone sees the same information the same way. Because emotions shape logic, the way we look at information is different if we are fearful than if we are interested.

Opening conversations with a well-stated decision goal establishes rapport, openness, and trust. Also, this lets your potential customers know they are the decision makers – they are in control, so they feel safer talking and revealing their true attitudes toward a plan.

A customer’s potential attitude can be categorized as positive, negative, or neutral. However, because attitudes are situational, they can change moment to moment. So, when we talk about attitudes, we mean attitudes in the moment. Exceptional sales leaders intuitively recognize momentary changes in attitudes or points of view in a conversation. They focus more on how something is said.

Recognize and adapt

Recognizing and adapting is what enables sales leaders to influence others. For example, when you give someone directions to your home or office, you first determine the other person’s location or starting point. The directions you then give vary based on where the other person is at that moment in time. The same is true for leadership interactions.

If a potential customer considers your goal and strategy difficult to execute, then you must simplify both. If a customer sees a plan as risky, you mitigate or eliminate the risk. If a customer is skeptical, you provide proof. Because customers demonstrate a variety of different attitudes, you need a range of responses that make sense to each potential follower. The key to finding the right response is to have customers share their points of view and how they see a situation. As a result, you know from your customer’s perception what is difficult, risky, or unbelievable.

Regardless of a potential customer’s response, you must treat them with respect, so they talk openly and seriously consider your goals and strategies. This is where acknowledging is critical.

Respecting another person’s point of view and taking that person seriously is not difficult if you will remember you are not saying their point of view is correct but only acknowledging that they have a right to that point of view.

Clearly, the ability to obtain a committed customer for a given course of action involves more than we have articulated here. However, understanding that successful sales leaders are great followers first will assist you in becoming a better, more effective leader.

About the author

Patrick T. Malone 

Patrick T. Malone is a business advisor and leadership mentor based in Blairsville, Georgia. He is the co-author of the best-selling business book “Cracking the Code to Leadership” and may be reached at [email protected] or 706-835-1308.

Photo credit: istockphoto.com/SiberianArt