4 Life Lessons I Learned (So Far) from a Career in B2B Sales

I’m cursed.

Play me a tune: any tune, from any decade. If I don’t already know the song word for word, I’ll pick up the tune and the lyrics in a listen or two. Maybe there’s a parallel between my ear for music and my knack for languages. (Growing up, I spoke fluent Farsi and picked up enough French to score top marks on my high school AP exam without actually taking the AP class.) I’ve loved music my entire life, but my curse is this: I am the most terrible singer you’ve never heard.

Because of this, I also decided at a young age that I would be equally useless at playing any musical instrument and never even tried. However, I love studying the habits of professionals at the top of their game in any industry, especially because my own career has taken quite a non-traditional path. Imagine my delight when I came across piano salesperson Erica Feidner, who was named one of the top 10 greatest salespeople of all time by Inc Magazine. The piano happens to be one of my favorite instruments, and if you’ve never listened to The Piano Guys, a group that covers everything from Beethoven’s 5 Secrets (a favorite of mine) to Rolling in the Deep, you need to stop what you’re doing right now and pull up their YouTube channel.

Back to Erica. She is a classically trained concert pianist who insists that she’s not in sales (despite selling $3.5 million worth of pianos in one year), but prefers to think of herself as a ‘piano matchmaker.’ Upon discovering Erica, I found myself reading everything I could possibly find about her. It got me thinking about how what I’ve learned as a salesperson translates to my everyday life, and also served as a great reminder of how I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of sales and industry expertise.

Whether you’re a seasoned salesperson or just starting out as a mighty business development rep, read on for four life lessons I learned in sales:

1. You’ll develop ninja-like observational and communication skills.

Have you ever told someone something she didn’t want to hear, only to hear these two deadly words?

“It’s fine.”

Not only is it most definitely NOT fine, but I bet her face and tone betrayed her actual meaning.

The point is this: every spoken communication has three components: face and body, tone and volume, and actual words said. Depending upon which study you consult, you will find these approximate ratios: 55% of a message is generated by the face and body, 38% from tone and volume, and only 7% from words said. So it’s no surprise that in a sales cycle, the ability to observe and respond to nonverbal communication separates average salespeople from top-notch ones. It is hands down the most valuable skill to hone.

Over the years, my fellow sales warriors and I have developed preternatural capabilities for observing tone, body language, and interpreting what people say versus what they mean. The most common example happens in a customer meeting when you explain a technical concept to a customer, only to hear them say “That makes sense…” with a furrowed brow. In these situations, I often gently meet their eye, smile, and say “Are there any parts of what I just explained that we should revisit?” I usually get a huge relieved grin and an “Actually, yes…could you go back a screen? I’m sorry, that was totally over my head.”

2. You will learn to say no when needed.

The best salespeople are not the ones who drive towards a yes–they’re the ones who ask the right questions and then have the courage to say, “Wait a second. Based on what you’ve told me, I don’t think this product makes sense for you.”

This is not the same thing as reverse psychology, although that can also be effective when deployed judiciously (“This is a great book, but you probably won’t like it”). Rather, saying no is a fantastic life skill. Think of every time that you’ve wanted to say no in your personal life, but didn’t–you were probably worried about offending the other person, to the point where you would consider compromising your own needs just to make them happy. This also includes saying no to people asking for a chunk of your time that you simply don’t have to give. If you know how to politely say “no,” you’ll find yourself with renewed control of your life and future.

3. Everyone’s favorite subject is themselves.

When Erica Feidner meets a new client, the relationship begins with an hour-long conversation. She patiently uncovers not just what the customer is looking for in a piano, but their musical background, favorite songs, and preferred pieces to play.

After her thorough questioning, she takes a piece of paper and writes down a series of numbers, then walks the customer into the showroom and guides them toward a couple of instruments. She invites them to play, leaving the room if they prefer not to play for an audience. Based on their gut reaction to the piano and the way it sounds compared to their musical aspirations, she adjusts her recommendation. This recommendation could encourage the customer to wait until a piano she has in mind arrives in stock–never mind if it delays the purchase or risks losing the customer to a competitor.

This masterfully executed process matches Erica’s expertise with the customer’s timeframe. I don’t know about you, but any salesperson who counsels patience over a purchase earns my loyalty for life, because there is no better way to demonstrate that you actually care about a person and understand their needs loud and clear. After her thorough questioning, Erica takes a piece of paper and writes down a series of numbers, then walks the customer into the showroom and guides them toward a couple of instruments. Once a customer makes a purchase, she shows them the numbers she wrote down in their initial conversation–they match perfectly with the chosen piano’s serial number.

4. Sales gives you a front row seat to how people make decisions.

Sales has fascinating elements of psychology and neuroscience. In the beginning of this piece, I said that I’ve never even tried to play music, because I somehow extrapolated that not being able to sing means not being able to play. However, Erica has a process that teaches people to read music in one lesson. Her incredible story and expertise make me want to contact her and learn to play music. I don’t know where I’d put a piano in my house, but given her integrity, she’d probably recommend that I wait to buy until I have space or buy the world’s tiniest piano and put it in the corner of my living room.

Just like coming across Erica’s story uncovered musical aspirations I never knew I had, a top salesperson is able to draw people out both personally and professionally. If you learn to listen to a person beyond their words and ask the right questions, you are demonstrating the two best characteristics of a top salesperson.

If you’re a fellow student of sales, I’d love to know what resources you use to try and improve your craft– tweet me @AlexandraNation or leave a note in the comments below!