No Salesperson Is an Island

Quit thinking of selling as a clash of wills. To sell more, and reap larger gains, heed this wisdom from an unlikely source -- the code of ubuntu

By Michelle Nichols

Ubuntu is one of my favorite words. It's fun to pronounce and, believe it or not, it speaks of a concept with immense relevance to the art of selling. In case you're not a "word weenie," as my husband calls me, ubuntu is a Zulu word which means "I am what I am because of you." That's quite a concept -- the idea that everything we are and achieve is derived from and defined by our relationships with others. Now, let me explain how that unfamiliar expression out of Africa can boost your sales figures.

Let's start with a little history. Not so long ago, selling often was seen as a job for the rugged individualist -- a one-on-one competition pitting salesperson against customer. Today, that model just doesn't work. Thanks to the Internet, cell phones, Blackberries, and the like, we have the potential to maintain 24/7 connections to our businesses, bosses, employees, and colleagues. As for customers, they can also reach out just as effortlessly to see how our rivals' offerings stack up against the ones we are representing.

Bad news for salespeople? On the contrary! Because there are more opportunities to plug into and exploit our connections, the modern world allows us to multiply the ways we can reap the benefit of leveraging those relationships. Let's start with the home office, where ubuntu can be a big help when prospecting for leads.

As Senator Hillary Clinton famously noted, it takes a village to raise a child. Likewise, it takes a village of associates to develop a successful sales career. That's the secret and the beauty of ubuntu: We can all win together when the members of our team make it their shared priority to better serve customers.


  No matter whether you're looking for new markets or more prospects within the markets you've already started to mine, the ubuntu model applies. Look for partners with whom you can share ideas, information, even leads. You can partner with vendors, clients, your clients' vendors, and co-workers -- each and every one of your business associates and contacts. Ubuntu even offers the potential to benefit from what salespeople from rival outfits are doing. If that seems incredible, read on.

Start by drawing a mental picture of the opposition's target customers -- perhaps midlevel managers at large financial companies, who are in the market for, say, copiers. Well, copiers always need paper, so while your competitor may have done the initial selling, he or she has also opened an opportunity for you to step in and supply something else.

Ubuntu can also aid you during the sale. For example, I recently went shopping for a cell phone, and the saleswoman was wonderful. She asked a series of insightful questions about my needs and then made a couple of specific suggestions. She knew her products thoroughly, and she went that extra mile to explain and demonstrate the new features that would have baffled a techno-klutz like me. I felt like she was trying to get me the best phone and rate plan for my needs and my money. When I left, I felt like I had been dealing with a friend.


  There are lots of ways to develop partnership relationships. First, focus hard on this vital question: "How can I help my customers be more successful so they will help me to be more successful?" Maybe you can reduce their inventory costs by scheduling smaller but more frequent shipments. Perhaps you could increase their sales by introducing them to some prospective customers in your own network of contacts. Just remember ubuntu, and look for ways both of you can win.

I have several business partners for whom ubuntu is a guiding principle. When consulting for our clients, we leverage not only each other's skills and knowledge, but also our networks of relationships. This creates a bigger value for our customers, which should be the ultimate goal for any salesperson. Do that, and the rewards flow easily and naturally.

Another prime principle of ubuntu is the obligation to tell your customer the truth, even if it hurts. For instance, when I'm buying clothes, the salesclerk who says everything "looks just fabulous" on me is least likely to end up running my credit card through the scanner. What I want is the honest, candid salesperson, the one who says the blue suit makes my butt look big or that peach just isn't my color. Give me that sort of honesty, and I'm much more likely to become a repeat customer.

Selling via ubuntu not only helps you collect more purchase orders, it makes the selling process more fun. For instance, in an earlier column, I happened to quote an insightful letter from an engineer called Ron. Another reader, Janet, who has a pet-related business, saw his name and realized that she had gone to school with him in Ocala, Fla., some 20 years earlier. She tracked him down and they re-connected.


  The story doesn't stop there, however. Not long after, Ron engaged me to speak at an upcoming company event. Several months later, after also meeting Janet, I asked if her company would sponsor my daughter's charity Pet Parade, since the audience would be precisely the sort of customers she targets. Three seemingly unrelated businesspeople -- an engineer, a woman in the pet industry, and a professional speaker -- all grew our businesses because we put ubuntu to work.

Ubuntu can also help to close deals. Take my friend Scott, whose customer just couldn't quite bring himself to sign the contract. One day, perhaps to relieve his frustration, Scott went to a school reunion Web site and discovered that a fellow graduate from the small high school he attended just happened to work with the customer who was giving him so much grief. Scott contacted his fellow alumni, who walked down the hall, had a word in the right ear, and got the ball rolling. The contract was soon signed, sealed, and delivered.

I love stories of sales reps who earn Salesperson of the Year and celebrate by sending "thank you" notes to all their customers. It's a perfect example of Ubuntu in action: I'm grateful for everything you've done for me, and everything you've helped me to become.

Happy selling!

Michelle Nichols is a sales speaker, trainer, and consultant based in Houston, Tex. She welcomes your questions and comments. You can visit her Web site at, where her new CD, 72 Ways to Overcome the Price Objection is available. She can be contacted at

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