Introverts can’t sell! Can they?
I have been fortunate to have been invited to speak at the Business of Software Conference http://businessofsoftware.org for the last three years. It really is a fantastic conference – the delegates are every bit as inspiring as the best of the speakers, there is a huge sense of comradeship amongst the tribe of entrepreneurs who attend this conference and every year, I leave motivated to do things differently in my own business.
At the most recent conference, in October in Boston, Neil Davidson, (BoS founder and co sponsor) in his welcome speech was trying to encourage people to mix and share stories and he asked how many of the audience considered themselves to be introverts. I think that there was only me and about two other guys who kept their hands down. 290 plus hands were held aloft. I have to confess it made me feel a little like a visitor in a strange land.
However, during the three days of the conference I spent some time thinking about the whole topic of introversion and in particular why tech entrepreneurs (who are usually introverts) rarely see them selves as effective sales people. Many also say that they hate being sold to or they really dislike sales people. (to get an idea of how tech entrepreneurs view sales people, have a look at my deeply unscientific piece of research, conducted during the opening of my 2008 Business of Software presentation http://businessofsoftware.org/video_08_pkenny.aspx ).
Most of us learned about introversion and extraversion by doing a psychometric assessment on a management course or as part of Psychology 101 at college. So we become familiar with the terms and they have moved into the the modern parlance. The terms introvert and extravert are used as labels, as if we are one or the other, and are often bandied around by people who have only a loose understanding of what they mean. As a result, the meaning that we attribute to these very specific terms has changed rather dramatically over the years. Ask people to tell you the difference between an introvert and an extravert and the usual answer is along the lines of;
Extraverts are the outgoing sociable ones, the life and soul of the party.
Introverts are the quiet ones, who prefer their own company and can be anti social at times.
These stereotypes persist, and are repeated so often that we start to accept them without question. Indeed since the rise of Geeks as the new masters of the universe, many people working in tech roles wear their introversion proudly as a badge. I actually saw a delegate at a conference wearing a t-shirt with the slogan Please F**K Off I’m an Introvert! The problem with these modern definitions is that they are inaccurate and overly simplistic and as a result, they are persuading otherwise brilliant people to accept unquestioningly that they can never be good at sales because they don’t fit a psychological stereotype.
So let’s get a few things straight, and to do so we need to go to the Grandaddy of all this stuff Carl Jung.
Preferences not personality
When Carl Jung (upon who’s work almost every personality assessment tool is based) talked about introvert and extravert he wasn’t even talking about personalities, he was talking about preferences and the Introvert /Extravert dichotomy is only one of three pairs of preferences that drive the way we perceive, and respond to, the world around us. We all have times when we feel more introverted and we all have the ability to be extraverts, we just tend to prefer one over the other. What’s more, Jung was certainly not talking about whether we are sociable or not. Jung’s definitions of introversion and extraversion had much more to do with where we get our energy from and how we form our thoughts. Extraverts get their energy from the outside world, (imagine they are solar powered), they are relaxed when they are “out there” sharing views news and ideas with the outside world. Extraverts tend to externalise their thoughts in order to work out what they think, which is why you may often hear them articulate an idea or opinion and then change it as they are discussing it. They are not being indecisive or ingenuous they are simply thinking aloud! Introverts on the other hand tend to get their energy from within and when they relax, it tends to be by finding a quiet place to think (imagine they need to plug themselves into the mains an recharge their batteries quietly). Introverts often say less, simply because they tend to work out what they want to say internally before they open their mouth. Remember though, that these are not hardwired traits but rather are preferences that we have developed early in life. As with all preferences, when we are in our most comfortable place, where we can act according to our preferences, we feel less stress and use less energy. Move out of our comfort zone and we may find it harder work, but it is not impossible to do. As someone who has a preference for extraversion, I can work all day in a seminar group without feeling the slightest bit tired (in fact I feel the opposite) but a few hours of solitary writing at my computer I find exhausting. A colleague of mine with a preference for introversion has the opposite experience. However neither of us is seriously limited by our preferences. I have worked hard at developing the discipline to sit down and create new content for my seminars. I don’t enjoy it as much as I do delivering, but I have learned to adapt. In the same way, my colleague David has become an incredibly skilled presenter, but he still has to go and recover somewhere quiet after delivering a keynote.
Summary: Introvert / Extravert is a preference not a life script!
Breaking News: Introverts can sell!
Even if you have a strong preference for introversion there is no reason not to become excellent at selling. The only difference is that you will succeed at selling for different reasons than an extravert might.
Some of the very best sales people I know are introverts, and they succeed because they play to their strengths. For example my friend and client Francois sells surgical implants. His customers are used to being wined and dined and entertained like royalty. Most of the sales people he works with are extraverts, yet he out performs them all. He does so because he has learned to prepare really well for every call or meeting. Francois does not like small talk, it just doesn’t come naturally to him, so he invests extra time researching the customer’s background and thinking about conversation starters he can use. It is because he invests time in doing this extra research, he develops a genuine interest in the customer, not in some some schmoozey shallow way and he always manages to find something that his clients want to talk passionately about. This is real interest, it cannot be faked.
Further more, Francois really thinks about the questions that he asks. He prefers it when the customer is talking, so he asks big wide open questions and just listens and notes their reply.
Finally, Francois presents with great economy, he leaves nothing to chance, he has mentally rehearsed every answer to every question that he may be asked. He demonstrates the product intelligently, only explaining the stuff that is important and relevant to his customer. His customers are busy people and they appreciate the efficiency of his pitch.
I have spent nearly twenty years advising overly extravert sales people to pause, to listen, to think before they speak. Introverts do a lot of this stuff naturally.
Francois’ extraverted colleagues are also talented and capable (they play to different strengths) but they all struggle to match him either in quality of customer feedback or in sales.
Summary: If you play to your strengths you can be every bit as good a sales person as Francois
Back to Jung
Jung argued that the process of gaining maturity and wisdom was the process of developing those elements of personality preferences which were least natural or comfortable for us. As we gain maturity we become more at ease with our under utilized assets, we find it less tiring to be out of our comfort zone. If you build a business which is designed to reduce the volume and quality of real human interaction with your customers to an absolute minimum, if you delegate all sales and service interaction to people with a preference for extraversion then you may be doing a huge disservice to your self, your customer and ultimately your business.
Summary: Development is all about getting good at the things that don’t come naturally.
“I’m an introvert” should never be an excuse to fail to engage with a customer in a sales or service conversation