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Likability in Sales – Does it Matter?

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Written by Mike Schultz
President, RAIN Group

Years ago, I was working for a company that had just made the decision to go public. After a lengthy deliberation, the company chose a particular big-five firm (at the time there were five) to handle the preparations for our public offering. Curious, I asked the chief financial officer how he made the decision.

He invited me to his office and showed me a chart of all the qualifications and decision criteria and how each firm stacked up. It was obvious there was a clear winner.

Then he asked me if I wanted to know how he had really made the decision. Of course, I said yes. He said, "Close the door." Intriguing...

He then told me simply, "We picked them because I liked them better. All of the firms were qualified to do the work of taking us public. So it came down to which team I felt most comfortable with. Who I wanted to work with. Who communicated with me the best."

If everyone has the capabilities to do the work—everyone can perform the tasks—you might assume the buyer will select the lowest-price provider.

Not so! When the buyer views the actual capability as a commodity, how the seller interacts with the buyer has a significant influence on the company the buyer ultimately chooses. Even though Harvard Business Review has published articles like "Selling is Not About Relationships," likability is one of the factors that makes a difference.

In our book, Insight Selling, we interviewed Jack Kline, president and chief operating officer of Christie Digital Systems USA, Inc. He agrees, saying that "people like to do business with people they like. That's just a natural part of the way people operate."

This is not to say that likability is the most important deciding factor overall. It is, however, one of the top 10 factors that separate sales winners from the second-place finishers. Sellers still have to bring value to the table, collaborate, listen, understand needs, craft compelling solutions, and more to win—but being liked can make doing these things a whole lot easier.

Here's what happens when you're likable:
  • Needs discovery comes more naturally. When buyers like you, they are far more likely to open up when you ask the in-depth and challenging questions.

    Read: 21 Powerful, Open-Ended Sales Questions

  • Your insight is taken seriously. When you're liked, you're seen as more trustworthy and your ideas are perceived as more credible. The results of the study "The Role of Interpersonal Liking in Building Trust in Long-term Channel Relationships," published by the Journal of the Academy of Marketing, conclude that "not only is liking an important determinant of trust in its own right, but the widely studied... [concepts of] similarity of business values and frequency of personal interaction—operate through liking."

    If you want buyers to listen to your ideas and insights (and you do if you want to win the sale), being liked gets you into the game.

  • Getting meetings is easier. People want to spend time with people they like. Therefore, buyers will agree more often to meeting with you.

  • You'll get more referrals. Buyers are more likely to introduce you to their colleagues and to provide referrals to their network—assuming you ask for these introductions.

  • Premium fees are achievable. Time and time again we've seen that buyers are willing to pay a premium to work with providers they like. This means there's value in being likable.

Leonard Schlesinger, professor at Harvard Business School and former chief operating officer at Limited Brands, shared this story with me: "One guy said he had a profound insight and came to us in a way that felt like he was going to impose it on us... He's an annoying human being. As a consequence, regardless of how smart he is, he's not someone we want to work with because it's not fun."

You may be able to provide insight and offerings that would result in a tantalizing ROI for the buyer's company. You may be sharp, smart, and knowledgeable. If the buyer doesn't like you, though, you're at a disadvantage.

Topics: Sales Conversations