Skills Plus an Assertive Style Equals Selling Success

Skills in greeting, questioning, or closing are important but must be applied with appropriate amounts of assertiveness. Assertiveness is to selling as garlic is to food. A little greatly enhances flavor; too much will make your food inedible.

The dictionary defines asser-tiveness as “willingness to be forceful if a situation requires it.” In sales, this means balancing your needs with those of the client and the store. Assertiveness lies along a continuum between passiveness at one end and aggressiveness at the other. A salesperson’s ability to remain in the middle of these extremes determines his or her success. An overly aggressive greeting, for example, can make a reserved customer feel uncomfortable. But a passive sales associate will miss opportunities to break the ice with new customers or ask for a sale.

Appraising the Situation

For each of the following statements, consider whether you believe that it does—or does not—reflect assertiveness.

  1. Others need to listen to me and respect my authority, but I also need to listen to them and understand their views. (Assertive; it reflects a balance between one’s own needs and the needs of others.)

  2. As I become more assertive, I won’t need to follow up with people. (Not assertive; it’s passive to assume people will always do what they say.)

  3. Becoming more assertive taught me never to give up. If you keep after people, they will give in eventually. (Aggressive; being assertive doesn’t mean always getting what you want.)

  4. I’m going to practice being more assertive in every situation. (Not assertive; the most effective individuals flex to the situation, which includes being passive and aggressive when appropriate.

Gem Bytes

How we position ourselves on the passive-assertive-aggressive continuum is primarily a personality trait based on child-hood experiences and beliefs we’ve developed about how to get what we want. It isn’t something training can easily modify, since our behavior is rooted in a belief system that has been repeatedly reinforced. This makes it difficult to convince ourselves that alternative behavior will work better.

Since sales associates with excessive passivity or aggressive-ness are unlikely to change, screen for these traits before hiring. In the interview, does the person appropriately balance questions by providing information rather than looking to lead the interview? Does he or she give good examples to support their views without overwhelming you with information? Even though training is unlikely to alter a basic personality trait, you can fine-tune your assertiveness with the following actions:

  1. Seek balance in your focus. Aggressive (as well as passive) individuals are often highly focused on their own needs. Assertive people maintain healthy working relationships by balancing their needs with those of others, becoming more effective in achieving higher levels of involvement, commitment, and performance.

  2. Analyze and consider alternatives. Find a coach or observer (perhaps your manager or a peer) to help you understand how you react in various selling situations. Have them observe you greet, question, or make recommendations to clients. Then, have them help you evaluate where your actions stand along the passive-aggressive continuum. Brainstorm alternative ways you might communicate in an appropriately assertive manner.

  3. Flex to the situation. The most effective salespeople become more passive or aggressive if the situation calls for it. For example, when confronted with an aggressive client it may be more productive to become increasingly passive rather than return the aggression. The key to modifying behavior is to choose how you react rather than reacting automatically.

  4. Start small. Don’t try to change everything at once. Pick a specific area such as suggesting an add-on pur-chase. Set achievable small goals for yourself such as “suggest additional purchases to all of my customers today.” Keep track of how well you meet your goals and continue to increase them.

In summary, spend more time in the center of the asser-tiveness continuum to enhance effectiveness. But be flexible and create choices in how you respond. In certain situations, more passive or aggressive behavior will be appropriate.