7 Sales Lessons From the Classroom

ClassroomStanding in front of a classroom of students — watching the note scribbling, yawns, and occasional spark of passion — can feel a million miles away from the business world.


My five years of teaching, however, shaped my business career. Here are some of the lessons I’ve found to be most helpful in sales, business and life.


1. Talk Less, Sell More
As a teacher, I learned to be patient with my words, deliver messages concisely, and give students a chance to think. In sales, a good rule is that if you’re not listening, you’re not selling. Monitor the percentage of time you spend speaking on your next call. It varies across industries, but if you’re speaking more than 50 percent of the time, step back and ask why. If it’s more than 80 percent, there’s a problem.


2. Teach a Kid
The world is full of jargon-filled “experts” who don’t know what they’re talking about. A good exercise is to ask someone to say what he means simply, in one sentence, as if he were talking to a child. (Kids don’t know jargon.) This is a great tool in the classroom to reinforce real learning. In sales, this technique helps get to the core value of the product. As Mark Twain says, “If I only had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”


3. Become One With the Clicker
A popular media executive, known to have a low tolerance for b.s., handles people presenting to him in a unique way. With your slides on the projector screen, you click from one to the next, giving your pitch. A few minutes in, you get the surprise: He also gets a clicker! Go too slow, he clicks ahead; go too fast, he moves backward.


This is fantastic training for helping teachers, and anyone in sales, get comfortable going off-script. Adjust to whatever your client prefers. With more upfront work, it’s easier to expect the unexpected.


4. Distinguish Between Coaching and Teaching
There’s a saying that you don’t build muscle in the gym; you build it while you’re sleeping. I think of the classroom the same way. Often the real learning happens at home while independently working through difficult concepts. In some subjects, perhaps only 30 percent of the learning occurs in formal settings. Given this, there’s tremendous value in being a coach. Teachers convey information, but coaches motivate. Inspiring students (and salespeople) to work independently is essential for success.


5. Use Your Funny Bone
When most people think of school, they think of seriousness. It’s easy to fall into this trap. But humor at the right points can have wonderful impacts, relieving anxiety, building rapport, and reinforcing moments — people remember times they laugh.


This is also powerful in sales. Most clients expect the typical humorless pitch, so surprise them. We buy from people we like. That said, getting it right takes work — a comic once told me it takes 100 hours of practice for every usable five minutes in a show.


6. Sell Like Socrates
History repeats itself. One theory on this that I find appealing is people often need to learn lessons for themselves. Didactic teaching is simply to lecture, the way most teachers teach. Socratic teaching, on the other hand, is to ask a series of questions to help people come to conclusions on their own.


When meeting with a potential client, most salespeople go into didactic style, talking about the features and benefits of the product and hoping the client understands or cares. It’s much harder to ask smart, well-timed questions to help potential clients come to the answers themselves. People retain information better when they arrive at an answer on their own. If you’re not convinced, Socratic teaching is the main method used at Harvard Business School.


7. Realize Nobody Likes a Know-It-All
We’ve all been in a class when a question stumps the teacher. The situation can go one of two ways: The teacher rambles through a meaningless answer, or he or she can say, “Good question; I haven’t heard that before. Let me find out and get back to you.”


The same goes for sales. Nobody knows all the answers, but clients will know if you’re full of it. Be honest and admit you don’t know it all — you’ll automatically become more likable and credible.


Effective teachers and effective salespeople aren’t born; they’re made. We become skilled only by being students ourselves, by admitting our imperfections, and by practicing and acquiring a portfolio of tested techniques. Get in touch with your inner teacher today to put these skills to work beyond the classroom.