5 Lessons Salespeople Can Teach Customer Service Professionals

October 22, 2012

Sales is one of the toughest jobs in business. To survive in the sales game, you need a thick skin and an unwavering persistence. At the same time, to thrive in sales you need a sunny personality, a way with people, and a firm grasp of the dynamics of the sales game. This is why my friend Bill Dorman has been able to succeed for over twenty years in the unforgiving arena of insurance sales.

Sales is not for everyone, but it is everywhere.

Because of its fundamental nature (i.e without sales you have no customers), sales has been pondered, studied, and pontificated thoroughly over the years. Accordingly, the mechanics of sales are easy to find and to learn.

Sales and customer service have a lot in common, and I would argue, are all part of a larger interrelated concept of the customer experience. However, the way the two disciplines are typically incentivized (commissioned vs. non-commissioned) often creates a dichotomy between the skill sets and personality types that are drawn to either.

Where the commonality lies is here:

The end objective for both sales and customer service is to provide value to the customer.

5 Lessons Salespeople Can Teach Customer Service Professionals

The mechanics of sales are not a mystery. At last count, there are 17 gazillion books on sales (actual number!), and most of them trumpet sales techniques and ideas that have been around for at least 50 years or more. Some of these techniques have a universality that can be applied to other disciplines, including customer service.

Below are 5 concepts from the sales world that can easily turbocharge your customer service.

#1. Remember, It’s a Numbers Game

Sales is inevitably a process of weeding through a large number of potential customers to find a smaller number of actual customers. This does not mean that you treat people like they are numbers, it simply means that most successful salespeople realize that not every person will become a customer. Successful salespeople understand that they will have to talk to many people who will not become customers to find the ones that will.

Likewise, in customer service, not every existing customer is a prospective future customer. All business models have limits. We cannot be everything to everyone, and failure usually comes quickly when we try to be. Not every customer is a good fit, and sometimes you have to set your customers free. Like a good salesperson, once you realize that a customer relationship is no longer viable, move on to the customers to whom you can still provide a rewarding experience.

#2. Learn How to Identify Buying Signals
5 Lessons Salespeople Can Teach Customer Service | Traffic Signal

Great salespeople develop a sixth sense for buying signals — language or behavior that indicates a person is ready to say yes to the sale.

In customer service, honing this ability and understanding both verbal an nonverbal cues can be an important part of understanding when a customer has not had a great experience or is frustrated by something. Learning what the key service signals are in your business — for instance, knowing that when a restaurant patron is not talking but is looking around, they are looking for a waiter — is an important skill to develop and is as important in customer service as it is in sales.

#3. Find the Customer’s Hot Button

Salespeople often talk about finding a person’s hot button, the prospective customer’s one internal driver that must be met by the product or service and the one button that, if pressed, will result in the sale.

In customer service, understanding the person’s hot button in different areas can be key. What is the most important part of the customer experience to that person? Why does this customer really use our services or products?

To know the customer’s hot button is to know the best way to optimize their customer experience.

#4. Isolate the Objection

Perhaps, one of the most powerful techniques in all of sales is isolating the objection. It works as follows: A prospective customer tells you that they can’t buy today because they really cannot afford the product. You say, so you’re telling me that you like everything about the product, and all that is holding you back today are your concerns about cost, is that correct? When the potential customer agrees, you have taken every other objection off the table but price. Now, all you have to do is work your way through that objection and, if you are successful, you will most likely make the sale.

In customer service, isolating the objection takes the form of isolating concerns, and it is extraordinarily powerful. For instance, if someone was complaining about one aspect of your business, you could say something like, Before I address your concern, I want to make sure it is the only concern you have, because I want you to leave this conversation completely satisfied. Have you been enjoying our service? Do you have any other concerns besides how long you had to wait in line today?

These questions achieve three things: 1) It gets the customer talking about what they do like, not what they are unhappy about. 2) It gets all of the cards out on the table. We’ve all had customers who were just in that complaining space. The conversations drag on because just when you think you have satisfied the issue, the customer says, and another thing. If there are other issues, this gets them on the table up front. If not, then… 3) You have isolated the issue and can hopefully recover the customer by addressing that one challenge.

#5. Use Closing Questions

Closing questions are what many people who hate sales think of as “pushy.” Questions such as the following: So, would you like to put that on your Visa or Mastercard? What color would you like it in? Would you like me to start wrapping that for you? The irony of closing questions is that when good salespeople use them they are a natural part of the conversation and do not feel “salesy” at all.

In customer service, the principle of closing questions is extremely effective. For instance: What can I do to make this right for you today? If I gave you an upgrade on your next service, would that help makeup for the time you lost today? What would it take for me to win your business back? As in sales, closing questions can seem forced and contrived in the wrong hands. They are powerful but have to be used naturally and in the context of a genuine attempt at service recovery.


As you can see, salespeople have some powerful lessons to teach customer service professionals. As you consider these concepts from the world of sales, please note that all great salespeople and all great customer service professionals use “techniques” as a way to help customers get out of their own way so that they can give the company a chance (or another chance) to add value to their lives.

The hard sell sales philosophy memorialized in such movies as Glengarry Glenn Ross and Boiler Room adds nothing to the idea of creating and sustaining long term customer relationships. Churn and burn is a lesson that has no place in the world of customer service. But helping people move past indecision does.

Have you ever watched a truly great salesperson in action? What made them so good? Have you ever gotten the hard sell so bad you wanted to delouse afterwards?

14 thoughts on “5 Lessons Salespeople Can Teach Customer Service Professionals”

  1. Ok, technically I’m not here because I’m off the grid this week….:). But I will do anything for attention.

    Sales is as fickle as social can be; two other other traits that will help you succeed is to have a short-memory and don’t burn any bridges. What goes ’round usually comes ’round in this biz…….

    Thanks for the mention and see you next week.

    1. Yeah, I can’t even see you…

      Definitely with you on burning bridges. Even if you don’t make the sale or keep the customer, good things usually come from positive transitions.

  2. Point #4 is an extremely powerful process that I believe often underused especially when dealing with irate or dissatisfied customers. Great post & Thanks for sharing 😉

  3. You are writing amazing stuff, Adam. These are excellent tips for everyone in business. In PR, I actually sell news to media; it’s a type of selling no one really recognizes, but it’s hard work and the thrill of the “sale” is so cool.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words Jayme! I really appreciate it.

      That’s a great way to frame that part of what you do. I very much subscribe to the theory that everyone is in sales — even if they’re not.

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  5. Hey Adam

    I’ve always been in customer service so I’m not a salesman by trade.

    You’ve given me some great pointers to think about going forward.

    Thank you for sharing.

  6. Really great tips here, Adam. Customer service folks really are in sales, so offering up these techniques to help them strengthen their customer relationships is really smart. I think the closing questions are powerful – especially if you give customer service folks the authority to make things right (which I know you already talk about a lot). Great stuff!

    1. Thanks so much Laura! Glad you liked it. 🙂

      You know, I had this post rattling around in my head for months. There are so many potential parallels between sales and CS, that it took awhile to narrow it down to the ones that were really strong.

  7. Hey Adam, you run right?

    Can I interest you in a used pair of Nikes? They are really light and are only minimally stained with road grime. I will give them to you at a deep discount because I know you through Bill Dorman and he sold me his gut wrenchingly smelly Adidas at an incredible value. If you buy today I will throw in a year’s supply of laces. Shall I ring those up for you now?

    “I very much subscribe to the theory that everyone is in sales — even if they’re not.”

    If I could only convince my entire team of designers, techs and project managers that they are selling every time they produce an accurate document, respond to our clients with enthusiasm or share their knowledge with the team I would be the best leadership professional in the A+D profession known to man.

    Great tips and techniques. Another valuable post that I can reference in my future Lessons Learned sessions with my team.

    1. It’s really hard to pass up a bargain like that Ralph… unfortunately, before making a purchasing decision of such consequence, I have to check with my spouse. 🙂

      Appreciate the kind words Ralph. There are certain situations (and even professions) where it is hard to convey the idea that we are “always on” with the customer, no matter what our role in the customer experience is. Every thing you mention carries a sales message with it, even if unintentional.

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