How to overcome shame in selling – as business owner and seller

“Twende?,” the boda boda rider or matatu tout will gesture at you asking, a smile on his face and with zero shame. All that matters to him is that you are a potential customer (passenger), sale. Hold that mental image for now. It’ll make sense shortly. For now, is shame limiting you from sales or business success? Shame in selling is a powerful and often overlooked force that can cripple even the most skilled sales professionals or business owners. It’s a silent barrier that limits salespeople from growing and achieving their goals. The vast majority of salespeople and most business owners won’t admit it, yet they feel significant levels of shame and embarrassment. Shame in selling manifests in various ways. Here are four such ways shame could be preventing you from progressing and what you can do about it.

Read: 3 lessons in selling from matatu crew

Shame in selling-“I cannot be seen to be selling”

Most business owners stumble on this fact with absolute surprise: “I must sell.” Caught up in their product (say, unique safari experiences), it never occurs to them that they must sell, until they open shop and boom!, there. Now, truth be told, selling has a bad rap. This rap triggers and accelerates shame in selling. Slimy, sleazy, pushy, ugh, yuck, difficult, annoying, manipulative, con, dishonest, untrustworthy, lying and many more such debilitating words are what research shows selling is associated with. It’s seen as something you do to someone not with, or for, someone.

Read: Selling is going against the societal grain, and calls for stoic discipline

And this is the genesis of shame for businessowners and salespeople. Some business owners’ close shop on account of the revelation that they must sell. Their argument: “I’m a business owner, not some ‘slimy con artist’.” Entrepreneurial ones, like Paul Kinuthia, rise to the occasion. Others, outsource the sales function to businesses that offer such plug and play selling services. Others call us and say, “I want you to train my salespeople. I don’t want to be involved. I’ll get them leads as I’m good at (say, digital marketing).” Good luck with that we advise them. The business owner that thrives, divorced from his business’ Sales function is an outlier.

Read: Never say, ‘I can’t sell’ once you start a business. Do this instead

You don’t ask for the sale

Some salespeople and business owners pitch but don’t even instigate the close. Sometimes it’s pride (more accurately, hubris) that’s preventing you from asking for the sale (closing). You tell yourself, “It’s beneath me.” But, sometimes, it’s shame. “What is he refuses? I’ll feel rejected.” And quite likely you haven’t recovered from the last time that happened.  In fact, you still cling on to that past rejection as a life-line and reason why you don’t even show authority to close. No, that wave you feel is not fear- it’s a wave of shame. Because that is the meaning you gave the rejection. Such self-awareness is key to overcoming shame. “You don’t understand. He rudely shouted me out of his office. I was humiliated.” Of course, you were.

Now, that experience can be (not necessarily, is) humiliating. Borrow a leaf from informal sellers, and reframe how you see rejection. Change the meaning. Hawkers face rejection multiple times. Every day. You did so once. Last year. Maybe learn from them – they are much more experienced. When you roll up your window as they approach, or you tell them off, or respond with, “Sio leo,” (not today), they don’t hang their heads in shame. No. They reason, “Maybe she had a bad day at work,” Or: “Maybe this incessant traffic has gotten to her.”

Some days they reason: “Tomorrow, when I’m selling umbrellas and it’s raining, she may be more responsive.” More confident ones will even assert, “Madam, hakuna haja ya kelele. Kuwa mpole. Niko job. Kama hutaki sema tu. Customer ni wengi.” In sum, unlike you who internalises it, they externalise the rebuff, and simply move on to the next vehicle (customer).

Read: Selling is not closing but to close you must sell. Confused? Read on

shame in selling

Mwinyi shows no shame in selling

“Boss, ni kubaya. (Things are bad (sic)). If you don’t give me an order I’ll be fired.” And he would get it. And that was Mwinyi for you. He had zero shame in asking for help especially if it would result in a sale. Mwinyi sold for one of our top book sellers and indeed he was the top seller, not just for that book seller, but in their industry. He would make that request of book resellers he had cultivated relationships with, and even others that admired him. He didn’t choose. If the quarter was not looking up, and the heat (pressure for numbers) was intense, he had no qualms asking for that favour. “Not all come through, of course. But, hey, there’s plenty resellers out there, I know,” he explains.

Now let’s contrast him with this seller. “They laughed at my proposal. They said, and I quote, that it was ‘unrealistic’” That was from a salesperson, who works for a major telecommunications company. He remembers vividly the day a potential corporate client laughed at his proposal, calling it unrealistic. Since then, his enthusiasm for pitching innovative ideas has waned. He sticks to safe, conventional pitches, which rarely stand out in the competitive market. His creativity and potential remain untapped, shackled by the memory of that one humiliating experience. Such emotional burden can lead to a decrease in performance, lower self-esteem, and ultimately, lost sales opportunities. The impact of shame is not just psychological; it has tangible effects on business outcomes. You are much less likely to meet your targets.

So, like the hawker, pick up your pieces, learn from your errors and try again. Alternatively, change your company-associate with those you want to be like-even if they are outside your team or company. Like Mwinyi.

Read: Avoid showing desperation when selling. Here’s why

Shame in selling: Asking for referrals

Now then. You know referrals are a key part of growing your business, but you feel a deep sense of shame and discomfort when asking your clients for referrals. You fear coming across as pushy or desperate, so you avoid the topic altogether. A costly mistake.  Referrals are the most potent method of prospecting. Leads from referrals convert at a much higher rate (three times) than those from other sources. Instead of letting shame limit you, normalize asking for referrals instead. “Normalize discussing sensitive topics like sex with your children,” so counsellors and successful parents advise. And it’s true. It works because it removes the stigma of shame associated with it. So develop a script or strategy for asking for referrals that feels natural to you, and rehearse it to build confidence.

Read: How to get quality sales referrals

Unlocking your sales success

In conclusion, shame in selling is a formidable challenge, but it is not insurmountable. By recognizing its impact and implementing strategies to overcome it, you can transform your approach and accelerate your progress. Remember, embrace vulnerability-it comes with the territory. You will make mistakes. The journey to becoming a successful salesperson is not just about closing sales; it’s about personal growth and resilience. So, the next time you face a sales challenge, ask yourself: Like the boda boda rider at the opening, are you ready to break free from the chains of shame and reach new heights in your sales career? Yes? Twende!

Read: Reasons why many salespeople are not growing in the profession


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