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Chameleon-Style Selling


By Deb Calvert, President, People First Productivity Solutions

The first time someone told me that a good sales rep is like a chameleon, I vehemently argued against the notion that sellers would ever “change their color.” How disingenuous! My position was that the best sales reps are authentic, true to themselves, transparent and consistent in how they represent themselves and their companies.

I've come around. No, I haven’t changed my mind (or my color) on this one. But I have realized that these two qualities are not mutually exclusive. I still hold firm about the need to be authentic in selling because robo-selling just doesn't work. What I've learned, though, is that it is possible and even essential to adapt my style to the people I’m selling to… without giving up who I am or in any way misrepresenting myself. This is a fine line, so let me explain.

In a way, I've always understood the need to adapt to others. I did it instinctively. As I defined “being myself,” I noticed that empathizing with others and modifying my style choices to communicate effectively are parts of me that I value. There have been times when I have withheld adapting to others and times when I have tried too hard and forced myself to adapt in ways that were not comfortable or authentic. Both extremes took me down the path that felt disingenuous.
Being true to myself includes naturally adapting to others, making space for their style and preferences. It makes me (gasp) a chameleon! And I’m okay with that. You see, a chameleon doesn't really change. Only its appearance changes as it blends into its surroundings. For the chameleon, this is a matter of survival. Perhaps that could be true for sales reps, too.

Sales reps who pitch the same product the same way over and over again fail to connect with prospects and customers. Sales reps who pitch what they want to sell seldom fare better in forming genuine connections. I've observed both types, and I've heard both types justify their selling style with comments like “This is who I am. Take it or leave it.” Some go further, saying they've chosen the selling profession because it’s one with lots of freedom to be yourself.
I’m not buying it any more. I think it actually boils down to a lazy, lackadaisical way of doing business. Being a chameleon requires a lot more effort than doing what you please, how you please.

Buyers want us to be chameleons. This isn't about being fake or manipulative. It’s about being tuned in and responsive. What we hear from empowered buyers in the new age of selling is that they want (and even demand) sellers they can trust. At the heart of trust is connection. Being a chameleon enables you to connect and, therefore, to be trusted.
At the risk of being misunderstood, let me magnify this distinction even more. I am not talking about putting on an act, turning on the charm, or schmoozing to gain favor. The stereotypical con artist behaviors that give our profession a bad name are exactly the opposite of what I’m suggesting here. Adapting your style does not mean you are trying to fool someone. It is the equivalent of speaking more slowly when you interact with someone who has a different first language than yours. It is a courtesy similar to yielding in traffic even though you’re in a hurry. The purpose of adapting is to make room for someone else to be in the relationship with you.

Psychometric instruments like DISC and MBTI include training on how to adapt style in selling situations. It’s not difficult to understand or to do, but relatively few sales reps adapt their style from one sales call to the next, treating all customers the same. The opening patter when they greet the customer is unchanged from one sales call to the next. The manner in which they present information is rote. Their tone, mannerisms and pacing through the sales call is “cut and paste.” When I ask sellers about this, it often takes them by surprise. Most have not thought about making stylistic changes to suit the customer.

At a minimum, the following considerations should be made. Even without studying personality type, these are common sense adaptations that can easily be integrated into any sales process and into every sales call.


  • For prospects and customers who ask detailed questions, provide more details. Some people need to have concrete examples, facts, figures, and a logical case laid out when they make a decision. You’ll know who they are if you ask a few questions about how they make decisions and what they value. You’ll see them go straight into the numbers you provide. And you’ll notice little clues in their office, too, like spreadsheets to be analyzed and neatly organized shelves.


  • For prospects and customers who talk about the future and get excited by new possibilities, brainstorm away. Some people need time to create and envision themselves where no one has ever gone before. You’ll know who they are if they perk up when you ask questions about what they are creating, about their vision, and what they value. You’ll hear them describing long-term goals and dreams. And you’ll see them showing less interest in facts and figures which may bore or alienate them during your presentation.


  • For prospects and customers who seem very people-oriented, indulge in personal conversation. Be sure to ask about family and co-workers. Remember the details about life events and send cards or well wishes on birthdays and anniversaries. When asking for a decision, be sure to include the people part of the equation – what it means to the team, how the family or group will be impacted, etc. You’ll recognize these buyers by the photos of people they surround themselves with, the open way they ask about you and your colleagues and who you might know in common, and their expectation that there be “small talk” before getting down to business.


  • For prospects and customers who seem introverted, pausing before they answer your questions and perhaps acting a bit reserved, give them space and time. Introverts prefer to process information internally and feel pressured when there is a rapid-fire dialogue and the expectation of a quick reply. Silence is very important here, so ask a question and pause. Be comfortable in the silence instead of trying to fill it in. You’ll be surprised at how much more effective you’ll be when you allow just 15 seconds of thinking time for these buyers.


  • For prospects and customers who want a plan of action, lay it all out up front. Some people prefer to “make it up as they go along.” If that is your style, just know that the buyers who prefer a solid plan with schedules and structure in place will think that you are “flighty” and may have a tough time trusting you. You’ll know who these buyers are if you ask them what they expect of a sales rep and if you hear questions or comments that suggest a need for rigor.


Adapting to some of these styles will be a stretch, and it may even be uncomfortable. If you’re not into numbers and logic, adapt your style to show respect for your customer’s finesse. Don’t be afraid of their questions about the analysis – take someone on the call with you from marketing or finance if it’s going to get so deep in minutiae that you truly won’t be able to keep up. Figure out similar workarounds for whichever style makes you squirm. You will be more effective when you do this, and you will develop a sense of ease over time if you stretch yourself. Soon, you’ll be just like the chameleon, adapting without thinking about in response to the environment you've encountered.


Written by Deb Calvert,

Sales Expert for ManagingAmericans.com & President, People First Productivity Solutions.


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