Like It or Not, You’re in Sales

By • November 5, 2012

 As most of you will agree, an association’s mission is to serve its members and advance the best interests of the industry or profession it represents. To do so, you must attract and retain members, develop sources of non-dues revenue to support your efforts and do whatever it takes to influence policy makers positively on your organization’s behalf. Every employee, board member, volunteer and general member affiliated with your association should be focused on this mission. In other words, you’ve got to sell that mission every day to everyone with whom you come in contact. Of course, that’s more easily said than done.

  • Even if you don’t have the word “sales” in your job title, you’re in a sales capacity if you work for an association.
  • Like all good sales people, everyone at your association should be able to clearly articulate your mission and value proposition without hesitation to members and non-members alike.
  • To “sell” your organization effectively, you must know your facts and have the knowledge. But equally important, you must communicate that knowledge in a meaningful and believable way.
  • Learning and training is not a one-time event. It’s an ongoing process.

I’ve been in sales for most of my career. And just like I need to know the facts cold about Naylor’s products, services, pricing model and business philosophy in order to grow our company’s business, you need to know your association’s mission, philosophy and membership value proposition cold in order to do your job well.

We’ll discuss ways you in which you can improve your selling and advocacy skills in just a minute.

“But, I’m not a salesperson”

Actually, you are, whether you realize it or not. For instance, if you answer the main switchboard, you’re not an admin. You’re in sales. You’re the first point of contact most members (and prospective members) have with the organization. Your demeanor, willingness to help, and knowledge of the organization sets the caller’s expectations for future interaction with other members of the organization. If you work in member services, you’re constantly selling the value of your association dues to members and prospective members alike. Your thorough knowledge of your organization’s products, services, events and pricing policies can make or break the member’s decision to send in a due renewal statement.

If you’re on the publishing or communications team, guess what, you’re in sales, too. As my editorial colleague, Hank Berkowitz, likes to say: “An editor’s job is to sell your content to readers each and every day.” You’ve got to give members a reason to take time out of their busy days to spend time reading your articles and continually opt-in to receive your online communications. If you’re on the volunteer committee, you’re in sales, too. You’re selling the credibility and industry influence of your association to prospective volunteers who serve on your conference planning, advocacy and education committees. They’re busy people, too, and you better give them a reason to justify spending so much time on your association’s behalf. If you’re in marketing, you’re constantly selling the membership benefits of your association and what its brand and mission stands for. Are you detecting a pattern here?

Real life example
Back when I was 23, our company founder, Brent Naylor, and our Vice Chairman, Michael Moss, went out on a limb and decided to take me on the road with them to “knock on the doors” of associations to sell Naylor’s services. However, the exhilaration of that promotion didn’t last long.

About one hour after getting my promotion, I learned that the following week, Brent was going to host two days of role playing exercises with his business development team. Knowing Brent and his commitment to perfection, I was terrified at the prospect of having my pitch dissected and analyzed by one of the best sales people I had ever met.

As the rookie on the team—both in terms of experience and age—I didn’t want them to regret the trust they had placed in me. So I spent the next seven days trying to perfect my sales story. I fine-tuned my introductory phone call, I tweaked and re-tweaked my in-person presentation and I attempted to consider all possible objections to hiring us that a potential client could raise and how I would expertly diffuse those objections.

I did my best to make my pitches as conversational as possible and recorded them on a tape to analyze how I sounded. I even cajoled my wife into answering the house phone while assuming the role of a harried association executive who was too busy to talk to me.

Lessons learned
This “trial-by-fire” taught me two very valuable lessons that have stuck with me to this day. First, you must know the facts and have the knowledge. But equally important, you must communicate that knowledge in a meaningful and believable way.

The central service that Naylor provides to our association clients is selling advertising on their behalf and driving non-dues revenue. To do so effectively, we must know the “bullets” for the association and get our sales team to the point that they know the client’s value proposition and the industry it represents as well as the association does. The bullets are the hard hitting facts, the facts that we must communicate effectively to a potential advertiser so they will invest their marketing dollars with us and feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth at the end of their campaign. I have attended hundreds of association meetings over the years and have met with everyone from executive directors and CEOs to book keepers and administrative assistants.

Sure, I’m pretty outgoing by nature, but the point of every discussion is to learn as much as you can about the organization you’re pitching. Who are the members? How is the industry that it serves doing? How much market share does the association command? How large is its addressable market? How much do the members spend each year on products and services, etc.?

As you might imagine, the association staffers I talk to have a wide variety of institutional knowledge and the most knowledgeable employees are not necessarily the long-time veterans or the ones at the top of the organizational chart. Some can give me a well-rehearsed elevator pitch. Others give me a blank stare, while still others remark: “Good question. I wish I had the answer to that.”

Thanks to our research team, we sometimes walk into meetings with our clients with information about their membership or their industry of which they themselves weren’t aware.

Putting it into action
Rewind the clock 14 years. My big day of role playing came. I was in Brent’s living room, surrounded by eight others sitting on the edge of my seat. I dove into my opening presentation and made it exactly 30 seconds into my pitch before Brent interrupted me to tell me that if I called him with that approach, he’d have hung up on me. And you know what? I couldn’t have been happier. Why? I had actually lasted 20 seconds longer before being interrupted than my colleagues before me.

Recently, I tried the Brent Naylor “bullet point” role-play approach with my own team. We learned a lot from this exercise as my team showed a wide range of knowledge and succinctness in their responses and learned where to tighten up their deliveries. I would recommend asking your staff, your board members, your volunteers and even your members: “Who are we? What impact do we have on our industry? Why should someone join our association?” I am sure that they know the answer, but can they deliver the bullets effectively?

Brent knew that I knew the facts; his focus was how I presented them.

As my sales colleague, Chris Caldwell, remarked at a recent roundtable discussion we had for our clients: “We’re finally coming out of the recession. All these people will be fighting for your members’ time, eyeballs and dollars. There’s never been a more important time to be the No.1 voice and trusted brand in your industry.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Charles Popper is Naylor’s vice president of association relations. He has more than 15 years of business-to-business and consumer publishing experience.

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