Mike Southon

Mike Southon co-founded The Instruction Set in 1984, following a period treading the boards and working as a site manager on oil rigs. Five years later it was bought by global IT consultancy Hoskyns and since then Southon’s worked with numerous growing companies. He is co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur

The first company I ran was a software consultancy and it was incredibly easy to sell the products. Unfortunately, that meant that I came away with the belief that I could sell anything to whoever I liked, which isn’t true for any salesperson.

Different salespeople have very different skills and you need a mix in your team if it’s going to work. For instance, I don’t think I was a good salesperson, but people liked me. Relationships are everything in sales and you soon realise that it’s much easier to work with people that you get on with.

That’s why it’s very difficult to sell anything over the phone, unless it’s something small, like booking someone into a conference, in which case it’s more about getting their details. I rarely do phone selling because I find it intrusive and impersonal. Cold calling is hell for those doing it and for the people receiving the call.

Don’t be a door-to-door salesman
There’s a stereotype of people in sales that paints a picture of someone who tells lies and pushes you into purchasing a product or service you don’t want. Lots of people push too hard to close a deal and end up alienating the customer, simply because people don’t like to feel they’re being aggressively sold to. There was a time when I thought I had to be a ruthless salesperson, but that approach doesn’t work; selling should be straightforward and easy.

I learnt that selling is about putting yourself in the position of the client and trying to relate to their needs and wants. That’s why the best approach is to talk to your clients and, if you’ve enjoyed a certain amount of success and want to launch a new product, find out what it is they need. It’s the ‘Do you want fries with that?’ tactic. Selling to your existing customers is always much easier than trying to find new ones.

Another major difficulty that people run into is lack of sales training – I’m a huge fan of it. Few people are taught how to sell properly.

You’ll find that your sales team’s performance improves dramatically following a training session. It can be a huge morale booster and they’ll come away feeling energised and wanting to put into practice what they’ve been discussing.

One thing a course teaches is not to discuss money. Even though that’s the main focus for you as a salesperson, the customer will be worried about when they’re going to get delivery of the product, or whether it fixes their problem. The price should be one of the last things that you talk about.

Trust your employees
As an owner-manager, your ability to build a team and learn to delegate is important. It’s part of an entrepreneur’s nature to be confident and charismatic, but they can also be pretty arrogant and controlling, which means that they end up trying to do everything themselves.

The phrase ‘Why buy a dog and bark yourself?’ springs to mind here. You really need to make the most of the people around you – the cornerstones of your business.

I don’t mean individuals that will agree with you all the time and tell you that you’re brilliant. You need to surround yourself with the type who will stand up for themselves – business isn’t about spreadsheets and figures, it’s all about people and having a passionate team.


Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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