Sales Lessons We Learn From Friendship

by Alycia Sutor /

A recent op-ed in Fortune by Mallun Yen, “How Friendship Holds Women Back in Their Careers—And What They Can Do About It,” lamented the “false dichotomy between personal relationships and the transactionality of business” that women feel prevents them from doing business with personal friends. Instead of shying away from engaging these contacts, Yen argues, women should embrace the emotion and empathy that underpin female friendship—and put it to use in their business development process, in some cases turning friends into colleagues.

This discussion resonates with us here at GrowthPlay because we’ve made it our mission to train and coach professionals in the services sector to increase their business development effectiveness. And one thing we’ve learned in doing this work is that some of the qualities we often think of as “feminine” (though they’re really just human) are the key to becoming a great rainmaker.

Some professionals struggle to sell their services because it feels unnatural and self-interested to ask for business. We agree. When sales has a negative connotation of being pushy or aggressive, it really helps to shift your mindset. Sales can be and should be about acts of service rather than acts of self-interest—just like a healthy friendship. At its heart, sales is about relationships: getting to know potential clients and seeking to understand whether they have a particular problem that your services could help solve. When you approach sales this way, it’s less about asking for business and more about finding ways to help someone you care about.

What does this mindset look like on the ground? In addition to asking how you can help each time you meet with someone you’d like to work with, utilize your powers of observation, interest, and care by taking note of what is going on in this person’s life. This information will help you identify which of the three “Ins” might be helpful:

  • Introductions: Who do I know that could be interesting, on-point, or helpful to this person, and how might I connect them?
  • Invitations: What groups, events, or other resources do I have access to that could be interesting, on-point, or helpful to this person?
  • Insight: What content, thought leadership, or wisdom could I share that might be interesting, on-point, or helpful to this person?

Another way a sales relationship should mirror a friendship is in a willingness to dream out loud. Share your vision, goals, dreams, and desires with friends and potential clients, and then seek out their advice, feedback and insight. These conversations can create a comfortable alternative to asking directly for their business and instead open a space for imagining collaborations that may not have come to light otherwise. Dream Out Loud conversations allow you to boldly claim a vision for the future, such as “My goal is to build business relationships with business owners like you.” But, instead of putting someone on the spot by saying “I’d love your work,” you can create a more authentic invitation by asking questions such as, “What advice would you give me if I wanted to position my firm to be more relevant to companies like yours?” or “What would a firm like mine need to do to stand out from the pack or really delight or wow a company like yours?” or “What else should I be doing to invest in building a reputation that would be inviting or appealing to business owners?”

We choose our friendships in part because we share common interests, values, and goals, both personally and professionally. Where this authentic connection exists, so does the possibility of mutually beneficial business opportunities. Embracing a generous, service-oriented mindset will help you overcome uneasiness and envision a kind of client service that includes friends both old and new.