The Relationship between Selling and Teaching

I was running a class for sales training facilitators last week, when the conversation turned to the similarities between teaching and selling. Good salespeople do a lot of teaching, and good teachers do a lot of selling. Both professionals only succeed if their customers or pupils do—you can’t be a teacher unless someone learns, and you can’t sell without someone buying.

Churchill said, “Personally, I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like to be taught”, a phrase which mirrors the old sales adage that people like to buy but don’t like to be sold, and the skills required to get them to this point are the same for both professions.

Both professions know that their success hinges on commanding attention, and both know they have to tune in to WIFM (What’s in it for me?) to get the attention of their listeners. My brother-in-law, a high school math teacher, is always asked by his students why they need to learn some formulas or operations that they will probably never use. He tells them it’s like mental weightlifting: you won’t do those exact movements in sports or in daily life, but it strengthens your muscles for the movements you do make.

Except for transactional sales that can be closed in one call, both professions rely on the listener taking appropriate action based on the information they receive. It’s not enough that they get it; you have to ensure that they act on it. For example, when I run a training session I always tell the students that I see it as a sales call, in which my purpose is to gain their willing commitment to use the processes and techniques they learn during the session. The best way to ensure that they will act on what you tell them is to make it their idea. That’s why salespeople and teachers both use questions to draw the right thinking out of the customer or the pupil. Whether it’s SPIN selling or the Socratic method, both approaches recognize that when the other person discovers something for themselves, compliance or learning are much more likely.

With teachers as well as salespeople, their listeners may question or object to what they are telling them, and that is a good thing. The poor ones in each profession want to get through their sales or lesson plan as efficiently as possible, with a minimum of interruptions, but the good ones know that the lack of questions is a bad thing, because it means that the other person just does not care enough to put up a fuss. Besides, the toughest objection to handle is the one you don’t get. The best teachers encourage healthy debate and have the humility to learn from the pupil; excellent salespeople listen far more than they speak. But both also have the confidence in their message that they are willing to challenge the other when they just don’t get it.

Persuasion often requires teaching, and teaching often requires persuasion. If you teach, think about doing a little more selling; if you sell, think about doing a little more teaching.


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