Welcome to "The Pipeline" — a weekly column from HubSpot, featuring actionable advice and insight from real sales leaders.
Sales is, in large part, the art of establishing trust in a tight window. Any prospect who buys from you is trusting that your solution is the best possible fit to suit their needs and that you‘re selling it because you sincerely believe that — but legitimate trust isn’t rooted exclusively in goodwill and friendliness.
A prospect isn‘t going to invest in your offering just because you seem like a decent person who has their best interest in mind. They need to know you know what you’re talking about if they're going to make a major purchase from you — in other words, you need to project authority if you want to be persuasive.
But what exactly does authority mean in this context? And how, exactly, do you build it with your prospects? Well, I‘ve put together this handy guide to help answer both of those questions. Let’s dive in.
What is authority in sales?
Sales is a consultative practice. As a sales professional, you need to act as a reliable resource who can consistently and effectively educate a prospect throughout a sale. That “educational” element rests on your ability to frame yourself as a diligent, organized professional with extensive expertise.
You need to be a specialist who has a grip on your solution, your prospect's business, its unique challenges, its constraints, and other key elements that will inform the “how” and “why” behind their decision-making process.
Authority is central to staying in control of the sales process. It shows that you have the composure and steadiness to thoughtfully guide your prospect to a solution that works for them. Prospects aren‘t inclined to buy from a disorganized, under-educated, underprepared hot mess who doesn’t thoroughly understand their company's unique circumstances.
Sales professionals who convey authority through factors like preparation, extensive product knowledge, and well-earned confidence set both themselves and their customers up for success.
How to Build Authority With Prospects
1. Start your calls with an agenda and a question.
Setting an agenda shows your prospect you’ve thought deeply about your business relationship and how to productively advance it.
Always ask your prospect to review your agenda and confirm it makes sense. Steamrolling your prospect is the opposite of authority — there’s a huge difference between being controlling and being in control (more on that later). Be flexible and willing to adapt if that’s what your prospect wants.
Your leading question signals that while you’re in control, you’re not going to force your prospect into anything. You care what they have to say. Some examples of good opening questions include:
- “How's everything going [in relation to discussed goals or plans]?” Ask for a status update early on to quickly surface potential roadblocks.
- “When we last spoke, we discussed X and decided on Y. Does Y still make sense?” Confirm that you and your prospect are on the same page. If you're not, find out why.
- “Before we get started today, is there anything you think I should know?” A mix of the previous two, this question allows your prospect to discuss information that's important to them — and may wind up being crucial to your sale.
2. Demonstrate your experience.
If a salesperson told you, “Trust me, I’ve seen your situation a million times — everything will be fine,” how would you respond?
You probably wouldn't say something to the effect of, “Oh, neat! You must be totally on top of things. Carry on.”
If you’re savvy, you’d say something like, “Oh, really? Give me an example.”
Prospects aren't going to just take you at your word. Authority comes from experience, and projecting the former is often a matter of demonstrating the latter. Your track record won't speak for itself — you need to know how to speak for it.
Whether it be through sharing anecdotal examples, setting up a call with a satisfied customer, or providing a walkthrough of the sales process, you need to back up the claims you make with hard proof.
Authority with a prospect needs some sort of concrete basis — you can only cultivate it if you have relevant experience and the ability to convey it compellingly.
3. Work how the prospect wants to work.
What’s the difference between being controlling and being in control?
A controlling salesperson is rigid and inflexible. They won’t change their approach no matter what their prospect says — they believe that their way is the only way. And guess what? They probably don't close a lot of deals.
A rep who’s in control recognizes that that isn‘t a productive mentality. They’re not afraid to adapt their strategies if a prospect needs something a little different. By being adaptable, they demonstrate that they're an expert seller — all while making their prospect feel as comfortable as possible. The takeaway? Always ask your prospect if they’re on the same page as you before taking a step.
For example, you might say, “What I’d like to do now is spend 30 minutes taking you through X. Is that okay with you? Will you let me know if I start talking too fast, too slow, or if you have any questions?”
By getting your prospect’s buy-in, you’ve automatically made them a stakeholder in the process and confirmed that you’re proceeding at their desired cadence.
4. Reconcile professionalism with personality.
I love making people laugh. When people are having a good time, they’re more relaxed and more real.
Authority doesn’t mean being so lofty and out-of-reach that your prospects can’t relate to you. I use analogies to make my prospects smile — “moving faster than a hungry dog to a hot dog cart” is one of my favorites. Humor allows me to foster a connection with my prospect, who is then more likely to tell me the truth.
Here’s another way in which I bring my personality to selling. I like to ask whether the process has been easy or hard, stressful or relaxing, fun or a pain. This tells me whether the prospect has done this before and is following a set plan, or is winging it and needs a bit more help.
You can‘t get by on likability alone, but I always bring my personality to the table because the rapport I build with my prospects makes them more receptive to my direction. Ultimately, prospects are more likely to be forthcoming if they feel you’re genuine. And unless you understand their needs, you can't tailor the sales process to their unique situation.
5. Recap and provide next steps.
At the end of every conversation, clearly list next steps for both you and your prospect — supported by a concrete timeline. Email out a written summary after each call recapping what’s been done and what’s next, and ask for updates, changes, or questions.
Organization is key when building authority. Again, you want to show that you're in control of the process — coming across as scatterbrained or leaving key details of a deal ambiguous are two of the quickest ways to undermine that.
Your prospects are busy people, and the onus isn't on them to direct the process and stay on top of its details. You need to remain put together and remind them of what they can expect next.
You consistently close deals if you can‘t establish yourself as a rock-solid resource for your prospects. They need to be able to rely on you and put stock in what you say — neither of those things can happen if you don’t project authority.