While reading many books written by top professional salespeople, a common thread appears: All sales conversations begin with any subject except the product they’re selling and continue that way until the customer changes the flow.

How can this be? As a customer entering a retail store, if you are greeted, doesn’t the salesperson usually ask something as inane as, “What can we do for you today?” “Did you come in response to our sale?” or “What rooms are you interested in covering?”

Aren’t we taught to speak about our merchandise, service and warrantees? What do these elite salespeople know that most salespeople don’t? They understand that unless you gain a customer’s trust, you are just another salesperson saying anything to sell your products. In short, customers are not going to believe a good portion of what you say.

Until you can win their trust, you are not going to reach your potential as a professional.

How do you gain trust? Generally people trust those they like. Therefore, professional selling breaks down to “The Art of Being Liked.” Failure to recognize this fact dooms you to, dare I say it, failure.

It’s so critical to the successful sales process my fellow columnist, Kelly Kramer, writes under the banner of “Trusted Advisor.” Your goal is to become their trusted advisor.

While conducting a sales seminar many years ago with two legends of the industry at the Retail Floorcovering Industry convention, my portion of the program was how to get close to the customer. Of course it was all about making a friend, which prompted one of my colleagues to interrupt my session to explain that, “Of course, Warren doesn’t mean ‘real friends,’ like your personal friends, customers are really business friends.”

To which I retorted, “This is exactly what I mean: Making real friends.” After the session, these two greats of the industry jumped on me for this opinion. Unfortunately, I lost a lot of respect for both of them.

On another occasion, a retired mill rep mentioned to me that if he ever went to a store and the salesperson attempted to speak with him about personal issues, he would walk out of the store. Doing anything right tends to attract a lot of controversy, giving credence to what my mother told me long ago: “Warren, if everyone is doing it, it’s wrong.”

Doesn’t it ever occur to these people that heretofore strangers coming into your store are all someone’s best friend or someone’s mother, daughter or son, loved and respected as much as you love and respect your own friends and relatives? My mother’s advice made me successful as a salesman, retailer and sales educator.

Almost all sales educators talk about techniques as if they are the most important elements of the sale: Greeting, qualifying, presentation, overcoming objections and, of course, the dreaded closing. What sets me apart is that I actually teach people to make friends with strangers based on my research of the few really great salespeople—and the results have always been amazing. Retailers and salespeople report sales figures that increased two, three times and more after attending my sales schools, seminars, reading my books and viewing my DVDs.

The view that getting close to customers was maybe as important as techniques was demonstrated by the popularity of “relationship selling,” but in my mind, it wasn’t intimate enough. Intimacy is difficult for most people, which is why few people really have the ability to become professional salespeople. It takes courage to become intimate with people. Selling takes courage.

Through the years we have had some strange sales methods introduced in our industry. One guy spent an hour exhorting salespeople to tell customers, “Come with me and I’ll show you how it’s done.” I really can’t remember what else he said during that hour.

Others have taught salespeople to profile customers psychologically. I have witnessed owners coming out of these meetings saying: “Great, now I have to get my people to study for a degree in psychology!”

Or the most confusing was the FAB system that came from IBM. To me it was simple, but I would see educators stumbling over how to explain F, feature; A, advantage, and B, benefit. If the facilitators were having problems with it, how did they expect salespeople in front of customers to get it right? The industry invested tons of money into what I now look back at what were substandard programs.

Even our own industry programs fail to see selling as the art of making friends, which is the difference between average and great salespeople. I know [many] sales educators respect my work because whenever I sit in on their sessions, they ask for critiques. I just wish they would teach the importance of making a friend.

My past articles have dealt with the disreputable advertising practices of companies like Empire Today, the big boxes and other national flooring retailers. Salespeople are continually asked by customers, “How can you beat Lowe’s or The Home Depot in price?” because to them, upon entering these several hundred thousand square foot emporiums, they are under the impression they have to be cheaper. They may even ask about the “Buy Two Rooms and get the Rest of Your House Free” ads or do you have “Whole House Free Installation”?

I’ve explained these deceptive ads in previous articles. However, if you haven’t made a friend, she will believe your honest explanation is just “sour grapes.”

The next installment will take you through the steps of making real friends with strangers, how to practice and things like why kids and dogs are so important to the process. People, unlike my mill critic, wear their heart on their sleeve and are looking to talk to someone, even anyone, about the loss of a loved one, illnesses, family problems, an upcoming operation and other things their own family and friends are uncomfortable with. It takes courage, but this is what real salesmanship is all about.