At 11:59 PM on a Monday night, I lay wide awake in bed, begging my mind to let me sleep. I had to get up early to spend the next full day in an 8-hour interview process for a job I coveted: a senior position on a high-powered team of executive coaches, and every one I’d met was a great person to work with.
I tried to reason with my own mind by saying that I’d been through this kind of thing before, that I was well prepared and already knew a few of the stakeholders in the hiring process. It didn’t matter. Going into an interview is a special kind of mental torture: it’s an inspection of my worth. In effect, I’m walking up to a group of people and trying to convince them that I’m a “good enough person” for them to take me in and share their resources. It triggers primeval defense circuitry in my brain. Tribal instincts question whether I’ll be left to fend for myself in the forest afterward.
Giving up on the idea of a good night’s rest, I grabbed my tablet and tried to play a game. My mind kept dwelling on the interview process, complaining about how invasive and personal it is. I felt indignant that I had to interview for a job at all, that they were questioning whether I was a fit for their team. I’ve been selling services like theirs for years in my own businesses, after all. I knew they could drop me off at their client’s doorstep and I’d deliver value all day. They just needed to see me in action doing the work, instead of questioning who I am and what motivates me.
I stopped suddenly. My finger hovered above a virtual playing card on the tablet’s screen. I actually sat bolt upright in bed, like a character in a cheesy movie, and yelled, “Oh my god!” to nobody.
I wasn’t going in tomorrow for an interview. I was going in for a sales visit.
I’ve been an entrepreneur for years. My latest venture sells a high-value service to businesses looking to solve very specific problems. I operate in a relationship-driven market, so the sales cycle is months long, sometimes over a year. I have to get in front of a prospect several times, usually by speaking or writing, or by showing up at events I expect them to attend. It’s nothing unique, just the same hustle as selling in any other high-end market like jewelry, realty, or secondary life insurance.
There’s an account I’ve been working for several months. A small business with a team of brilliant people who could, I think, really use my service. I learned about them at a local professional meetup last year and have been trying to get their attention since. I spoke at that meetup, then at a bigger event they like to attend. I wrote some articles on topics in their domain. I met their primary buyer and kept in touch with her. After a few months, she connected me to a purchasing manager and got me a video call with him.
The call went great. I introduced myself, asked questions about him, and listened to him talk about his company’s needs. I asked about how they’re filling those needs now and suggested general ways they might look at fulfillment differently. By the end of the call, the manager said he liked my approach and saw the value of my offering.
The buyer called me out of the blue recently, on a Friday, to invite me to meet the entire buy group on a visit to their office. The purchasing manager would be there, as well as other gatekeepers and influencers. Amazing! They wanted me to give a product demo to the whole group, to take part in a team meeting about their organizational needs, and to meet one-on-one with each influencer. I was floored. I might be able to sway the entire account in a single day! I spent the weekend and a couple more days preparing.
By deciding to “sell my labor” instead of interviewing, I found an incredible benefit: psychological flexibility. Selling something isn’t about personal worth; it’s about looking for a fit between the buyer’s need and the service’s value. If there’s no fit and the buyer chooses not to buy, that isn’t a critique of my worth as a person. I can choose to add features to the service in order to capture the buyer’s market (i.e. learning new skills), or I can keep looking for a better product-market fit (shop different job listings). From this point of view I have agency, and that brings a sense of ease to the whole adventure.
Selling B2B services is a unique skill. Several people are involved in making a business purchase because the sale price is usually much higher and the offering impacts several functions in the business. It’s important to discover all the people who might influence the purchase decision and understand what they need out of a purchase. And unlike product customers, people who buy a service can’t distinguish what they’re buying from the person who delivers it. (That is, we want to know who is offering a service.) A salesperson has to gain the buyer’s trust by building a relationship with them.
This smacks of the interviewing process. There is almost never a single person buying your labor: there’s a recruiter for the position, an HR manager, a hiring manager, a director or officer holding the hiring budget, and (often) a team of people you’ll be working with. Although your skills and expert knowledge are up for purchase, they also want to make sure they’ll like working with you and that your commitment will grow over time as you take on more responsibility. That is, they want to know they’ll have a good relationship with you.
Looking at an interview as a B2B sales meeting provides insight into the most useful skills for good interviewing. In a way, great selling is about making yourself invisible to the other person. By directing their attention toward their pain points and offering valuable insights, you disappear. In your place they see an avatar of the ideal contributor. That’s what they’re “buying”: a solution to their problems. Rather than practice answers to questions about your work history, practice asking your own questions to learn about their needs and craft your answers to match those needs. Rather than get into every interviewer’s good graces, deliver some kind of value to them during the interview. Find an insight to share about their work. Leave them with a recommended article or book on something that interests them.
Repeat this process in each interview, looking for that person’s unique needs and concerns, to work the hiring committee like a salesperson works a buy team.
The visit went brilliantly. I arrived at each event or meeting with one intention: create as much value for them as I possibly can without trying to draw attention to what I might get in return.
There were a couple of difficult meetings. One of the senior managers started the discussion by talking about getting results, saying that he only respects people who deliver the value he’s looking for, regardless of the obstacles in their way. He offered to cut our meeting short if at any point he didn’t think I’d be able to do that. It was intimidating and intense, but I stayed focused on him and what he was looking for in a purchase. I encouraged him to talk by prompting him to expand on his statements. That got him to provide more details showing how he thought about his problems, and I reflected those back to him. He seemed to like having a provider who would actually listen for his needs before offering a solution.
Another gatekeeper led our meeting by drilling me with a series of short-answer questions about my offering, ticking checkboxes on a list as she progressed. I had to do all the talking, and there was only space for me to respond to what she was looking for. No exploration or discovery at all. Late in the meeting, she asked me for feedback on the purchasing process, and I took a big risk: I gave her what she asked for. I told her that I felt like I was getting prepared for an emergency room operation, being asked a series of procedural questions designed to uncover my ineligibility for the operation. If I navigated the list correctly, I’d be allowed to see the doctor. She didn’t take the feedback very well, and I had to make space to hear her defenses, apologize for assumptions I’d made, and acknowledge the challenges she faced in the purchase process. Within a few minutes she ended up thanking me for the feedback, saying it was valuable and that she intended to change her process for future vendors.
In every meeting, my involvement was all about them and meeting their needs as bravely and inventively as I could. And I’m happy to say that in each meeting they walked away thanking me for the insights and revelations they got out of it. One by one, I tuned them into the value of my offering and, one by one, they found themselves wanting to buy from me.
Just three days later, I got a call directly from the purchasing manager proposing a high-value contract to provide a custom solution using the parts of my offering they most need.