Selling with an accent? Here’s how to make sure you’re heard
“Sorry. What was that?” It’s every salesperson’s worst nightmare. You’re deep in your pitch. Your prospect is hanging onto every single word you say. And then wham! It turns out their silence wasn’t because they were so blown away, but because they didn’t understand a word you were saying.
This situation can happen to anyone, but it’s especially troublesome for people with accents.
Being successful in sales depends on your ability to communicate, negotiate, and persuade. Which can make having an accent feel like a serious handicap. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
With confidence, awareness, and the right strategies in place, you can make your accent a non-issue.
First, it’s ok to worry about your accent. But don’t overthink it.
If you have an accent, at some point you’ve probably been afraid you’re not going to get the respect or consideration you want in a conversation. I know I used to.
When I first came to the US 11 years ago, I was incredibly self-conscious about my accent. Any time I had an interaction with a potential client or partner, a little voice in my head would pop in and say:
“You sound so stupid, Steli. You don’t know how to express yourself. What are you even saying?”
But being stuck in your own head like this and obsessing over your accent doesn’t help. Yes, it’s annoying that you aren’t able to express yourself as clearly and confidently as you can in your native language. But showing this kind of uncertainty only compounds any issues your accent is potentially causing.
Confidence, passion, and energy is universal. So before you let your accent control your life, take control of it. Be confident in what you’re saying and who you are.
If you don’t care, there’s a good chance the person you’re speaking with won’t either.
Next, understand your buyer is the only person who will determine whether your accent is an issue
Communication is a two-way street, however. And while confidence will get you part of the way, you need to also be aware of how your buyer feels about your accent.
In fact, only around a tenth of the US population would count as ‘standard’ speakers (aka don't have an accent). Now there's obviously a difference between a Boston accent and and an Nigerian accent—but realize that means most of us are somewhere on the spectrum of speaking with an accent.
First, you need to think about where your customer is from and how they perceive your accent.
For example, in a lot of European countries, accents tell people about your background. Did you grow up in a city or the country? Are you educated? Do you come from a wealthy family?
Unfortunately (and unfairly) in these countries, having a thick accent can make people think less of you. Which makes it pretty damn hard to sell them on your product.
Luckily, this is less of an issue in the US. While there are still some negative perceptions around accents, the US is a country built on immigration. Every day, we see people from all backgrounds with thick accents become CEOs, politicians, and successful business people. (If you don’t believe me, just look at Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
So ask yourself, where is my buyer located? And what do they think about my accent?
And if you’re unsure, just ask them. Reach out to one of your customers and ask:
“How big of a factor was my accent when we first spoke? Do you think it’s going to be an obstacle for me to succeed in the market?”
You need to understand how prospects perceive your accent and any biases they might have before you can find ways to work around them.
How to sell successfully, even if you have a thick, unflattering accent
Some accents are considered charming around the world (like French). While others can be grating to non-native ears. You can’t change that.
What you can change, however, is the way you engage with prospects and how much of a factor you let your accent be in getting the sale.
To minimize how much your accent affects your pitch or meeting, here are a few practical tips I follow:
- Meet in person as much as possible: When you meet in person, you aren’t just relying on words to express your excitement and passion. You can use your tonality and body language to parse through your accent and show them why they should care.
- If you can’t meet, ask for a video call: When you can see someone, you can read their body language. Are they leaning in or looking confused and need clarification? You can also use your surroundings to support your pitch. Show them you’re excited and passionate and that you’re in a nice office and dressed well. All of these are signals of strength that put you in a position of power, rather than feeling weakened by your accent.
- If you have to talk on the phone, pace yourself: If you can’t do any sort of visual meeting and need to talk on the phone, just remember to slow down. Speak a little slower than you normally would. And a little louder. Whenever you say something that’s really important, double down and repeat it.
Lastly, give your buyer permission to ask you to repeat yourself
Above all, you need to make sure that, accent or not, your buyer understands what you’re saying. Even if that means repeating yourself.
One problem you’ll come up against, however, is that people are naturally afraid to ask you to repeat what you’ve said. So you need to take that fear away from them. Be proactive, and give them permission to ask for clarification a second or even third time by saying:
“I have some really exciting stuff to talk to you about. But I realize I have a strong accent. So, I want to give you permission to let me know if I say something you don’t understand at any point. Please let me know and ask me to repeat it.”
Framing the conversation this way not only creates an incredible amount of goodwill with the person you’re talking to, but it also gives them the impression you’re confident in yourself and what you’re selling.
Even if your accent is an obstacle, it’s one you can conquer
There are so many examples of people who have created tremendous success and wealth in the face of real physical and mental handicaps. And if there’s one thing they all do, it’s find some way to turn that disadvantage into an advantage.
Your accent is the same. When you handle it in the right way, it makes you unique. It makes you different.
Your accent is only an obstacle if you let it be. Be confident, aware, and proactive about how and where you talk to your prospects and you’ll succeed in spite of whatever handicap your accent might be.
I’d love to hear your stories about selling with an accent. If you have funny stories, tactics, or best practices from selling with your own accent, let me know in the comments below.
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