Tag Archives: sales_mentorship

Senior Moment: What Our Elders Can Teach Us About Sales

Originally published 01/30/09

Yesterday I received a sales letter that hit me like a breath of fresh, un-digitized air. I wanted to share it with my readers:

Dear Friend:

As we enter the new year, conditions are not very good for purchasing new supplies and equipment. However, there are some signs that this may improve as the year progresses.

Your responsibility as a department manager or property manager is to maintain your facilities in the best possible manner. I have three things to offer:

Excellent products
Good service
Fair prices

If the need arises this year for you to replace or add to your equipment, please don’t hesitate to give me a call. I will be happy to furnish you catalogs and written quotations for your consideration.


My friend Stanley’s name follows below his hand-written signature.

Three paragraphs, two sentences each. There’s purity of form and a sincerity that rarely emanates from today’s marketing communications.

Stanley began his sales career before most of us were born, and he hopes to achieve the milestone of entering his ninth decade this year. He’s a retired CEO who is passionate about selling. He’s never stopped. When he started working, ‘personal selling’ meant . . . personal selling. Telephones, “snail mail,” appointment books, and cars were the indispensible tools of the sales trade.

Most of all, face-to-face dialogs created the trusted bonds between buyer and seller, and were an inextricable part of the sales process. Little wonder that Stanley’s letter says “I care” so clearly, without using those two words. He perfected that skill in the trenches, by looking at his customer in the eye.

In our Twittered, Blogged, and Web 2.0’d sales world, Stanley’s selling talent has become rare. The forces of information technology, product commoditization, and cost reduction have pushed legions of salespeople from the prospect’s office to the deep innards of the call-center cube farm. Millions must make their quotas using far more sophisticated tools than Stanley had—but without ever physically shaking hands with a customer.

As Stanley approaches his 80th birthday, he has become rare in other ways as well. He’s part of a shrinking population that will all but vanish in twenty years: a self-selected group of senior citizens who choose not to use a computer. He doesn’t use email or a have website for his company. He puts up with my e-marketing hubris when I rib him about not being able to accept orders online (FAX and phone work fine for him). The few times he needs Internet access, he taps an eager pool of web-savvy grandchildren. It would be easy to dismiss his knowledge as outdated.

Stanley has taught me how courtesy, respect, and sincerity have great power in sales, and the wisdom contained in his letter reminds me that when it comes to selling, seniors have a wealth of knowledge for the rest of us. I wish Stanley many more great years in selling. I still have much to learn from him.

Asking “Where Are We In This Deal?” Won’t Give You a Clue

Ever participated in a conversation like this one?

Sales Manager: So, where are we in the MegaCorp deal? What do we need to do to get them to the next step?

Salesperson: We’re in good shape. Based on our last meeting there, I think their VP Operations will recommend a pilot project using our product.

Sales Manager: That’s great! We really need this one to close! What are our chances?

A sales cliff hanger! Do you think MegaCorp will buy? How much will they spend? When will the transaction occur?

Hard to tell. But based on the manager’s questions, I’m not bullish. She’s more worried about conforming to her sales process than about getting a clue about her rep’s situation. And based on her questions, she’s not on track to find out, either. Without situational awareness, her rep is just another weak-kneed, wobbly, vulnerable fawn, unprotected in an open field. The deal they’re discussing is prey for opportunistic competitors.

If you happen to be reading this in an airplane, you don’t need to ask your pilot about the importance of situational awareness, because the answer is apparent. It takes more than knowing the distance to the airport to perform a safe landing. Whether you fly a plane, command a tank, or sell complex products and services, situational awareness is mission critical. So why do so many sales executives take a process-centric view of managing sales opportunities, and fail to perceive what’s happening around them? I don’t know. Habit, perhaps?

But maybe my personal sales horror story will persuade even the most zealous process stickler to consider a different, more enlightened approach, which I’ll describe in a moment. Several years ago, I pursued a large opportunity, and met with the buying team for the final step—the closing call, as it’s commonly known. Everything’s fine, until from the back of the room, Frank (not his real name) raises his hand. “Does your solution work on token ring?” he asks. I respond “no,” and Frank exclaims “Over my dead body will this company buy any system that doesn’t work on token ring!” (true story). There was utter silence. None of Frank’s colleagues challenged him. I had never considered hiring a hit man to win an order, but for a moment, I confess  – that gremlin shamelessly landed on my shoulder.

Frank was a blind-side tackle. Frank had the wherewithal to single-handedly kill my sale. And he did. My token-ring touting competitor won the order. Ironic, because sales process-wise, my opportunity looked good—excellent, in fact. But before my closing call, I didn’t know that my prospect had token ring installed. I didn’t know about Frank’s influence. Heck, I didn’t even know Frank!

I especially didn’t know that my Ethernet-connectable hardware was a show-stopper, because I never experienced the issue before. In short, I had no clue about my situation! My experience is all too common. In a sales risk survey I conducted with CustomerThink, 43% of respondents reported that “unexpected situations” played a role in sales opportunity losses. Many are preventable.

There’s hope. If The Endsley Model isn’t a part of your monthly sales meeting PowerPoint, include it for the next one. The Endsley model has three components:

  1. the perception of inputs
  2. comprehending the inputs
  3. projecting outcomes

Subtract any part of this straightforward triumvirate, and there’s no situational awareness. Not surprisingly, it’s borrowed from the military domain where the Endsley Model is tested in the context of complex, dynamic environments. That describes sales as well.  “Your focus is on your competitor . . . the customer becomes the battlefield. You’re not trying to take down your competitor, you’re just trying to beat your competitor’s strategy at that particular time,” said Ryan Kubacki, CEO of sales training company Holden International.

In many sales situations, major risks come not from direct competitors, but other projects that vie for the same project capital. Situational awareness means understanding what those competing uses for capital are, along with some other important artifacts:

1. Forces. What conditions or situations are exerting impact on the prospect company right now? Which ones are perceived as having the greatest impact?

2. Changes and triggers. What’s happened since our last account review that presents a significant new opportunity or major risk to our strategic and tactical direction? Which issues have surfaced? How can we capitalize on the opportunity or mitigate the risk?

3. Competition. What other initiatives are contending for the same funding? What are their strategies for getting it? How do those strategies play against our strengths and weaknesses? What changes have developed in their strategies, and why? What new competitive vulnerabilities exist, and how quickly can we exploit them?

4. Biases, attitudes, and sentiments. What evidence have we received regarding changes in perception toward our company, personnel, product, solution, or proposal?

5. Communication channels. Which communication channels are available to us, and are they adequate for capitalizing on our strategic opportunities and mitigating our risks?

6. Networks and access. Are the people who are most important in our collaboration part of our network, and do we have access to them to share ideas? What changes are taking place, and what new risks and opportunities do they present?

7. Assumptions. Which assumptions are we making right now, if false, will jeopardize this sales opportunity?

Eliminating blind-side tackles like the one I experienced means being attuned to the right information at the right time, and knowing how to recognize and avoid distractions.

So go ahead and ask about how to get to the next step. Situational awareness  raises the odds of getting there!

Sales Mentorship: You Can’t Survive on a One-Way Street

We know what we are, but we know not what we may be.—William Shakespeare

“You better take that last spot in the overhead bin,” implored my seatmate on a recent flight, as I contorted my bag so that the door would latch. “If you don’t, somebody behind you will grab it.”

“Assertiveness and opportunism co-mingled . . . that seems awfully familiar . . . ,” I thought. “I’ll bet she’s in sales.”

In fact, she was—for a global advisory services company. But as I learned during our conversation that continued for the duration of the five-hour flight, she had a specialty that makes mere mortal salespeople quake and tremble. Her job was to resuscitate her company’s former customers. Not just any former customer, though. Angry former customers. Customers who had said in a thousand different, unpleasant ways, “I’ll never buy from your company again . . . or the horse you rode in on!” No need for manual gestures to embellish the sentiment.

“I like taking on the challenging ones,” she said, adding, “I’ve gotten pretty good at it.” She told me she was heading to a sales meeting for her DC-based company, and I could tell from our conversation that she was making a solid living in this unique sales niche.

Whatever you think it takes to excel in sales—motivation, tenacity, focus, empathy—it was abundantly clear that she had the right stuff. No need to waste time checking a list of top-producer attributes. “Some salespeople want to get to ‘no’ quickly, but I simply don’t accept ‘no’ at all.” Put herself through college. Paid off her loans in six years. Highly confident, and not shy about dictating terms to management. “I tell them, ‘this is what I expect for commission. If I don’t make my number, six months from now, you’re either going to fire me, or I will have already quit because I’m not making the money I want to make. So neither of us has to worry if this isn’t working out.'” All is fair in love and war.

She explained how other salespeople learn in her organization. “Our knowledge sharing is not one-way. When new salespeople come on board, we require them to learn a specific area of the industries we serve, and then to teach that to others. It’s the best way to gain understanding, and management insists on it.”

She told me that others outside of her division frequently call on her to mentor them. “I listen in on a lot of phone calls, and they listen in on mine,” she said. “But I require two things right up front: they have to tell me one thing that they learned from me, and they must give me feedback on two things that I could improve. I’m prepared to hear whatever they tell me, and I let them know that. And if they don’t give me feedback within a day or two, I don’t help them again.”

No surprise she’s a top producer. With mentorship, you can’t survive on a one-way street.

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