Lessons from the front line: Two days spent with a salesperson.

Most people underestimate the difficulty involved in sales.  It’s not an easy job.  Establishing rapport with a total stranger, accelerating trust, designing a value proposition, asking for their (gulp) money…none of this is easy.  The most successful salespeople I know and work with are bright, moxy men and women who all have the alchemists gift for turning lead in to gold.  So when I have the pleasure of spending a day in the field with a salesperson it’s always an opportunity for me to learn from some of the best and coach folks who are committed to upping their game.  I love it and I’m grateful each and every time it happens.  

In many regards sales is a learned behavior.  There’s no such thing as a “born salesman.”  It’s a skill set.  And it requires constant refinement.  This week I spent two days with salespeople (5 appointments).  I worked with two gentlemen who are really working hard at perfecting their craft.  Both are talented in respective areas.  One has incredible technical competence.  The other is charismatic and “takes down walls” very easily.  Both want to improve.  After observing and coaching these gentlemen (one has raised his average ticket price to over 10K in two months of hard work–respect), I took away the following reminders of what solid salesmanship looks like in today’s market:

1.  The customer you meet isn’t the real customer.  It’s an artifice.  The real customer is in there, somewhere, waiting to share her real priorities, her true uncertainties.  But most customers don’t play that hand from the get go.  Great salesmen understand this and ask specific types of questions that put the customer at the center of the discussion as an active participant rather than a passive receptacle.  When that happens, when the customer feels a new quality and emphasis placed on what’s important to them, not the salesperson, then trust begins to accelerate and the quality of sharing improves between two strangers.

2.  A closed-ended “needs analysis” is a truly awful thing.  “Do you have any rooms in your house that are too hot or too cold?”  “Are you interested in saving money on your utility bill?”  “Do you have allergies (or the bastard variation: “Who in the house has allergies?).” These questions need to be retired to the bone yard.  Rooted in some ancient methodology that assumes that enough “yes” answers automatically leads to a premium sale is on par with a Hoover man sprinkling dust on your carpet before the big reveal.  In contrast, open-ended questions force the salesperson to relinquish an antique control mechanism while permitting the customer to steer the ship.  In the course of that process, when done well, a more colorful, interesting, substantial collaboration occurs.

3.  Close early.  In the course of five ride appointments the customer was ready to move in to the closing phase of the appointment far earlier than the salesperson expected (or recognized).  Capitalizing obvious and subtle buying (or not buying) signs is the mark of a salesperson who is truly in the moment.  

4.  Customers want as much relevant information as possible, as quickly as possible.  I was originally trained to take at least two hours for a sales appointment.  Two hours!!  It’s simply too long.  The customer tunes out, get bored, start thinking about other things, start wishing the salesperson will leave.  Most customers want to know what a business charges for its products, what their cool “stuff” is, and get on with their day.  Up-front pricing works perfectly in this regard.  It automatically deflates price anxiety (and smokes out the price shopper).  It accelerates the close.  It opens up intelligent conversations about product benefit differences.  Front load the appointment with relevance.  Respect the customer’s attention span.

5.  If you can’t prove a claim then it’s only just an empty promise.  “We do great work.”  “Our guys are journeymen.”  “My cell phone is always on.”  If heard ’em all.  So have the customers.  But I’ve rarely seen these grandiose quality claims supported with any type of proof or collateral.  What an opportunity!!  Selling is a little like building a case or an argument in support of the product or company in question.  And great cases, just like great arguments, are always well-supported with proof.

6.  When the proposal hits the table it’s time to stop selling.  This is one of the most common problems I see.  If value isn’t established by the time the salesperson and the customer are talking about money then it hasn’t been established.  If the salesperson is still selling the value of his company, his team, his quality after the proposal hits the table then something is awry.  The purpose of the proposal is to close the event not open another door.  

7.  Follow-up.  Yesterday a salesperson showed me a stack of open proposals.  Nearly 100K of open working just sitting on his desk.  Nearly 7K worth of leads…just sitting on his desk.  It got a little queasy.  Not following up on open leads is disrespectful to the customer and disrespectful to the company that paid for those leads.  This is sales 101.  Not following up on leads is, in my book, a sales crime.

8.  You’re only as good as your last sale.  I’ve been guilty of this: selling a huge job and letting the halo effect artificially inflate my confidence.  False confidence is poison for a salesperson.  One or two big sales does not make a month.  It makes a day.  One day.

For anyone who is a professional salesperson these observations may seem basic, fundamental.  And they are.  But proven fundamentals are the framework for any professional.  They have to be mastered before they can be interpreted.  I learn this every time I sit across the kitchen table and watch two complete strangers begin doing business.  


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