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An Epic Customer Service Fail

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”  It refers to a moment of almost complete success that turns into a moment of complete loss.  I have, of course, seen it in sales and service, but rarely have I experienced it to the degree that I did last week.

A week ago, I was in Las Vegas for a conference on video marketing (for a change, I was attending and not speaking).  It was a great conference, and I learned a lot about marketing with YouTube.  I had planned to check out of my hotel and fly home on Monday, but some changes to my schedule led to me rebooking my flight (no problem there, thank you, Southwest).  I needed to extend my hotel stay by a night, and I figured I’d just wait and do it on-site.  That’s where the trouble started.

I was staying at a popular casino on the Strip.  Let’s call it Harrah’s, because that’s what it was.  I’ve stayed at numerous Harrah’s properties in Vegas and elsewhere and always had great experiences, but this was different.  Harrah’s now offers an ‘expedited check-in’ process whereby you fill out an online form and then you can just use a kiosk to get your room assignment and key.  So far so good, I’ve used these at other Harrah’s properties.

I arrived at about 2 PM, used the kiosk, and found out that my room wasn’t ready, but that they would send me an email when it was and I could return to the kiosk.  Great.  Except by 3:30 (check in time is 3), I hadn’t received an email.  I went back and used the kiosk again, and again got the same message.  I considered getting in line for check in at the desk, but the line was long and they only had two people working at the desk.  I waited for the email that never came.  Finally, at 5:15, I returned to the kiosk (the line was still long at the desk), and the kiosk gave me my keys.  I was annoyed at the late check in and the fact that the email didn’t come as it was supposed to, but it was no big deal.  I still planned on visiting the front desk to extend my stay at some point when the line was short.

The problem was that the line was never short at any point.  Nor did they ever man more than three of the ten stations for check-in, at least when I was walking by. There seemed to be no urgency toward getting guests checked in.

On Sunday night – my last scheduled night to stay there – I returned from the conference to find a letter on my bed inviting me to extend my stay by one night for free.  All I had to do was call the number on the letter, use the promotional code, and they’d extend my stay.  Great!  This way I could get the extra night I’d planned on, get it for free, and not have to mess with the desk.

So I called the number, used the code, and the person put me on hold.  After five minutes on hold, my call was disconnected.  I called back, explained to the NEXT person that I had been disconnected, and was again put on hold.  This time, after seven minutes on hold, I was informed that they could not extend my stay via the phone (so why have me call?), and that I should take the letter to the front desk and perhaps they could help me.

I got in, yes, another long line with only two people working the desk.  In twenty minutes, the line barely moved.  By now, I was checking rates at other hotels on the Strip, and discovered that for the Monday night that I needed, rates were very cheap.  Specifically, the night at Treasure Island (one of my favorite places on the Strip), the room would be $49.  It would be, at the current rate, at least another 45 minutes, if not an hour, to get to the desk, and I figured my time was worth more than that.  I reserved the room at TI, got out of line, and went back to my room.

In the elevator, I saw another man with the same letter.  I asked him about his experience, and he said that they had told him that they couldn’t keep him in the same room – thus, to get his free night, he’d have to check out at 11 A.M., wait, then check back in at 3 P.M.  He’d had a similar experience to me at checking in, and had no faith that he’d actually even be able to get his room at 3.  We agreed that it wasn’t worth it, and in fact, we both said we’d never be returning to that hotel.  We were actually more disgusted with how badly the ‘free night’ offer had been handled than if we’d simply tried to pay for another night.

I realize this has been a long story, but there are some lessons to be learned in it.  Harrah’s screwed up, big time, and made a negative impression while trying to make a positive.  I’m serious when I say that I will never stay there again, and I’m a frequent visitor to Las Vegas.  Multiply that by the hundreds of other people who likely got that letter and tried to take them up on their offer, and they’ve put a lot of bad impressions in the marketplace.  So, how did they mess up so badly?

  1. They relied too much on technology. The first bad impression was at check-in, with the fiasco with the emails that weren’t sent and the late room assignment.  They were clearly pushing as many people as possible to the check-in kiosk and understaffing the front desk as a result in order to save money on personnel.  The problem is that the kiosk wasn’t working correctly, and a kiosk can’t answer questions.
  2. They made an offer they weren’t prepared to fulfill. This is crucial.  When a hotel offers an extra night for free, the logical assumption is that the guest doesn’t have to pack back up, check in and out, or do any of the other silliness involved with redeeming the offer.  For whatever reason, they weren’t prepared to back this offer up.  The offer actually made their impression worse.  If I’d had to go to the front desk to extend my stay a night (paying for it as normal), I likely wouldn’t have stuck it out in the long line and would have gone to another hotel – but I wouldn’t have been nearly as disgusted and might have considered returning.
  3. They don’t care about the customer. Anyone in Harrah’s management could have seen that they needed to plug in more people at the front desk.  People were angry and disgusted by waiting in the line, and I’m sure that they were giving the employees an earful when they finally got to the front of the line.  Logic would dictate that a hotel manager, seeing that, would have found another couple of people to expedite check-in.  Not doing so was basically an upraised middle finger to the guests.

The story has a happy ending – for me, at least.  I packed the next morning, went right up the Strip to TI, and within three minutes of walking up to check-in (no line to wait in), I had my room keys and had a pleasant night’s stay.  I highly recommend that hotel.


I’ve always said that in a society like ours, our profession – selling – is the tip of the economic spear.  We are economic drivers, not passengers, and our profession produces real good and real growth.  Particularly in instances where new ideas, concepts, and products need to be brought to market, someone has to persuade someone else to write a check.

This effect, of course, has been somewhat diluted during the age of Internet vendors and product introductions – but it’s still valid.  I had a very vivid illustration of this concept presented to me last month in Las Vegas.

For those who don’t go to Vegas, for time immemorial, the huge Strip casinos used to have free parking. Valet parking, self parking, didn’t matter – it was free.  That changed about a year ago; now parking on the Strip is paid-for parking.  The only casino that I know of that still has free self parking is Treasure Island – but I digress.  I’m sure there were a lot of customer complaints.  Who, after all, wants to spend their time driving around a parking garage looking for a spot after paying for the privilege?

Thus, when I entered the garage at Mandalay Bay last month, I saw something very surprising and very cool.  They now have a system which senses, highlights, and counts the available parking spots in the parking garage.  When you drive in, there’s a little display above each turnout that tells you exactly how many spaces are available in that direction.  When you go down a row, there’s a row of lights overhead from each parking spot – they are red if the spot is occupied, green if it’s open.  You find the green lights and there’s your spot.  Easy-peasy.

I marveled over this innovation – and as I went to other Strip casinos, I saw that nearly every one had implemented one such system.  It was like a quick wave.  Doing what I do for a living, I immediately thought of the salesperson who made the first sale.

You see, someone had to invent this system – but then someone (inventor, company owner, salesperson, makes no difference) had to sell a casino operator on buying and installing it – it couldn’t have been cheap.  I bet they had to ask some very tough questions, and make an amazing presentation to make what was easily a seven-figure sale and maybe eight figures.

They extolled the customer friendliness of the system, explaining that they’d likely get fewer complaints.

Then – I’m betting that their trump card was some sort of set of statistics showing the cost of each minute a person spent driving around the parking garage instead of gambling, shopping, or eating in their hotels.  ROI figures were presented, a proposal was shown, and then they closed.

And then, after the first one was installed, they probably went up and down the Strip, explaining to other operators how their resort would be left behind if they didn’t install this.

Somebody made a LOT of money.  And, more importantly, somebody solved some headaches for their customer – and did so with a product that didn’t even exist a year ago (or at least didn’t exist in Vegas).

Somebody probably had a lot of people telling them why this wouldn’t work, why the casinos would never buy, why it didn’t make sense, etc.  But they persevered.

Whenever you get a bit discouraged, or your boss rolls out a new product and you’re skeptical, think of those red and green lights and understand that there’s a business case for everything, that there’s a buyer for everything, and that it’s our job to make it happen.

SIDE NOTE:  Is your company going to make its numbers?  Why or why not?  If you are the owner of a company and you’d like some input, I’d like to make you an offer – I’d like to offer you a complementary Sales Strategy Review session.  You can access my input on how to grow your company, completely without obligation, for the next two weeks. We’ll spend about 45 minutes to an hour on the phone (unless you’re in Kansas City; then we can meet in person), we’ll go over your sales approach, staffing, process, compensation, and other issues affecting your sales success.  You’ll get at least 2-3 good take-aways that you can implement completely on your own, even if you never spend a dime with me.  It’s my way of helping my friends, and if you’re reading this, you’re my friend.

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Are Your Salespeople Engaged?

How many of your salespeople would you describe as “engaged?”

Before you answer that, let me define “engaged” for you.  The “engaged” salesperson is one who sells (for you) because of a passion and love for the job, for your company, and for the activities in sales.  “Engaged” salespeople do what’s right because it’s right.  They may have to be managed – most salespeople do to one extent or another – but they seldom have to be MOTIVATED.  Oh, and they’re also not out looking for another job.

NOW answer the question.  How many would you describe as “engaged?”  If you said “All of them,” please contact me.  I have some great oceanfront property in Kansas City and I’ll make you a great deal.  Here’s reality, based on national surveys:

  • 30% of salespeople are truly “engaged” at their jobs.
  • 50% are “disengaged.” This means that they’re going through the motions, doing enough to keep their jobs, but not giving it their all in any way, shape, or form.
  • 20% are “actively disengaged.” This means that they’re mad and they’re trying to hurt you.

Now think about your sales team, and ask yourself where everyone fits.  I’d caution you to not use performance as a yardstick; I’ve seen some very talented salespeople who could perform very well without being truly engaged; I’ve also seen some of the most engaged salespeople in the world struggle to make quota every month.  Not all salespeople have the same abilities.

First of all, if you have an ‘actively disengaged’ salesperson, get rid of them.  NOW.  There’s no way you can recover from that.  It is possible to re-engage a “disengaged” salesperson, but not when they have become “actively disengaged.”  Once they decide they want to damage your business, you have to cut that cord.

We can work with “disengagement.”  The first question is, how do “disengaged” salespeople get that way?  Well, the overall statement is that the job – or the company – or the manager – isn’t meeting their needs.  The next statement is that, most of the time, management doesn’t KNOW what the needs of the salesperson might be, or how those needs could be met or unmet.  Hint:  it’s more than just money.

We’ll talk in a moment about how to re-engage a disengaged salesperson, but first, let’s talk about how to engage them from the start so that they never become disengaged.  Here’s the reality – while we spend the first 90 days of a salesperson’s tenure deciding whether they are for us, they are spending the first 30 days deciding if we are for them.  For that reason, it’s essential that we begin engaging our salespeople from the very first day of employment.

How do you begin the onboarding period for new salespeople?  Well, if your company is like most companies, it works like this.  You start with HR paperwork.  Then you give a quick tour of the facility, with quick introductions to other managers and department heads.  These introductions are quick because the other managers make it clear that they have other, better, things to do than meet a new salesperson.

Then they meet the rest of the sales staff, who eyes them suspiciously.  With some luck, they are taken out to lunch by the sales manager, and then it’s into training.  All of which leaves the new salesperson feeling….meh.

NOW think about how you entertain a great customer or potential customer when they come to visit.  The colored lights and the brass bands are turned on.  There’s a welcome sign in the lobby.  There’s a tour, and those managers that were too busy to spend much time with the new salesperson suddenly have all the time in the world to entertain and show off for the customer.  There’s either a very nice lunch in a restaurant or a catered lunch in-house.  The customer leaves feeling that this company is by far the best vendor they’ve ever seen.

These two experiences shouldn’t be different.  Especially when you consider that your new salesperson will be responsible for bringing in those new customers.  When you bring in a new salesperson for their first day, it should be colored light and brass band time.  Roll out the welcome wagon just as you would for a new customer.  Assign a ‘buddy’ within the sales department to mentor them and bring them into the fold.  Begin creating the internal networks they need.  And when the day is over, have them going home thinking that they just made the best decision of their lives.

Beyond the first day, your sales skills are essential to engaging (or re-engaging) a salesperson.  When we sell, we discover needs and present solutions.  We should do this with salespeople as well.  Starting close to the first day of employment, and periodically thereafter, we should be doing a quality discovery with them – asking them what their needs are, what they want to get out of this job, out of their careers, out of their lives.  Helpful hint:  It’s not just money.

Once we know those things, we can work toward solving those needs as we would for a customer.  For instance, if your salesperson wants to progress into management, what can you do, on a periodic basis, to groom and prepare him/her for the next step?  Little efforts like this can make all the difference between “disengagement” and “engagement.”

We spend a lot of time worrying about whether the salesperson is meeting our needs – but if you really want to succeed, put yourself under the microscope and ask yourself if the job is meeting the salesperson’s needs.  The answer might surprise you – and help you re-engage your salesperson.  An engaged salesperson is a performing salesperson.

The Best Tool for Customer Comfort

A few nights ago, I had what is called a “sleep study.”  For those who haven’t had it, this is a tool for diagnosing issues such as sleep apnea (which I’m pretty sure I have).  It’s, um, an interesting experience.  They hook about 25 wires to you (I lost count at 20 but there weren’t many more, and these wires are TINY) and then tell you, “Okay, go to sleep.”  Yeah….I got right on that.  Without getting into detail, it was not an overly comfortable experience but hopefully a productive one.

In the morning, the tech came in, unhooked me, handed me a clipboard, and said, “As soon as you fill this out and leave payment for your copay, you’re free to go.  There’s a shower and bathroom if you’d like to shower up before you leave (I did, the great gobs of adhesive in my hair used to attach the wires took about 20 minutes to wash out).”  But….that was it.  No guidance on what happens next.  And here is the lesson for salespeople and business owners.

After a couple of days of hearing nothing, I emailed the person at the sleep institute to ask what happened next, and he replied that someone would be getting ahold of me soon; it typically takes around 7 days to process the sleep study.  That’s good to know, but frankly I would have been much happier to know that the morning after – or even the evening before – the study.

My mantra, as you know, is “Comfortable Customers Buy.”  It’s a truth in any business.  The more you throw customers off-kilter, the more reluctant they are to buy.  In my case, of course, NOT buying wasn’t an option.  I suppose I could have run for my life when she got the wires out, but that’s what I was there for.

Your customers, however, have the right and ability to run for their lives – and sometimes they do, when they get uncomfortable.  Salespeople, of course, have many hackneyed old techniques for making them uncomfortable, but if you read my articles often, you know how to avoid those.

The best way to keep your customers comfortable is this:  Tell them what you’re going to do with them.   Give them a road map of what lies ahead.  The most vulnerable a customer can feel is that moment when they have given commitment and/or payment for a service that’s about to be rendered.  That’s where buyer’s remorse sets in.  You can nip buyer’s remorse in the bud by telling the customer, step by step, what happens next, how it happens, and who is responsible.  You already have these processes in place; why not share them with your customer?

Want to REALLY get brave?  Share your sales process.  (I can hear people fainting all over the country right now.)  Yes, I know, your sales process is a carefully guarded secret, and customers aren’t supposed to know that they’re in a sales process.

Helpful hint – THEY KNOW.  When you start selling to them, they know they’re in a sales process.  But, what if instead of making them guess, you opened a sales call like this:

“Mr. Customer, thank you for meeting with me.  I’m here to establish if there is a fit and a mutual win from us doing business together.  I’m sure you’ve already figured that out.  Just so you know what I’m doing and there aren’t any secrets between us, I’m going to start out by asking you questions to gather information to see if we can help you score a win by doing business with us.”

“Assuming that there is a win, I’ll make a recommendation (or set of recommendations) of how we can create that win for you.  On the other hand, if we can’t help you, I’ll tell you that, too, and we will shake hands and part as friends.  If you like our solution, I’ll need to develop a proposal for you (or quote price on the spot, however it works in your company), and if you like the proposal, I’ll ask you to go ahead and do business with us.  That said, here’s my promise to you – I’ll ONLY ask you for your business if the purchase really does help you and really does create value. And either one of us can stop this process at any time if we wish.  Shall we get started?”

By the way, there is an old technique called the “Up Front Contract” that, if you know it, you may see some similarities to.  It goes like this (highly simplified version):  “Mr. Customer, I’ll be asking you questions and presenting some solutions.  If you like the solutions, and the price, you’re prepared to go forward with a purchase, aren’t you?” (The wording is different from trainer to trainer, but the intent is the same.) The key difference here is that the old “Up Front Contract” asks the customer for a commitment BEFORE they have heard anything you have to offer.  To me, that’s not customer-friendly and it’s designed to start down a path of entrapping the customer into a buying situation while keeping as much of the sales process a secret as possible.

The road map just tells them what your steps are and how you plan to accomplish them.  You can even couple them with a timeline; for instance, if this process requires multiple meetings, you might give an idea of how many meetings it will take and how long between meetings.  You might need to include steps like plant tours, on-site or online demos, etc.  The road map gives a customer a feeling of security and comfort from the start; the up front contract puts them on edge and has them preparing their defenses from the start.  See the difference?

The road map also helps manage customer expectations, particularly if you couple it with a timeline.  Explain to the customer BEFOREHAND that it takes two weeks to get the product in after you order it, and you won’t have an impatient customer.

The truth is that I’m still not comfortable with the sleep institute.  I just know that I might be getting a call in about 4-5 more days, and maybe I’ll talk to a doctor, perhaps there’s surgery, or CPAP, or God knows what else.  I have done some research, but my time to do so is limited – and they are the ones getting paid.

Don’t leave your customers uncomfortable.  Share your road maps.  Tell them what’s happening – before, during, and after the sale.  You’ll bring on more new business.  You’ll build stronger, longer lasting relationships.  You’ll get more testimonials and referrals.  It’s nothing but a win for you.

What’s Your Alamo?

I’m writing this from San Antonio, Texas.  A lovely city, if you’re wondering.  My hotel is about one block from the Alamo.  Yes, of “remember the Alamo” fame.  And no, I didn’t do anything that Ozzy Osbourne did at the Alamo (kids, look that up if you don’t get the reference).  The Alamo is a truly inspiring place – where about 300 Texans chose to stand off a Mexican army numbering over 6,000.  A fool’s errand?  Perhaps, in our modern world – but in their world, it was a matter of honor.

For those Texans, the Alamo was their last retreat.  One thing that strikes you as you walk around the original footprint is how small it was, and how little fortification there really was for those people.  But, mentally, they had left themselves no alternative – it was to defend the Alamo or nothing.  As you might expect, this brings me to a question that I often wonder – what’s our Alamo, in our careers?  What’s our ‘defend or nothing’ point?

I started my business nearly 14 years ago.  My official first day in business was September 1, 2004.  On that day, I made up my mind that I was never going to work for someone else ever again.  In doing so, I’d set up my own personal Alamo.  When it came to the question of success or failure (and I’ll be honest, there have been a couple of moments of potential failure), my only option was to succeed.  After all, if I’m not going to work for someone else, what am I going to do?

One issue I see in today’s world is that salespeople, confronted with failure, simply plan on moving on to another job.  “There’s always going to be another gig,” says the logic, “so if I fail here, it’s no big deal.”  And it’s not until that person has stacked up enough different failures to make themselves basically unhireable. And at that point, it’s too late for them.

That’s bad.  What’s worse is seeing business owners who are at their own Alamo, but are willing to fail rather than move out of their comfort zone.

Knowing that you’re at your own personal Alamo means that you have to have a willingness to do whatever it takes to defend your ground.  If that means swallowing your pride, so be it.  If it means learning a new skill, or changing your business model, or refreshing your sales model, so be it.  When you’re at your own Alamo, beyond the point of any retreat, you’re willing to do whatever it takes.

Here’s what I’ve learned, though, in nearly 30 years of sales and 14 years of owning my own business.  It’s almost always better to make a stand, decide that you’re going to do whatever it takes to be successful RIGHT NOW, and make it work, than it is to retreat and find success at some vague point down the road.

If you’re struggling, if you’re not getting the results you want, or even if the boss has you with one foot out the door, allow me to give you the advice that generations of Texans have taken to heart.

Remember the Alamo!

May Your Tabula Be Rasa

One of the most common ways for a sale to end up in the Graveyard of Lost Sales is for the salesperson to assume things as fact that aren’t fact at all in the mind of the customer; or, worse, they begin with ‘knowledge’ that isn’t correct.  Ironically, this can come from doing one of the right things before a sale; more on this later.

Since sales is a game that’s played inside the head of your buyer, it’s important that you work through the process in concert with your buyer – assumptions can be a sale killer.  To deal with this, I teach salespeople a concept that I learned in debate – the concept of Tabula Rasa.  That’s a Latin phrase meaning “blank slate,” and knowing it – and living by it – can be key to your success.

As the concept is applied in debate, it means that the judge has no presumed positions or opinions on the topic, and the entire result is determined by what is said or proven with evidence during the debate.  This concept also applies in legal proceedings; nothing is assumed to be factual unless it is testified to or shown in open court.

So how does this apply to sales?  Well, it’s simple.  In sales, there are no facts until and unless the buyer either states them or agrees with them.  That’s where a lot of salespeople go wrong.  A typical postmortem after a lost sale might look like this:

Salesperson: “But, I don’t understand why they bought from competitor A.  I proved that our machine was the best value.”

Me:  “Did the buyer agree that your machine was the best value?”

Salesperson:  “Well, not in so many words, but when you compare specs vs. price….”

Me:  “Doesn’t matter.”

In this case (a real live scenario from a month ago), the salesperson assumed that because he explained the specs vs. price, that the customer knew that his machine was the best value – even though the customer didn’t say so.  He assumed wrong and lost the sale.

When we go into a sale, the fewer assumptions we carry, and the fewer assumptions we make during the sale, the better off we are.  As I noted above, sometimes we can work against ourselves. Pre-call research is a great practice, but sometimes it can lead us down the wrong road.  For instance, the salesperson finds a statement on the customer’s website that the customer plans to open four new locations in the next year, which makes them a better candidate for the salesperson’s services.

What the salesperson didn’t find was a statement that the company has scrapped this approach, instead deciding to bolster their online presence.  See the train wreck that’s about to happen?  Sometimes the research you find – even on the customer’s own website – is obsolete or otherwise irrelevant.  If the salesperson builds an approach around that “fact,” the salesperson will be firing at a target that isn’t there.  So how can we deal with that, using Tabula Rasa thinking?  Simple.  Ask a confirming question.

Salesperson:  “Mr. Customer, I see on your website that you plan to open four new locations in the next year.  Where will they be?”

Customer:  “Wow, that’s still on there?  No, sorry, we’re not doing that.  Instead we’re going to bolster our online presence.”

In this case, there’s no harm and no foul.  The salesperson was able to check and confirm, BEFORE building a presentation around false knowledge, because the salesperson remembered the Tabula Rasa mindset – it’s not a fact until the customer says it’s a fact.  In this case, it wasn’t.

Assumptions cause lost sales, missed opportunities, and bad customer relationships.  Don’t assume.  Instead, in every new call, think Tabula Rasa.  If a piece of information will affect your sale, make sure you get that information confirmed or stated verbally during the call.  It’ll keep you visiting the Graveyard of Lost Sales quite so often.

Are You Playing on the Right Field?

Recently, I’ve been looking back through some of my old articles and posting #throwbackthursday posts on my LinkedIn and Facebook pages. ( As a side note, if you’d like to link with me, here’s my profile.)  It’s interesting – I’ve written over 500 articles, and sometimes I’ve found some really strong material that I’d forgotten about.

One example is this sentence:  Sales is a sport that’s played inside the customer’s head.  It’s one of the truisms of sales, now and forever.  Sometimes, we think that sales is like a pro/con comparison on a legal pad, and if we end up with more ‘pro’ entries than ‘con’ entries, we win.  And then we’re surprised when it doesn’t work that way, and we lose the sale.

The problem is that we’re playing on the wrong field.  If you’re playing football and you’re on a baseball field, you’re probably not going to do very well.  Same with selling.  Unless you know the rules of the field, where and how the goals are located, and what’s in and out of bounds, you’re probably not going to win the game.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that the rules of the field don’t have to be a mystery.  You can discover them – all you have to do is have the patience and willingness to ask.

In the sales process, in fact, the customer has the entire control.  The customer’s head is the playing field, and the customer is judge and jury.  This being the case, shouldn’t you understand the rules first?

A good questioning process incorporates the questions that will expose the rules of the game.  Here are a few to get you started:

How will you define a successful purchase?

What’s your criteria for selecting a vendor?

Assuming this purchase is successful, who benefits the most?  Who gets rewarded?  How will they be rewarded?

Why don’t salespeople ask these questions?  Because they ASSume that they know the answers – and we all know how the word “assume” breaks down.   It’s not enough, in fact, to just ask these questions in an initial sales process. Things change, and the framework for a sale can change from sales process to sales process – make sure to refresh your knowledge often.

If you always remember what the playing field is when you start a sale, you’re going to be much farther toward the sale than salespeople who don’t.

The Most Valuable Information You Can Possess

More than two decades ago, I learned a lesson that has stuck with me since, and that I’ve taught countless salespeople – all of whom have used it to good effect.  It’s about the most valuable information you can possess.  Of course, I tell everyone that the most valuable information is information about their CUSTOMERS – but some pieces of information are more valuable than others.

In the situation I’m recalling, I was dealing with a repeat customer on a fairly large purchase of electric motors.  This customer and I had done business a few times, and I knew that anytime he was buying more than about $5,000 of stuff, he liked to let it percolate for a couple of days, and then he’d buy.  The problem was that my sales manager was trying to cram numbers to finish the month, and if I let the customer wait, the month would end.

“Hey,” my SM said, “don’t you want to finish STRONG?  Just apply a little salesmanship to this guy.”

I responded, “Look, I know him.  He’s gonna buy but if we try to pressure him, it’ll irritate him.  I’d rather not upset a good customer.”  My SM snorted in disgust – and then, unbeknownst to me, called my customer and offered him a “buy now” discount.  My customer called me and wanted to know who the ‘jerk’ was that was pressuring him.  I was caught unawares, and long story short, my customer ended up buying from my competitor, and it took me a few months to get back into his good graces.  When I did, he bought the same exact way as before.

I learned two things from that incident:

  1. The most important thing you can know about a customer is how that customer prefers to buy.

  2. Once you know that, the most important thing you can do is to respect how that customer prefers to buy.

This goes against all the old tropes of selling – “Persistence pays off,” “closed mouths don’t get fed,” etc.  But there’s a reason those are old tropes.  Respecting your customer and how they want to do things is key to an arrangement.

“But Troy,” the old-time salesperson says, “Buyers are liars, and what if they’re just stalling you to get a better deal from your competitor?”

My up-to-date response is this:  Ultimately, the buyer buys from who they want to.  If they’re just stalling me to get a better deal elsewhere, then I haven’t sold my value well enough.

“So you’re telling me,” o-t-s says, “that when a customer tells you to wait, that you wait?”

My response is that, yes, normally I do.  Over the years, I’ve won far more deals than I’ve lost by respecting the customer’s buying process.  The truth is that it’s a lot harder to sit and wait than it is to push, push, push – I’m not an overly patient person.  But it’s a lot harder to lose a potentially good deal because you pushed a customer away.

So my advice to you is, with every customer:  Find out how they want to buy and then align your sales process to it.  Your customers will thank you – and sooner or later, your Sales Manager will too when you show him/her the numbers.

One Great Question Can Make All the Difference

Sometimes, great sales or service isn’t all that complicated.  In fact, sometimes it all boils down to one great question.  I had a reminder of this fact last week.

I was in the Houston airport connecting from Corpus Christi to a flight home.  I had a couple of hours, so instead of a typical airport fast-food dinner, I decided to have a nice sit-down dinner at Pappasito’s Cantina (a great Mexican restaurant chain that’s located all through Texas).  I wasn’t concerned about the time – as I said, I had a long layover.  I travel a lot so I eat in a lot of airport restaurants – still, I was blown away by the one question that the hostess asked me.

“What time is your flight?”

The simplicity of it was huge – but so was all that it implied.  Without saying so, she was letting me know that they would do everything they could to get me fed and out of there in time to reach my flight comfortably.  In hundreds of visits to airport restaurants, however, I’ve never been asked that question.

Without explicitly saying so, the hostess said, “We are going to provide you with a great service experience.”  (This in and of itself is unusual for airport restaurants, in my experience.)  And that was exactly the experience I received – even though my timeline wasn’t tight at all.  Great service and delicious fajitas; what more could I ask?

Interestingly enough, when I related this experience to Jesyca Hope, my social media and branding coach (yes, the Sales Navigator also has coaches), she said, “That’s amazing!  I just had a similar experience.”  Apparently, she was dining at a restaurant in Washington, DC, and the server asked each person at the table if they had any food allergies that she needed to know about.  Again, a small and quick question, but one that asserts first, that the person asking actually cares about the customer, and that second, efforts will be made to accommodate the customer’s needs.

Think about your own sales environment.  What one great question could you incorporate in order to provide a great service experience for the customer?  We cannot produce success for a customer unless and until we know what success means to them.  Do you ask the customer what their definition of success is?

There is, of course, a risk to this approach.  The risk is that, once you ask and get the answer, you become responsible for achieving the customer’s desired result.  For instance, if my timeline had been tight at the airport, it’s the hostess’ responsibility to either ensure that they serve me quickly – OR tell me that the time was too tight for me to get in and out of the restaurant.  Same with the allergy question – if the customer did have an allergy, the server is responsible for knowing what’s in the dishes that everyone is ordering and advising if there’s something in a dish that would trigger a reaction.

But here’s the thing – GOOD SALESPEOPLE AND SERVICE PEOPLE ARE CONFIDENT ENOUGH TO TAKE THAT RISK.  And without risk comes no reward.

Here’s my challenge to you.  What’s the one great question you could ask your customers, at some point during the sales process, that could greatly alter their service experience?  Once you come up with it – ASK IT.  Your customers will thank you.

What if There’s No “Easy Pain?”

In all too many industries, sales die due to insufficient questioning and discovery, and due to salespeople who only look for the low-hanging fruit.  In some businesses, salespeople just know what the common issues are, and look only for those issues in discovery.  The problem is, if they don’t find those issues, they’re pretty helpless.

The salesperson who does the common ‘easy pain’ discovery and doesn’t find it then has two options – walk away, or present to a need that hasn’t been discovered, and hope.  The problem is this – just because the customer doesn’t have the easy pain doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have needs; always remember that there is a reason the customer is seeing you.

We salespeople do this often.  Not finding easy pain, we’re helpless.  We don’t have to be.  The first thing you have to remember is that customers don’t always buy to soothe the sore thumb; they have numerous reasons.  In the B2B world, buying motivations can be numerous, but they can be expressed by the simple term SWOT.

S: Strengths; in other words, what is going well now for the customer.

W: Weaknesses; what’s going wrong.  This is typically the ‘easy pain.’

O: Opportunities; how the program being discussed can be grown or improved.

T:  Threats; what could go wrong in the future.

Customers can and do buy based on any one, or any combination, of these motivators.  If you notice, the ‘easy pain’ only covers ¼ of the possible motivators.  Here’s the kicker:  Oftentimes, the biggest return on investment for the customer isn’t fixing a Weakness – it’s improving a Strength.  But if you never ask about Strengths, or never look for ways to improve them, you leave that on the table.

So, what should the salesperson do when in a sales call where the ‘easy pain’ doesn’t come to the surface?

First, compliment the customer on avoiding the issues so common in this industry, product, or service.  Anytime you acknowledge what your customer is doing well, you gain credibility.

Second, if you haven’t already (and you should be doing this through your questioning to begin with), start probing the Strengths, Opportunities, and Threats.  If you spot an area where you can improve a Strength, bring forth an Opportunity, or head off a Threat, point that out and ask about the buyer’s motivation to move forward based on those issues.

Third, if you can’t come up with anything, you have two options – neither of which is attempting to nitpick or push something forward that won’t sell.

You can look at your customer and say, “Let’s be honest.  I can’t come up with a single way to improve what you’re doing.  Congratulations.”

Or, and depending on your personality, this might be best, (if the sales call was a preset appointment) you can be honest and say, “Mr. Customer, there was obviously a reason you wanted to see me – but I can’t figure out what it is based on my questioning.  What motivated you to take this meeting?”  Sometimes, the buyer will tell you a motivation that you hadn’t thought of, and you’re off to the races.

However, when you attempt to diagnose a problem that doesn’t exist, or nitpick, or just toss out an unqualified proposal, you just end up ruining your credibility.  To be more successful, acknowledge and probe ALL the buying motivators.  Don’t just shoot for the ‘easy pain,’ because sometimes the best sales aren’t easy.