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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.

Is Live Networking Dying?

A month ago, I did a workshop on networking at a trade show on the East Coast.  This program typically gets rave reviews.  It’s about NETWORKING – the process of meeting people, forming relationships, and converting those relationships into referrals and sales.  It’s a great program and a useful one. I’ve constantly updated it; I now include about ten minutes on incorporating online social networking into a networking program.

When I got my audience feedback results, I was surprised.  The program didn’t get the reviews it normally does, and over 50% of the comments were some variation on “I was expecting this to be about social media networking.”  That makes me wonder if the emphasis on social media is starting to squeeze out the skill set of live networking.

My opinion is this – whether it is or whether it isn’t, it shouldn’t.  There’s a huge qualitative difference between a network that looks big online vs. a network that can be monetized.  Think of the “facebook hero” who has 1,547 “friends,” and who has actually met about 10 of them in real life.  Most of those contacts are, at best, arm’s length “acquaintanceships,” and are not necessarily good contacts that can generate results for you.

When I asked for a definition of a good networker, one person used the word “connector”, and I think that works pretty well.  Good networkers are able to “connect” people with other people that they can benefit from knowing; not-so-good networkers can name-drop with the best of them, but can’t actually arrange, or get, a meeting with very many of the names they drop.

This, too, is a difference between online ‘relationships’ and real networking contacts.  If you’ve had the experience of asking someone for an introduction to an online contact of theirs and not gotten it, you’ve probably encountered the difference.  The truth is that, much of the time, the person doesn’t introduce you because they really can’t – they don’t actually know the person they’re being asked to introduce.

Taking it one step deeper, I think that good networkers are “hubs of value.”  In other words, they are capable of GETTING value from the relationships they have with others (think referrals, business, favors, etc.), and are able to GIVE or CONDUCT value to others they know (similar to the above).  Here are some other measuring sticks to determine whether you are a good networker or not a good networker:

Good networkers are successful.  First and foremost, good networkers are able to produce success for THEMSELVES, on their own.  They are producers.  I’ve never met someone who was incapable of producing success on their own terms for themselves, but was able to produce it for others.  I should point out here that “success” has its own definitions, and those definitions are not necessarily financial.  For instance, the high school football coach who is capable of generating a winning team and who is able to help his kids get scholarships might not necessarily be wealthy in financial terms, but has certainly achieved success in his/her own measurement.

Good networkers have stability.  Here we are, back to that “job stability” thing again.  The truth is that those who are constantly expending their own energies finding new jobs for themselves have precious little left over to conduct value to others; and of course, they also have issues with generating the needed respect from others to conduct value.

Good networkers are selective.  It’s impossible to generate value from or for everyone that you meet, particularly if you’re an active networker and are constantly meeting new people.  Hence, good networkers are selective with the relationships they want to pursue, and once they select someone, they work very hard to generate value for them.

Good networkers are willing to be the first giver.  There’s an old law which I believe is still on the books in Kansas that says, “When two cars meet at an intersection, neither shall move until the other has passed.”  Think about that brilliance of lawmaking for a second; somewhere at a seldom used intersection in western Kansas, the skeletons of two old farmers sit in their Model T’s, still exhorting the other to move first.  That’s a good analogy for how many potentially good networking relationships die.  If you are always waiting for the other to give first, you run the danger of never getting any value.  Along these lines, good networkers seek out MUTUAL relationships and not just coattails.

Good networkers never stop.  I have encountered a number of people in my travels who came to me with the reputation of being “great networkers,” or even “networking gurus.”  I’ve always been amazed at how many of these people seem to have retired, or withdrawn, from networking efforts.  They’re not encouraging new contacts or new relationships, and seem content to rest upon whatever laurels have bestowed on them.  The problem with this is both simple and obvious – people retire, they change jobs, they move.  The network that you have today might not be the network you have tomorrow.  For that reason, a good networker always remains open to new relationships.

So why do people emphasize online networking over live networking?  Several reasons, in my opinion.  First, it’s easy; live networking is hard and time consuming.  There are events to attend, real introductions to make, etc.  Online, you just have to send a ‘request.’

Second, online people can see how many contacts you have – again, it’s the “Facebook hero” syndrome.

Finally, it’s trendy.  Online networkers can feel up-to-date, as opposed to the somewhat ‘old school’ method of live networking.

Here’s the rub.  A quality network built on face-to-face encounters can be monetized much more easily than can an online network.  My advice to those who are looking to build a quality network is this:  Emphasize live networking and use online social media as an adjunct and a tool for achiving your goals, not an end in and of itself.

How To Build a Sales Culture

In my years of experience in working with (and for) companies large and small, I have discovered that there is a common element to the most successful businesses.  The most successful companies have a sales culture.  A “sales culture” is a philosophy that permeates the company, from the corner office to the loading dock, that says, essentially, “We are a sales organization, and everything else we are able to do is a product of our ability to sell our products or services to our customers.”

This isn’t a philosophical statement; it’s reality.  The only difference is whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.  It’s reality because no matter how good your products or services, if you can’t persuade someone to exchange money for those products or services, there’s no reason for production or service to exist, and hence your business will cease to exist.  An acquaintance of mine attempted to make a go of it as a financial consultant, and to be frank, he was the most brilliant financial guy I’ve ever met.  He’s now working for someone else as a CFO – because despite his brilliance, he was unable to make a single sale.

The most successful companies both acknowledge and embrace the idea that they are first and foremost a sales organization, and that culture flows from the top.  It flows from the top because it must.  Despite the protestations of those who advocate bottom-up leadership, the reality is that any corporate culture is set not by the employees at ground and field level, but by the overriding philosophy of management.  That’s you, by the way.  So, let’s assume for the moment that you have decided that your company needs to accept and embrace a sales culture.  How do we go about that?

Set the mission:  First of all, whatever your mission statement, throw it away.  I know, it’s something that you’ve put a lot of thought into and probably has some great phrasing.  It’s probably also something that your employees couldn’t remember if a gun were put to their heads.  Let’s replace it with something simple like this:  “We are a sales organization, and we grow profitably by Acquiring new customers, Developing current customers to greater profitability, and Retaining profitable business.”  Use this as the mantra that guides your company’s decision making.

Communicate:  All good things in sales (and business) come from good communication, and most bad things happen because of insufficient communication.  Knowing this, the next step is to communicate the message to your people, and to do so consistently.  This is where a lot of companies fail, because the communication happens like this:  The Big Guy at the Top will have a staff meeting where he/she communicates the ‘new mission’ forcefully to his key managers, and then expects the managers to communicate it downstream.  They do, but with varying degrees of emphasis and enthusiasm.  The Sales Manager obviously embraces the mission, while the Production Manager may be less enthusiastic, and so forth.  If you really want to effect change, it has to be up to you.

In creating a sales culture, there is no employee whose job is so small or insignificant that he/she shouldn’t hear this message from YOU.  Have all-company meetings, or all-department meetings, or all-branch meetings; however you need to do it in order to have the opportunity to have every employee hear the message directly from your lips.  I once struggled with the support personnel in a 50-person department; no matter what I told the supervisors, nothing seemed to change at ground level.  So, over the objections of several supervisors and even a couple of managers from other departments, I held a full-department meeting and laid out my goals for the next quarter, how we would achieve them, and what everyone’s duty was as part of the goal achievement.  The employees asked great questions, and within days were taking the actions that I needed them to take in order to achieve the goals.  Result – we didn’t just make the goals, we blew them away.  And you can bet that we repeated the quarterly meetings consistently.  The take-away is that, for the most part, if your people know the goals, they will act in accordance with them – if they believe that the goal is real and permanent.

Align Goals:  To accomplish your goal of profitable growth through acquiring, developing, and retaining customers, you must align all your departments and goals.  I once worked for a company that would set each department’s goals in a vacuum; for instance, sales would be tasked to grow the company 15% while the production department would be tasked to cut labor costs by 10%.  Assuming there are no major technical innovations (there weren’t), you had departments with goals that could not all be reached collectively.  This produced management and interdepartmental conflict on a constant basis.

Instead of this, set department goals in such a way that they can all be achieved together.  For instance, instead of budgeting in dollar terms, budget in percentages from the top line.  This way, when departments need more resources for equipment and personnel, they know how to get it – help grow the company.  Even with the best goal setting, however, you’re going to see some internal conflict.

Remove Internal Conflict:  Good sales forces, by their nature, create internal conflict.  This isn’t because salespeople are bad people, obnoxious, or difficult to work with (although that is a separate issue), but because good salespeople push the frontiers.  Because sales is all about growth, good sales forces are always creating extra work and pressure for the other departments which must then function at a higher level to support the sales growth created.  This creates conflict and push-back.

As a business owner, it’s your job to mediate and handle these conflicts and push-backs.  It’s a delicate issue because no department, or department manager, wants to feel subordinate or less important than sales.  The reality is that, if you’re truly embracing a sales culture, the other departments are exactly that – subordinate to sales.  When conflicts arise, you should go back to your mission statement; what helps your company grow profitably through acquiring, developing, and retaining customers?

Few things can be as demotivating to a sales force, or as detrimental to sales productivity, as the daily interdepartmental battles that can result when other departments feel that they must act as a brake pedal on progress.  Good sales cultures overcome this problem by empowering managers who are sales advocates and by removing internal obstacles.

Have a High Performance Sales Force:  So far, we’ve talked about aligning a company’s objective, people, and goals around the sales force, which creates a very sales-friendly environment.  Now it’s time to turn up the heat on the people who are doing the selling.  You have the right, and the responsibility, to demand excellence from your salespeople once you have molded the culture of the company around them.

First, you need a strong sales manager.  A “strong sales manager” is one who actively works, on a day to day basis, to strengthen and enhance the abilities of his/her salespeople.  Your sales manager should be not only a good administrator, reporter, and forecaster; the sales manager must be a good coach and developer of people.  He should be willing to advocate for the needs of the sales force while simultaneously demanding the highest effort and achievement from them.  He must be capable of surrounding himself with top talent and then making that talent even better.

The sales manager must understand the basic equation of sales achievement:  Quantity of activity x Quality of activity = Results.  To this end, the sales manager should have performance metrics in place to assess both quantity and quality of sales activity, and be equipped to hold salespeople accountable for those metrics and for the results.  Struggling personnel must be either coached or changed; top performers should be rewarded and coached to even higher levels.

Your salespeople should be excellent “fits” for your company and environment, and should be capable of winning new business, developing current business, and retaining customers (remember the mission statement?).  They should have the appropriate mix of traits necessary for success, while being highly skilled and trained (which means that your investment in training should be ongoing).  The salespeople in a high performance sales force are not salespeople that must be babysit or constantly watched to achieve results.

Moreover, the people in your sales force should be excellent relationship builders, both inside the company and outside.  That means that the sales force shouldn’t have any “cowboys” who are negative or abusive to other employees; for a sales culture to work, the other employees have to want to get behind the sales team.  Salespeople who can’t play nicely with others will work against your goals, no matter how good they are with customers.

Reinforce the culture:  As you’ve probably guessed, it’s not enough to have some meetings, say “we are a sales organization,” and call it good.  Cultures happen because they are reinforced, directly or indirectly.  For this to work, key decisions must be made based on the new mission statement:  “Does this decision help us to acquire, develop, or retain customers?”  That doesn’t mean that non-sales departments starve; that new machine for the plant may be completely justified by its benefits in product quality.  The raises for the production staff may be appropriate to reward them for their part in acquiring, developing, and retaining customers.  It does mean that your company has one universal criteria for spending, personnel allocations, and any other key decision making.

The Benefits:  There are numerous benefits to aligning your company around a sales culture.  The biggest is this:  Sales focused companies tend to produce excellence in every department.  The reason is simple:  Companies with a strong sales department cannot stay bad or mediocre in other areas; if they do, those sales gains will quickly be lost through customer dissatisfaction and attrition.  As noted earlier, good sales departments tend to lift other departments through necessity.  This is not true of other departmental objectives; an excellent production department seldom creates pressure on other departments to up their games.

How to Convert a Buyer Into a Non-Buyer

If there’s any common ‘stress factor’ in selling, it’s the process of finding prospects and converting them into buyers.  Think about that for a moment – we do some form of ‘cold prospecting’ to generate an appointment, then use questioning to find needs and hopefully create interest, then present, propose, and close.  It can be exhausting.

But what about leads that come to you, ready to buy?  Most salespeople – including myself – would look at those buyers as easy pickings, especially if you have something specific that the customer wants to buy.  It’s not that easy.  One of the things that some salespeople are good at is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  I had that experience a few days ago, except that I was a buyer – and the salesperson converted me into a non-buyer.

The story goes like this.  I’m in the market for a used SUV, preferably an Escalade or a Denali.  In fact, you could say a “well used” one; not anything too expensive.  In doing a Craigslist search, I found one at a new car dealership (it was a trade-in) about a half hour outside of Dallas that was nice – an Escalade, good miles, my preferred color, everything.  And as it so happens, I was taking a trip to San Diego to speak at a sales managers’ meeting (that’s where I’m writing this), and I could easily rebook my return flight to take me to Dallas, buy the Escalade, and drive it home.

I’m a buyer.  The price is right and the car is right.  Granted, I’m going to try to negotiate a bit, but I’m probably not going to be that difficult.

So, I called and spoke to an obviously young salesman, asked him a few questions, and then I had to go.  He texted me an hour later and asked me if I had any more questions, so I texted him a reasonable offer, explaining that I’d need transportation from Love Field to his dealership, and when I’d be arriving if I rebooked my flight.

That’s where things went wrong. I was in the car business years ago and I understand the ‘go to my manager’ game.  I hated it as a salesman and I hate it now as a customer.

His response went something like, “Boy, my general manager almost bit my head off when I presented that offer!  He’s MAD!  But I was able to get you $100 off.”

Good grief.  They’re still doing that nonsense.  First of all, I know that the GM wasn’t “mad” at all, he’s trying to bump me.  Fair enough.  But do they really think their customer is so dumb as to believe it?

I could recount the whole conversation by text – but I’d rather not.  It was more of the same back-and-forth for the next 30 minutes, the dealer coming down little by little, and the young salesman trying to make me believe he was about to get fired.

I think the fact that it was by text made it worse, because I could keep reading the nonsense.  But, at some point, I started thinking.

I thought about how much trust is involved in buying a used vehicle sight unseen – that the dealer is describing it accurately and that the pictures are a good representation.

I thought about the fact that, if the dealer weren’t trustworthy, I’d be an hour from the nearest airport with no return flight booked, facing a last-minute airfare, and my only transportation would be the dealer.  In other words, I’d be at their mercy.

And they’d already shown themselves willing to stretch the truth and insult my intelligence during the sales process.

I texted, “Thanks for your time, but I’m no longer interested.  I withdraw my offer.”  Another, rather frantic “If I could” text came, and I said, “I won’t be responding to any more texts.  I no longer wish to do business with you.”

I should interject this.  I wasn’t being unreasonable; my offer basically allowed for the extra last-minute rebooking cost of my flight from San Diego.  Which, also, isn’t the dealer’s problem.  Had the salesperson come back with something like this, I’d be flying to Dallas tomorrow:

“Look, I understand that you want a discount.  I also understand that an Escalade in this color, this year, these miles, and this price is a rare bird – that’s why you’re looking in Dallas and not Kansas City.  If you’d like a little discount to feel good about it, I can do that and here’s my number – but I’m not going any lower because this thing will sell well.”

Not the ‘my GM is gonna fire me’ junk, just being straightforward.  I’d have agreed that he was right and I’d have made a deal.  That would have been respecting my intelligence.  But when I started thinking about the trust needed to make a deal like this, sight unseen, dealer unmet, an hour away from an airport and 500 miles from home, I just decided that I didn’t have the necessary trust.

So, the next morning, you guessed it.  I got a call from the fabled GM, who explained that he was just trying to help the poor young salesman, etc.  I explained to the GM that the nonsense they did – which was obsolete when I had to do it in 1990 – broke the bonds of credibility and trust.  I further said, “You successfully converted a buyer into a non-buyer.”

It might sound like I’m just bashing car salespeople.  I am, directly, but indirectly, I’m talking about negotiation itself.  I’ve said for years that the best negotiation is no negotiation.  Negotiation forces the buyer to come up with reasons not to buy in order to have leverage – which I did, and those reasons finally overcame my reasons to want to buy.  That doesn’t just happen in car sales; it happens in all business.  So, what are my negotiation strategies?

  1. Give the buyer a fair price up front.
  2. Don’t say stuff that is insulting to the buyer’s intelligence.
  3. If you must negotiate, take something away. For instance, had they said, “We can meet your price, but we won’t be able to transport you from Love Field,” that would have been fair.
  4. Finish as quickly as possible.

Defeating the Post Thanksgiving Hangover

We’re all familiar with the post-Thanksgiving hangover, aren’t we?  No, I’m not talking about the Tryptophan-influenced food coma.  Nor am I talking about the effect that my late dad’s Thanksgiving punch left the next morning – although both of those can be significant.

I’m talking about the hangover that happens in selling.  More specifically, I’m talking about the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, when many customers prefer not to see salespeople, and when many salespeople go into a self-induced sales coma.  Yes, there’s no question – selling is tougher during the holidays, but there’s a philosophy that has stood me in excellent stead over my 27 years in selling.

Every day during this period, someone will be buying what you’re selling in your territory.  Whether they buy it from you or not depends on your own work habits.

It’s true that, during this period, salespeople will hear “talk to me after the new year” quite a bit.  I get it; I’ve been there.  Hearing that can be discouraging, and can result in a salesperson who says “nobody will be buying” right now.  Not true.  “Nobody” and “Never” is hardly ever true in selling.  Yes, there will be productive selling done during this period – so how can salespeople make this time productive?

  1. Collect good info on purchasing times. If your business, for example, runs on contracts, make sure you’re getting good contact expiration data.  With that you can pull data from your CRM system (you are using one, right?) of which customers are going to be in the buying process in December.  Granted, if it’s already December, it’s probably too late for this – but it’s never too late to start building good habits for next year.  Other customers will be doing their “buy budgets” during December.  The point is that, for one reason or another, there will be customers who structurally will be in the buying process in December.  Use your information gathering abilities to find them.
  2. Prospect harder. Remember, “nobody buys” isn’t a valid statement.  SOMEONE will buy – it’s just that your ratios are down.  By “ratios,” I mean the ratios from calls to appointments, appointments to presentations, presentations to proposals, and proposals to sales.  The only time those ratios will be zero is when your inputs – i.e. funnel building activities – are zero.  So if you have to spend a third again, or even half again, as much time prospecting and funnel-building, isn’t that worth the investment?  It’s better than giving up 1/12 of the year.
  3. Ask why. When you get the “holiday objection,” you have three choices.  You can either try to bully your way into an appointment, you can meekly say “okay,” or you can take a third path.  That third path is asking a customer-friendly question.  Something like, “I understand, Mr. Customer, that this time of the year can be a challenge.  Since I like to build long relationships, we’ll probably confront this situation again – so to help me be a better partner to you in the future, would you mind telling me what makes you want to postpone this conversation until January?”  I’ve always been surprised at how many times, over the years, this question resulted in an appointment – because the truth is that there is no real obstacle to meeting on the customer’s part; they just instinctively use the holidays as an excuse.  Play it soft and you might get a potential win.
  4. Schedule ahead. If you do get the ‘talk to me after the first of the year’ response, be respectful of your time and your customer’s time, and schedule appointments for January.  While there will be some customers who put you off and ask you to call them again, many will allow you to pre-schedule an appointment for January. While that doesn’t help you for December, it does allow you to get out of the gate quickly in the new year.

The bottom line is this:  While it can be tempting to go into vacation mode during December, you’re doing yourself, your company, and your customers a grave disservice by giving up 1/12 of the year.  In fact, going into that mode, you really sacrifice close to 1/6 of the year, because a light December usually carries over into an unproductive January.  Don’t be that person.  Stay on your game in December, and you might be that person who is making the daily sale in your territory.

What Can You Really Control?

I had a little lesson in “Control” recently.  I was on a flight that left Kansas City at Noon on a Thursday, bound for Chicago.  I was speaking at 9:30 the following morning in Chicago, so this wasn’t an optional schedule.  Suddenly, things went sideways, and I was no longer in control. Right after boarding, the captain came on the microphone and told us that, due to weather conditions, the FAA had shut down Midway Airport.  Our flight was canceled, as were the two after.  A plane emptied of upset passengers.  I only had one question:  What was the status of the remaining flights?  The gate attendant said, “They are all oversold.”  In two minutes, I’d made a car reservation on Dollar.com and was on the bus to the rental cars.  The story gets better – but I’ll finish it at the end of this article.

I’ve always found it amusing that salespeople spend their careers trying to control the one thing in sales that it is impossible to control – their customers – while neglecting the aspects of their careers that truly are within their control.  Me, I never liked to leave my destiny to the mercies of fate, which is why I chose a car over the hundreds of other people trying to find some sort of a flight.  But, what can we control?  Quite a bit, as it turns out.

Salespeople can in fact control most elements of selling.  For instance:

Prospecting.  One of the most important elements of selling that is within our control is Prospecting.  Successful salespeople have a full and active sales funnel.  Period.  You might think that salespeople with the largest territories, the ones who are the most successful, would be short on Prospecting.  You wouldn’t be farther from the truth.  Those salespeople are especially likely to maintain a full funnel – because they know that accounts can leave without warning, and often through no fault of our own.  Businesses change, companies change – and those salespeople with the large territories know that to keep that territory large, they must continue to prospect and bring on new business.

Attitude.  I know, I know, I know.  “Attitude” is difficult to control – but difficult does not mean impossible.  When I’m talking about “Attitude,” I’m specifically referring to your ability to stay positive, to be open to customer feedback and requests, and to center your activities on your customers while “between the lines” – on sales calls or during work hours.  We all have had things happen to us in our lives that can be detrimental to our personal attitude.  That’s normal.  The key is to be able to push past those moments – or even to use our work as a respite from personal issues.  One thing I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned in this space is that my first marriage ended, and my mother passed away, within four weeks of each other.  During that time, my only real safe harbor was my work and my customers – so I used that for all it was worth.  Sometimes just taking a minute or two to “get in character” was all that was needed before a sales call.

Your own skill level.  This might be the easiest aspect of a sales career to control – and yet, the vast majority of salespeople (80% or more) spend little to no time developing their own skill level.  Look carefully in the mirror and be honest.  How much time in the last month have you spent on skills development?  It doesn’t have to be as extreme as purchasing a product, buying a book, or anything like that (although if you’re not doing those things to develop yourself, you should be).  Sometimes it’s as simple as coming up with a new question, a new way to present, gathering testimonials, looking for case studies, etc.  Dedicate yourself to becoming a better salesperson in at least one meaningful way each month, and your customers and your wallet will thank you.

Control those elements, and you’ll be able to influence the one thing you can’t truly control – your customers.  Because there’s nothing worse than feeling completely out of control.

Which brings us back to the Kansas City International Airport last Thursday.  I had a speaking engagement at 9:30 the next morning (roughly 20 and one-half hours away), and there were 530 miles between me and my hotel, with no chance of a flight on Thursday to get me there.  There was a chance that, assuming weather returned to normal, that a Friday morning flight – early – could have me there.  However, if I banked on that and failed, I would miss the engagement.  That’s not acceptable.

So, since my road trip car was at home (I don’t like to leave it in airport parking), I quickly got on Dollar.com, reserved a car, and started out to catch the rental car bus.  As I did, I passed a man who was about my age, explaining to the gate agent that he HAD to be in Chicago at 10 the following morning for a ‘potentially life altering’ job interview (his words).  So, I stopped, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “Hey, I’m about to start driving to Chicago.  If you like, we can share the car and expenses, and I’ll drop you off where you need to be.  You’ll still get there this evening.”

And – I’m not kidding about this – the guy looked me up and down and then said, “No, thank you, I’m going to keep trying to find a flight.”

I’m still not trying to take that one personally.

Well, the story has a happy ending.  When I got on the bus, I noticed a fellow refugee from my flight, a woman in her 30s.  I made the same offer to her, she accepted immediately (apparently I looked safer to her than I did to the guy with the interview), and we actually had quite a nice drive.  I had company, I got there when I needed to be, and by the time I dropped her off in downtown Chicago, we’d each made a new friend.

And I still got to the hotel in time to order the Chicago pizza I’d been craving for days.

The point is this – given the opportunity to take control, I took it, and the result was good. That doesn’t make me some kind of hero – it just works. If you do the same, it usually will be a good result.  I wonder if the guy ever got there for his “life altering” interview.

The Buying Process In Action

For thirteen years, I’ve been explaining that the customer’s buying process is far more important than any “sales process” we might create – and that, if we’re to be successful, our sales process absolutely must harmonize with the buying process.  What I didn’t expect was to get validation from the world of motorcycling.

Two product introductions, however, have perfectly illustrated why the buying process is so important.  As many of you know, I’m an avid motorcyclist, and so I pay attention to introductions of new bikes, and two of the more exciting ones this summer have been Yamaha’s introduction of their new Venture touring bike, and Harley-Davidson’s introduction of eight new models that replace their Softail and Dyna lines.  One company used the buying process the right way – and one, in my opinion, did not.

To refresh your memory, customers buy things in a defined 4-step process. Those steps are:

Motivation:  Something or someone provokes the customer to recognize that they have a need that could be solved by a purchase.

Investigation:  Once the customer has recognized a need, available goods and services are measured against their needs and wants, product(s) are narrowed down and possible purchases defined.

Evaluation:  Price and terms – is it affordable, does it represent good value, are the terms acceptable?

Decision:  The customer buys or doesn’t buy.

In June, Yamaha unveiled their new Venture.  Yamaha has built Venture full-dress bikes off and on since the early Eighties, and their new model is an impressive-looking bike that’s targeted at bikes like the Harley Road Glide, the Indian Roadmaster, the Honda Goldwing, etc.  It’s gotten great reviews in magazine ride reports, and pictures are all over the Internet.

In July, I decided that I wanted to see one.  Now, I’m not a prospect – I love my Harley Road King, and I plan to stick with it for years to come. Besides, I’m not even close to being done customizing it!  Still, I’m a biker and I’m curious.  So I stopped into my neighborhood Yamaha dealer (a month after it was unveiled) and asked about it.  I was told, “Ah, you know the manufacturers.  We’ll have them sometime in September or October.”

This, by the way, is typical of most bike manufacturers.  They roll out a bike a few months before it’s actually in dealerships.  The idea is to drip out information, build anticipation, and whet customers’ appetites for the new bike.  While this sounds good, I wonder how many bikers do what the guy I met did.  While riding my Road King, I happened to cross paths with a guy on a brand new Indian Roadmaster.

I complimented him on his Roadmaster, and he told me something funny.  He was a long time Venture owner, and when he saw the articles on the new Venture, he went to the dealerships – and was told what I was told.  The problem was, he was in a buying mood.  He was Motivated.  And once motivated, many times, it’s hard to shut a buyer off.

Denied the opportunity to continue the buying process on the Venture, he went down the road, ended up in an Indian dealership, rode a Roadmaster (truly a magnificent bike), and presto- his need to buy was satisfied.  Yamaha, the company that Motivated him, never had a shot at his business because they didn’t have the product available.  What’s more, he told me, his buddy did the same thing (went to a dealer looking for a Venture) but ended up buying a new Honda Goldwing.

Meanwhile, in August, Harley-Davidson introduced eight new Softail models.  This was done abruptly, all at once, no slow buildup.  The next day, Harley’s demo ride trucks had Softail models available to ride, and within two days, dealers had them in stock – not as display models, but to sell.  I went into a Harley dealer a week after introduction, and they only had one Softail available – because the others had been sold.

Of course, some Harley riders like the new ones and some don’t – but for those that don’t, the 2017 models are still available and are selling quickly.  The bottom line is this – when Harley Motivated customers to take a look at the new models, the new models were there to ride and be sold.  Harley might not sell everyone – but they won’t MISS any business for lack of bikes on the floor.  It’s doubtful that anyone will be going to another dealer because they’re fired up to buy and Harley is two months away from delivery.

What’s the lesson here?  When buyers become Motivated, more often than not they don’t put their motivation on “hold” until you can deliver product.  For that reason, it’s best to have product introduction and availability as close to simultaneous as possible.  Yamaha’s Venture will probably be a success, but I’ll bet they lose a lot of potential sales before bikes hit the showroom.

Is LinkedIn Losing its Usefulness?

I’ve talked a lot about the evolution of sales over the last 10-15 years.  One of the causes of the evolution is, of course, social media.  What is interesting to me is that social media itself is evolving quickly, and many people aren’t keeping up to speed with this evolution.

This was brought to mind a few days ago when a client asked me if I thought that LinkedIn was losing its usefulness as a sales prospecting tool.  That’s really a great question.  For years, I’ve been recommending that salespeople use LinkedIn to get quality introductions and warm referrals to new potential customers, but even that mechanism is losing its effectiveness for reasons that I’ll discuss below.

LinkedIn was, and still is, the premier business networking site.  I’ve always thought of it as the “visible Rolodex;” in old-school face to face networking, it would be considered rude to ask the other person to open their contact book and let you look through.  However, LinkedIn facilitates this by making contacts visible when two people are connected.  This greatly enabled the process of asking for introductions – if you were a second degree connection on LinkedIn (I know Bob, Bob knows Jane, Bob introduces me to Jane), the intro was usually a fairly simple ask.  For years, my ratio of requests to introductions was between 1 to 1 and 1.5 to one.

That number has been going down, not only for me, but for others that I work with.  What’s happened?  Does this mean that people are getting tired of being asked for intros?  I doubt it; most people I talk to report that they aren’t asked that much.  What I do think it means is that more people are becoming less discriminating in their link requests and acceptances, meaning that those ‘second degree connections’ might not really be a personal connection at all.  Thus, when you see a second-degree connection and ask for an introduction, the person you’re asking really doesn’t have the ability to introduce you in any meaningful way.

I can’t cast stones here; I’ve become far less selective in the past year in my acceptances, and my social media coach tells me that I’m doing the right thing.  Given that LinkedIn has removed the ‘ask for introduction’ button, they too must feel that this is becoming less and less important.

Another issue is what I call “Facebook posting.”  LinkedIn used to be very business-focused in what its users posted.  This, too, has changed.  Political posts now take up a large amount of anyone’s daily feed, whether you’re the one doing the posting or not.  Other non-business posts – even Facebook-style party pictures – are becoming a bigger and bigger part of LinkedIn.  This makes it more difficult for business-focused users to separate the wheat from the chaff, and harder for solid business articles to get noticed.

There are other, more minor issues that can impact LinkedIn’s usefulness to some users, but this article is focused on selling and salespeople.

So, if LinkedIn is evolving, does that mean that it’s not as useful anymore?  Not at all.  It just means that we need to evolve with it.

First of all, the old ‘ask for an introduction’ system can still work – it just becomes more of a numbers game than in the past.  Depending on the size of one’s network, the 1:1 relationship between intro requests and intros is more like 3:1 or 4:1 now.  That means that if you need two intros per week, you probably need to send between 6 and 8 requests.  That means that your network needs to be large; otherwise you can burn out your contacts.

Second, direct prospecting on LinkedIn is showing some promise.  Rather than going through your contacts and looking for introductions, simply targeting the people you want to talk to and sending them a connection request WITH A SHORT MESSAGE ABOUT WHY YOU WANT TO CONNECT WITH THEM is yielding results, although with too small a sample size to put ratios to it yet.

There are a few things that are important about this technique.  First, I’m not a fan of signing up for LinkedIn Premium and then just blasting InMail.  I prefer to connect.  If I send someone a connection request with a short (because that’s all that you’re allowed) note about why I want to connect, and they accept my request, they are typically at least open to the next step in the conversation.

THEN I send an InMail to them explaining how I think I could be of help to them.  A well done email can get a conversation going that results in an appointment.  If you want to use this technique, I wouldn’t recommend sending a “blind” connection request; i.e. one that doesn’t include a small sales message.  If you send a blind request, and then hit the contact with a sales message, they can feel blindsided.  I prefer people to be informed.

A variation on this technique is that, when you see you are second-degree from a targeted contact, to request an introduction from your connection as we used to.

LinkedIn is also getting to be far more useful in job seeking and candidate search.  I’ve used it as a recruiter for several years, and it’s always been a small but high quality candidate pool, as compared to CareerBuilder.  In the last few searches, I’ve found that the quality continues to be high, but the quantity is going up significantly.  If this trend continues, LinkedIn will be the best site to find professional hires within another year or so.

Finally, I have found significant success, for myself and my clients, in getting recommendations and testimonials using LinkedIn’s “ask to be recommended” feature.  Testimonials, I have said for many years, are one of the greatest marketing tools we have.  They allow prospective new customers to see you through the eyes of a happy current or past customer – and that’s a credibility booster that can’t be beat.

Oddly, I recently read an article by another prominent sales “guru” who said that you shouldn’t ask for recommendations; if your customers like you enough, they’ll simply recommend you without asking.  To me, this is horrible advice and comes from being out of touch with what most salespeople face in their work environment.

Sales is a profession built on the idea that we get what we ask for, and don’t get what we don’t ask for.  And, frankly, it might not occur to even the happiest of customers to post a recommendation on their own.  A polite, respectfully worded recommendation request – when you know the customer is a happy one – is not inappropriate or out of line.  And it’s one of the easiest and best ways to gather testimonials.

To conclude, LinkedIn is still highly useful as a sales tool. Its usefulness is just evolving, and we as salespeople must evolve with it. 2-3 focused hours per week on LinkedIn can still be time well spent.