The Truth About Selling
As part of our research, we’ve asked thousands of salespeople for personal characteristics they feel they possess. We end up with an impressive list of attributes including honesty, integrity, ability to listen, good work ethic, excellent communication skills, customer-driven, technical expertise, caring, ability to build relationships, and sincerity.
However, when we ask the same sellers what characteristics they think people outside the sales profession would use to describe salespeople, the list is quite different. We get adjectives like dishonest, insincere, lazy, money-grubbing, pushy, and selfish. The lists are polar opposites. How can this be?
The truth is, for most in the sales profession, the battle for our reputation begins on day one. It only ends with those customers who allow us the opportunity to prove our value. From the outside looking in, we remain an unseemly lot. We are to be distrusted and avoided. No matter your professionalism, you are a part of the conditioned mass conscience that includes the telemarketer who calls at dinnertime, the car salesman who follows you out the door, and the trickster who won’t take no for an answer.
Who do we blame for this injustice? Are salespeople flawed, or can unreasoned customers not see beyond a stereotype? Neither. We are only describing the symptoms of a problem. To fully understand this dilemma, we have to trace it to its roots. It begins with childhood dreams.
In ASK Academy workshops we ask attendees: “Who dreamed as a child of one day becoming a salesperson?” In rare instances, we’ll find one or two who actually gave a sales career a thought. Most either had no clue of future jobs or dreamed in more grandiose terms, picturing themselves as a doctor, lawyer, scientist, or architect. The problem is, becoming a successful doctor, lawyer, scientist, or architect requires a significant investment in advanced education, combined with endless time and effort. It’s only when we come to understand the total expense of those endeavors that a trip to the help wanted ads points us to an inevitable conclusion. There are usually many sales positions available, and these jobs require little, if any, advanced education.
Contrarily, if we were to ask a roomful of doctors how many dreamed of becoming a physician, the majority would likely raise their hand. It is unlikely that we would hear anyone say, “Well, I really wanted to be a salesperson, but I couldn’t make it work – so I had to settle and become a doctor.” I promise that you will never see this ad in your newspaper: Wanted – doctor. No experience necessary. Unlimited income potential. Must have reliable transportation.
Doctors, lawyers, scientists, and architects must study and practice for years before earning the right to perform. The process of becoming a professional in these fields is clearly defined, as are the required skills. There are hundreds of colleges and universities dedicated to such efforts, and opportunities are unending.
The sad truth about sales as a profession is that most choose the career by default. They think that selling requires little effort, no training, and little experience or study. What’s more, many companies feel the same way. Even educational institutions fall into the trap. No colleges or universities offer programs for advanced degrees in the art/science of selling. Skill sets aren’t clearly defined. There are no tests for required minimum levels of expertise, no licenses required. That combination is lethal. It is almost solely responsible for both the high failure rate of new salespeople and the stereotypically negative image carried by the profession.
However, top sales professionals are among the world’s highest income earners. Top sellers make significantly more money than the average doctor, lawyer, scientist, or architect. So how can it be that companies are willing to pay such significant sums of money to people with skills so poorly defined, with no degrees earned, no tests for minimum levels of expertise, and no licenses?
Regardless of the skills required to accomplish the task, in a free market economy, goods and services must be sold for any other profitable business activity to take place. Even colleges and universities sell students course curriculum prior to turning out soon-to-be professionals. Secondly, since selling as a business process is generally poorly defined, those who have developed the ability to produce significant and profitable sales, and do so consistently, are an invaluable business asset.
Business management often views selling as an innate and unteachable skill. Find someone with an outgoing personality and aggressive character traits, mix that with training on the company’s product, and send them out for the kill. Then judge their success by the business they drag back in. Many managers don’t know and couldn’t care less about what happens during a sale, so they see results. This too is wrong.
So who is to blame for how the masses view selling as a profession? It turns out, it’s the very companies whose sales we’re responsible for delivering. It is a self-fulfilling business prophesy that is perpetuated by the belief that selling is a “people” profession driven by intangible, interpersonal skills passed genetically at birth. It is a general business belief that selling requires technique, not process – people, not structure.
As a real-life example, we need only look at my own introduction to sales. I began my business career in restaurant management. The work was grueling. Long hours, late nights, physical labor, young employees, and overexposure to alcohol were prevalent. After a year or two, I realized that an early burnout was inevitable.
What could be salvaged out of this career miscue? The first question was this: “What did I really enjoy about the restaurant business?” Well, I’m a people person. I enjoyed greeting people at the door, chatting with customers at their tables, telling stories at the bar. I sincerely enjoyed these interactions, and it seemed that the patrons did too. But then I thought, perhaps I had the personality and confidence to sell something? Maybe I’d make a great salesman. I certainly couldn’t embarrass my parents by becoming a salesman long-term. But in the interim, it had possibilities.
Then began my trip to the help wanted ads. There were three full pages of sales jobs available. One of the first ads I circled was for a major, multinational corporation selling business communications equipment. With the brazen naivete of someone with no experience, I placed my call. The hiring manager had one qualifying question prior to the interview: “Was I physically capable of carrying a case that weighed 30lbs?” I apologized for not being clear. I confirmed that I was calling about the sales position, not for a job in the warehouse. The manager informed me that this was a question all interviewees had to answer prior to being interviewed. I told him yes. And with that, my interview was scheduled.
I have very little recollection of what was said during that interview. But for some reason, after 15 minutes, I was hired as a sales professional. No experience, no product knowledge, no real business experience. I was given my 30lb case, which contained a piece of demonstration equipment and a stack of brochures and contracts. My training consisted of a few days of basic industry and product overviews and one very clear mandate from my sales manager: “Take your case and knock on 100 doors a day. Period”.
Armed with little training, I began my new career. The first thing I found was that it is possible to knock on 100 doors a day. I got thrown out of 85 at least. So knocking on the rest wasn’t a problem. I also discovered that being a born salesperson was an oxymoron. I couldn’t sell anything. Six weeks in, I still hadn’t sold a thing.
To say I was discouraged would have been a vast understatement. If I couldn’t figure out a way to sell something by the beginning of my seventh week, I would lose my job. Having come to that conclusion, I decided to call it a day.
As I was leaving my last office complex, I passed an open door. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason, I went in. I introduced myself and asked to see the decision-maker. I have as little recollection of the events that transpired in the next forty-five minutes as I have of my initial employment interview. But I do remember this: they ended up buying from me. And better yet, I made $1,500. That’s equivalent to $2,000/hour. I was shocked. My mind was racing. How many 45 minute periods were there in a day? At that moment, I dedicated the rest of my life to selling.
I took my customer’s deposit check and contract back to the office with expectations of quickly receiving my commissions, some of which I would spend in celebration of today’s blessed event. I was crushed to find that, not only were my commissions decimated by what I had already received in the draw, but I had to fill out a huge stack of paperwork.
I was directed to a small room with shelves of books outlining every process this company used to run their business. There was a process for accounts payable, accounts receivable, inventory control, staging equipment, testing equipment, installing equipment. And, of course, a process for filling out paperwork.
What struck me was this: there was no book, no process for what a salesperson did from the time they left the office with their 30lb case to the time they returned with a sale. No forms, no outlines, no nothing. How could everything but that be so clearly defined?
Those of you who know me understand that I have a somewhat obsessive personality. When I get into something, I want to know everything about it. Why does it work? How does it work? If something doesn’t work, then why? Sales was no different. There had to be a way to reproduce my success. I would soon find that selling can be every bit as logical and repeatable of a business process as any other.
I began my search at what I thought would be the logical starting point: the organization I worked for. I marched into my manager’s office and said, “What are the established business processes by which we sell?” I was answered with blank stares. “Are we talking about paperwork?” they responded confusedly. After a useless back-and-forth, I was told that if I really wanted to see how the selling was done, I needed to go on calls with one of the 4 seasoned sales veterans on staff.
I thought this was a great idea. Surely they had a better idea of how to make a sale than I. However, I quickly found that none of them flew by anything but the seat of their pants. One assumed their success was due to technical knowledge. Another, because they had developed a great network of business associates and leads. And yet another claimed they knew a lot of people in retail.
Each sales veteran approached their customers differently. My manager suggested that I examine their varied skills, determine which fit my personality, then try these techniques on my prospects. Eventually, I’d figure it out. The sad truth is, that’s really how it’s done in most sales companies. We pass along to the next person the things that work for us. To the detriment of salespeople and their companies alike, this creates a breeding ground for failure.
The problem is survival, the strongest of human instincts. Salespeople will try anything to make a sale. When survival is on the line, desperation overrides reason. To some, issues of integrity, sincerity, and aggression are no longer relevant. This creates a dog-eat-dog world. Unfortunately, everyone becomes the victim in this scenario, even the buyers.
I have been in sales for twenty-nine years. I have met, interviewed, hired, managed, trained, and examined the careers of thousands of salespeople. I know from these experiences that my introduction to selling is not atypical. We all learn as best we can and usually from each other. The vast majority fail, either completely, or because they never reach their full earning potential. They live paycheck to paycheck. Or they wander from company to company, thinking the grass might be greener on the other side. In doing this, they drag their customers and companies down with them. This is the unfortunate truth of our profession.
People, Process, and Structure:
In simple terms, businesses are responsible for managing three things: people, process, and structure. When we ask our workshop participants to tell us which they believe is most important in terms of management priority, the vast majority chooses people. “Our people are our most important resource,” they say. I somewhat agree. No structure is relevant, no process necessary, without a strong staff. But it is this very opinion that lies at the root of the problem.
Absent a proven strategy for success, salespeople will try anything they can think of to make a sale. So what has to come first? If a company wants to avoid pitfalls, process and structure override people in terms of priority. Without process and structure, we take capable, well-meaning people, and leave them to figure things out on their own. This sets them up for failure. What’s worse, we place the blame on sellers for not performing.
The primary obligation of any business should be to develop a concise, clear process by which their salespeople can succeed. From there, businesses can take ordinary people, place them in that structure, and teach them the strategies by which they will succeed. This would result in extraordinary sales results.
From the perspective of buyers, companies that employ salespeople aren’t really the problem. Some believe that any nefarious methods used by salespeople are conducted without their employer’s knowledge. Worse yet, if something goes wrong, it’s often convenient for the sales company to throw the lowly sales reps under the bus. “We’re sorry. Bob is a relatively new seller and made a mistake. We’ll do our best to rectify the situation.”
In this case, you are guilty with no chance of proving innocence. Many companies believe that fixing a bad sale is simply a cost of doing business. They build in additional margins to cover this cost. This is an excellent example of the importance of priority when managing people/process/structure. The high cost of employee turnover becomes a byproduct. Had these companies implemented processes to ensure a clean sale, they would have happier customers with additional margins hitting their bottom line.
So, fellow sales professionals, your guilt is presumed, your reputations are on the line and your back is against a wall. The problem is universal, and the negative impact happens daily. What can be done now? Is the problem too overwhelming to fix? Possibly. Unless your company has already developed the sales structure and process by which they can ensure your success, doing so would require a significant commitment of resources. In other words, don’t hold your breath until HR rolls it out.
When your back is against a wall, you have but three choices.
- Get used to the feeling of brick on your back and quit complaining. Accept the fact that the presumption of guilt is part of your profession. Try to figure out a sales process alone.
- Go elsewhere. However, few companies have developed official sales strategies. Even if you leave, you’ll likely find yourself at another brick wall.
- Turn around. Face the wall. With whatever tools necessary (especially this book), chip away at the brick until there is an opening. This will yield incredible opportunities.
This book is your truth, your hammer of justice. It will do for you what your company hasn’t, can’t, or won’t. It will clearly define the structure and process for selling that, if mastered, will ensure your sales success. It will give you the opportunity to prove your innocence and value quickly. As a result, you will have happier customers, a higher closing ratio, sell more with higher margins, make more money, and become more personally satisfied. You have an obligation to use it. It is The Truth About Selling.
The events that take place between buyer and seller can be clearly defined and executed with precision. There is an ideal process of selling. I have spent over twenty years studying this business process, including thirteen years in the field and seven years of sales management. The study will never end.
What you are reading is the current version of The Process of Selling. It evolves as our profession evolves, as our experiences grow, and as our markets expand. In reading this book, I know that you have invested in improving your job and life. Unfortunately, though thousands of salespeople will receive this package, choice few will master this process. In fact, you are in the minority if you have gotten this far. How do we motivate you to continue? How do we ensure that your investment in these materials will pay off?
To answer that question we have to understand the word motivate. There are three levels of motivation.
- Compliance –
The premise of compliance is that an order is given and noncompliance yields a negative consequence. “Do it or else!” This method works extremely well in the military, in prisons, and sometimes with small children. This applies to somewhat captive audiences where negative consequences are unavoidable. Even though “compliance motivation” has its place in business, free will dictates that if it is used consistently, the complying parties will only be motivated to look for work elsewhere.
- Identification –
This method is used successfully every day on TV, radio, and advertising. My favorite example is an exercise machine commercial. You see flashes of an enviously well-toned, flexing specimen. An announcer says: “This could be you.” Then you think, “Wow, that could be me!” And so you rush to the phone and dial their 800 number to be sure to get your order in before the midnight deadline. However, for the majority who order, the machine will be swiftly assembled, then collect cobwebs along with the other fitness equipment purchased with the same good intentions.
The problem with Identification as a motivation method is that it is end-result oriented. When you see the model’s rippling muscles, you “identify” with the body. You want the end result. A precious few will identify with the countless hours of incredibly disciplined exercise it takes to achieve that end result. It is the process that leads to the end result that is typically ignored in motivation by identification. Even though Identification is more powerful than Compliance, it still not where we want to be.
- Internalization –
Human beings usually seek instant personal gratification. We like things that feel good, taste good, look good, and we want them now. The words “persona and “gratification” are key here. Motivation can be relative. What motivates one person may not motivate another. People desire to find a positive and immediate return on their actions. This is why people ask the question, “What’s in it for me?”
There is a shortcoming, however, with this most powerful method. I’ll give you an example. When I turned forty, my wife and I had our first child. Talk about motivation. For over 20 years, I paid attention to my career and very little to my health, weight, diet, and physical well-being. As I held this precious newborn in my arms and experienced that one-of-a-kind, unconditional, love, I was stricken with a profound desire to address my health. Would I live long enough to see my son become a varsity athlete, graduate first in his class, receive a scholarship, or become President of the United States?
I got my blood pressure in check, my fats, and triglycerides in the acceptable range, and a sitting pulse rate that of a twenty-year-old. However, my doctor wrote two words on my record that shocked me to the core: mildly obese. How could he do this to me? My permanent medical records blemished by this foul atrocity. First of all the words “mildly” and “obese” don’t go together. That’s like “kinda dead”. It wasn’t working for me. “You’re FAT!” There we go. That works. And boy did it hurt.
After the shock subsided, I asked the doctor to hit me with it. How much weight do I have to lose to be healthy? He looked at my height and bone structure and informed me that I should weigh about 185 pounds. My current weight was 215. That’s 30 pounds. “I want you to do me a favor. Go to the grocery store and pick up a 20-pound bag of dog food and several gallons of milk. Then carry all that to the checkout counter. That’s what it’s like to carry 30 extra pounds. It’s not pleasant.
When I left the doctor’s office I began motivating myself to lose 30 pounds. I wanted to internalize the things that losing weight would bring me. That’s when it hit me: I will live longer! I will have new clothes. I will be able to run faster and farther. I will be able to play sports. When my children get older, I’ll have a better chance of keeping up with them. All of these things would bring me gratification. So I sacrificed. I began by eating dry salads for dinner. I skipped lunch. I swapped bacon for conspicuous amounts of dietary fiber. I watched longingly while others ate cheese-covered nachos. I began reading the labels. What’s the fat content? Saturated or unsaturated? What’s the difference? What’s the calorie count? What’s the percentage of my daily allowance for both?
In short, I suffered. The good news is, I actually lost weight. I lost 8 pounds after 3 weeks of torture. But I still had questions. Was I was going to live longer? Did I have all new clothing? Was I running significantly faster or farther? Was I playing racquetball any better? Did I feel that I was doing a better job of keeping up with my children? The answer was no!
Unfortunately, internalization as a method of motivation has a shortcoming. Human beings like instant gratification, immediate reward. After 2 weeks of suffering, I had neither. My goals were so big that they couldn’t be attained fast enough to give me any return. And so I gave myself a reward for losing weight. Ironically, I ate. Can also guess what happened after that? Yep, I continued to eat until I gained back all of the weight, and then some.
How does this relate to motivation for selling, you ask? Well, here is what I learned and what experts in weight loss have been telling us for years. The best way to lose weight is one pound at a time over a long time frame. If you expect to lose 30 pounds overnight, it’s just not going to happen. Lose one pound in a week, then reward yourself with something not related to food. The Process of Selling should be approached in exactly the same way. If you expect to be a top sales rep after listening to a ten-minute recording and completing a few exercises, it’s not going to happen.
We have broken down the process of selling into small, manageable pieces so that you can master them individually, one pound at a time. Once mastered, these strategies will absolutely make you the best sales professional in your market area.
In the broadest sense, selling can be broken down into two major components: activity and proficiency. You manage activity (the number of prospects you see), then proficiency (the number of prospects you close). Since the second can’t happen without the first, we’ll begin the process by addressing activity.
How do you currently set your goals for activity? How do you determine how many calls to make, how many appointments to set, how many proposals to generate? If you have no sales formula, you can stop here. No sales process available, including this one, can help you. Most sales reps allow activity to drive them rather than them driving activity. As a result, they ride the sales rollercoaster of a couple of good months, followed by a couple of bad. If there is no plan, there is no consistency.
Because most sales reps don’t have a plan, their managers give them quotas. Now there is a classic example of motivation by compliance. Sell at or over quota, and you can keep your job. Don’t meet the quota, and you’ve got to apply for the night shift at Dairy Queen. I think I’ll come up with another plan, thank you.
Let’s begin by returning to the strongest level of motivation: internalization. What are we in this for? Why do we work? Besides the fact that you have a deep and unconditional love for your job, you work for money. What better starting point for an activity plan than deciding how much money you want to make? Quotas are the company’s numbers and that makes them far more difficult to internalize. If my goal is to meet the quota, my expectations are limited to the expectations of the company.
I want more. I am going to give you a formula for managing activity that you should use at least monthly for the rest of your sales career. It focuses on something everyone can internalize: the desired income. It also allows you to drive activity rather than allowing activity to drive you. If you utilize this formula, you will always know exactly what must be done daily, weekly, monthly, yearly for the rest of your sales career.
First, decide how much money you want to make in a year. Write that number down. Based on your company’s commission plan, determine the sales volume required to reach that goal. If you don’t know what that number is, find out. I am shocked by the number of sales professionals who don’t understand their own commission plan. Once you have determined the sales volume required, divide that amount by the number of available workweeks in a year. The average for American workers is 47 weeks. Divide that number by the dollar value of your average sale. Divide the result by your closing ratio. If you have no history, divide by an average closing ratio of 20%. The answer equals the number of proposals you need to generate each week to reach your goal.
Activity problems are incredibly important to address. If left unchecked, they will eventually destroy you. One week’s shortfall must be added to the next week’s plan. This formula needs to be run at least once per month. Failure to do so may get you in a rut. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. If you continue positioning your products and services with the same technique, you can expect the same closing ratio, sales margins, and no more money in your pocket. If you want dramatic increases, the change must be equally dramatic.
When companies call ASK Academy for help, they aren’t expecting a 2% increase. Rather, they expect a significant impact. This is why we stress the importance of dramatically updating your sales techniques. As you complete these sessions, you must change your paradigm. No more product peddling, no more price wars, no more overly manipulative sales tricks. You are going to learn a dramatically different process of selling.
We will start at the beginning of the selling process, your initial contact with a prospect. We will then explore every facet of the buyer-seller relationship, all the way through presentation and close. In the end, if you measure the things you learn in this program, the results will be significantly higher sales margins.
Some of the questions we’ve heard sellers ask prospects are:
- “What do you like or dislike about your current service?”
- “What would you like your new system to do?”
- “How much is your average phone bill?”
- “How do you typically process calls?”
- “How do you communicate with your outside sales reps?”
- “Do you utilize an in-house call center?”
- “Which of your departments has the heaviest call volume?”
These aren’t bad questions, but they could have been far better. The information you walk away with is vitally important in terms of making a sale. Your questions should ensure that your product meets the prospect’s application needs. In sales, the more information you have, the better able you will be to win.
I want you to read very carefully. I’m about to give you every information objective for the process of selling. Are you ready?
- Business Conditions
- His Leader
- Time Frames
We will dive deep into the details of these objectives (and so much more) in The Process of Selling. The best sales process helps salespeople meet their information objectives early in the selling cycle. Information equals opportunity. The salesperson with the most information about the prospect, their business, requirements, expectations, motivations, influences, and needs will be the one who wins. If you employ the techniques we teach you, that winner will be you.
I realized that selling wasn’t a logical, repeatable process within months of beginning my sales career. I asked my customers to tell me their challenges with making decisions. Typically, I would start my conversations by saying, “Have you done this before? How are you going to figure out which solution is best?” Most customers told me they didn’t know. So I began talking to them about things like impact, business needs, what they look for, and impact measuring. I put the focus on productivity, efficiency, and image.
One of the most enlightening calls I ever had with a customer was in 1972. I walked into the prospect’s office thinking I had an “in” on the deal. There was a huge stack of proposals on his desk, so I made a joke. This is how the conversation sounded:
Me: “I thought this was a slam-dunk deal. How are you going to determine which solution is best?”
Prospect: “I have no earthly idea. None.”
Me: “If you don’t know, how am I gonna know?”
Obviously, there were some major problems with this approach. I realized at that moment that I didn’t know how to help people. So I dove in deep. I started going through business issues with buyers and did my best to understand what their businesses were trying to accomplish. Only through doing this was able to proposition my solutions to tie those things together.
I gained the understanding that what I was really selling was solutions to problems. I had to convince customers that, not only did they had a problem, but that the problem was negatively impacting their business. I became very successful in having customers teach me how they wanted to make purchase decisions. Then, I would take what I learned from customers and talk to the next person.
This soon became a habit. Before long, I became a sales manager and started coaching other sellers. I developed a company in Louisville that became the number one Mitel distributor in the entire Southeast region and top five in the country. We sold 250-300 switches (Mitel PBXs), which was unheard of in such a small market. I ran my own business, my own salespeople. I knew my people, and deeply understood what they were capable of doing. That’s when I got a job offer from Mitel to move to Atlanta.
Mitel moved me all over the country. I would travel from D.C. to Chicago to Dallas in a matter of months. I met with dealers and did training in every aspect of selling. But I didn’t feel like I was truly developing anyone. A few people got it, but they weren’t excelling. Before long, I left Mitel and moved to Lake Burton.
That winter at Lake Burton, I thought, “If I formalize this program utilizing the information I’ve gained from all the people I’ve met along the way, I wonder if anyone would buy it?” So I formalize the program. I made transparencies. I called Mitel and said, “I want to pilot a program for you. Would you guys put together a group?” And they said, “Sure, we will do it for you.”
It was a smash hit. They said, “We’ve got to get this to our dealers. Everybody should be doing it this way!” So now I had dozens upon dozens of businesses who knew me, who knew the program, and who wanted it. The problem was, I don’t know what to charge for it. At first, I charged $500/day. I was quickly booked out six months in advance. So, I thought if people would pay $500, they’d pay $600. If they’d pay $600, they’d pay $800. If they’d pay $800, they’d pay $1,000. The next thing you know, I’m charging $2000 a day, and I’m fully booked. The dealers I mentored told their friends and manufacturers about my program. I built relationships with Intertel, Mitel, BellSouth, and even NBC.
A BellSouth representative called me up and said, “We’ve had some people come to work for us who have been through your course. You’re beating us, your companies are beating us. We want to see what you do.” I did a pilot, and they loved it.
It got to the point where we couldn’t keep up. We didn’t have enough people. I had too much business. I couldn’t keep up with it, so we added people and built this course.
The following lessons will take you step-by-step to a logical, repeatable business selling process. This process ensures that you will maintain control of your sales while meeting all of your information objectives. You will find yourself viewing selling from the buyer’s perspective. You will truly understand how buyers make decisions. You will know exactly what it takes to differentiate yourself from your competition. You will be able to position your products and services optimally. You will be able to handle any objections. And lastly, you will gain a complete understanding of what it means to be the best.
The sessions are designed to be helpful to both seasoned sales professionals and newbies. If you’re already successful, this will be a powerful refresher course. If you are inexperienced, you can expect to launch a brighter and more profitable future. Good luck, ladies and gentlemen. Until the next time – good selling!