Six Shortcuts Salespeople Are Tempted To Take

By: On June 19, 2012

A while ago, I had the opportunity to shadow a top-performing salesperson who sells an innovative service to small businesses.  We spent a high-energy day visiting business owners to see if this service was a good fit for them.

It wasn’t easy to get past the receptionists. They sized us up as one of two things: a customer or an inconvenience. They went from smile to sourpuss the instant they realized we were selling something. And even if you get past the gatekeeper, the decision maker isn’t usually too happy to see you either.

Staring down grumpy receptionists and business owners for one day is a fun challenge.  Engaging in these unfriendly interactions every day for weeks, months, quarters, and even years can be a grind. But you have numbers to make so you take shortcuts to close the sale. Unfortunately, shortcuts often lead to a trap door right out of the sale as well. Here are the usual shortcuts:

  1. Be vague and evasive – Some people in my high-performing client’s industry don’t tell receptionists who they work for, even when asked. If you’re asked a direct question (especially one as basic as “What’s your name and who do you work for?”) and you dodge and weave, there are only two natural responses: confusion (bad) followed by suspicion (worse). It’s better to have credible answers to legitimate questions.
  2. Pitch first, ask questions later – We often forget that customers are really profoundly disinterested in our stuff until we understand them.  Oh, they’re endlessly fascinated with themselves and they love to know that you’re interested in them – and better yet understand them too. You’ll get to share about your products and services eventually. It’s better to ask questions first and really understand your customer. If nothing else, it will reduce the time you spend answering objections.
  3. Exaggerate about your product or yourself – We’re all tempted to try to look impressive. But while lying about your product, your company, or yourself may get you through the door, it will eventually get you kicked right back out. “But I can’t sell our product if I tell prospects the truth. They wouldn’t say yes often enough for me to hit my goal!” As one of my clients once said, “If the truth about our product doesn’t sell at our price point, then we have a product problem – not a sales problem.” It’s better to tell the truth and face the fact that you won’t win every sale, but you will build a strong reference stream with those who do choose you when you’re straight.
  4. Commit the sin of omission – There’s bad news about almost any product or service we sell. There are situations where it just won’t work. Even when it does work, we often serve up pain along the way with our solution. But we rarely tell prospective customers the bad news up front. “I don’t want to scare them off,” is the reason salespeople give. So you’d rather have them freaked out after they bought from you – and then tell all of their friends and colleagues to avoid you like the plague? It’s better to acknowledge that your product/service isn’t a panacea.
  5. Avoid objections/blow through objections – One of the toughest moments for any salesperson comes when a customer voices an objection.  It takes legendary self-control and a very focused mindset to not give in to the temptation to either avoid objections or blow right through them.  But everyone has legitimate concerns and questions about a buying decision. It’s better to be curious and helpful instead of defensive about objections.
  6. Create false urgency – “I have to close that customer on the spot or they might change their minds after I leave.” It’s a classic plea of a desperate salesperson – but it belies a failure to really get the prospective customer to understand and own the decision to solve their problem for themselves. If you need to create an atmosphere of false urgency, you’re really trying to create an “impulse sale.” But as my friend, Rick Gibney, says, “Impulses go away; problems don’t.” It’s better to help your customer see if she really has a problem you can solve.

Here’s why shortcuts make a difficult sales job even harder: customers (that’s you, me, and every person on the planet) have highly tuned BS detectors and don’t like the smell of it. So the bad news about shortcuts is that customers sniff them out. The worse news is that once you have the stench of shortcuts on you, you can’t get it off. In that person’s mind, you will be a pest perpetually.

Shortcuts aren’t unique to salespeople. Anyone who gets things done through coercive influence versus building relationship blows their main currency – their own credibility.  No matter what or who you’re selling (a product, your IT project, your R&D brainchild), it gets easier when your credibility is high and just about impossible when your cred drops.

The guy I shadowed took none of these shortcuts but he’s not normal. And because so many salespeople do take shortcuts, the door is wide open for someone like him. Salespeople who build a sustainable career do it because they differentiate their products, services, companies – and most importantly themselves – by resisting the temptation to take shortcuts.

Which shortcut do you and your organization need to replace with a better long-run approach?

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Does Your Brand Have Integrity?

By: On June 6, 2012

Why do some brands grab our hearts while others leave us looking around the room to see who else is there? Don’t blame (or credit) the marketing department. At least, not entirely.

Take my recent visit to a Blockbuster store. Like you, I rarely visit the blue and yellow branded stores anymore. But for reasons I don’t fully understand, Midnight in Paris is currently unavailable for streaming or rental through iTunes or even Blockbuster’s website. My wife and I had heard great things about the movie and with a long weekend road trip in front of us, it sounded like fun to take it along. So I trooped off to one of the few remaining Blockbusters in my area.

Yes, they had the DVD in stock. But where Blockbuster used to trumpet “no late fees,” now their rental program was for 1-night rentals with additional charges of $.99 per night.  When I had that disappointed look on my face, the cheerful cashier said, “It’s just like Redbox!”

I don’t think that’s the message the marketing department intended for Blockbuster’s brand. What they blast out in their ads is, “Total access.” What I heard from their employee is, “We are an obsolete company that can be replaced by a box outside your grocery store.”

Normal brands are built in the marketing department.  While they may be flashy, funny, or sexy, they pretty much stay in the marketing department.  They represent what a few people wish were true about the company or how they hope customers, competitors or investors will see them. But in the end, they have no integrity. They’ll collapse under their own weight.

But brand isn’t advertising or logos. Brand is behavior. It’s the cashier equating this once-dominant player to a box that sits outside your grocery store and making me feel like they don’t care about my experience of their service.

Here’s another example: A United Airlines flight attendant confided at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, “Oh yeah, we used to have a great reservation system. But with the merger [with Continental], we’ve totally ruined that and no one in management cares.” This is behavior a customer internalizes. And instead of seeing the United brand as being a great way to travel from point A to point B, it turns into a bad marriage: “I used to love you and I committed to flying you, but you don’t care about me anymore and if I can find an alternative I will.”

For anyone whose company provides a service–and I’d argue that nearly every company has, or should have, a service element included in its offering–your brand is whatever a customer would say about you if she didn’t read your marketing materials.  If your front line sales and service providers believe you’re sacrificing customer experience (and therefore their daily dignity as they get reamed by customers) for the sake of profits or ego, good luck selling your brand. Brands that are plainly at odds with reality do more damage than good, which makes me glad that United no longer sells itself as the “Friendly Skies.”

Some companies actually get this.  They invest in the hard work required to sync their behavior with their brand.  As a result, their brand has integrity. It holds together. It’s solid and believable.

Take one of my personal favorites: Icebreaker merino wool clothing. I own an embarrassing quantity of this insanely expensive outdoor gear.  What started out as a lone hiking shirt has turned into a cedar chest full of high performance wool.  If merino wool garments were shoes, I’d be Imelda Marcos. (Though I deeply regret it, Icebreaker is not a client, sponsor, or supporter of Noonday. Consider this both full disclosure and an open invitation to the fine folks at Icebreaker to call me any time.)

Why do I love Icebreaker? Icebreaker’s brand Integrity Quotient pegs the scale. Not only do their products do what they say they will do, they have a commitment to sustainable agriculture.  They use merino wool from New Zealand because of its superior performance qualities, but they go beyond performance. They partner with local sheep farmers to provide a steady supply of merino wool and a sustainable business model for farmers.

So when you get an Icebreaker garment, it usually carries a Baa Code which allows you to trace the wool in your product back to the actual farm where the wool was grown.  When you plug that code into their website, you can see more about the farmer and the operation where the sheep live.  A lot of us who use high performance wool outerwear (i.e. outdoor geeks) would care about local and sustainable agriculture.

But don’t stop with the website and what might be an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes. When I’ve called Icebreaker’s US service office, my interactions with them totally match their brand. I usually confess (sheepishly) how much of their stuff I own. They have my record in front of them, after all, so it’s no secret. And in a very understated Pacific Northwest way, the person on the other end of the line says, “Cool!” These people dig the outdoors and have a natural connection to someone who is preparing for their next great adventure. And yes, they’re helpful too.

So if the way you’ve set up your company gets people to behave in ways that actually reflect the brand you’d like to have, advertise away.  If not, maybe it’s time for a re-think of your strategy, what drives your behavior, or your brand.  Otherwise brand is hype. And no amount of advertising can cover up cracks in your brand’s integrity in the stark light of reality.

Here are a few questions to think about:

  • If our customers never read our advertising, what would they say we stand for based on our behavior?
  • What beliefs about our customers, our competitors, and our overall company drive those behaviors? Where do those beliefs come from – and are they helping us or hurting us?
  • Beyond intellectual beliefs, what’s the vibe in our company about customers? Do we get energized by them and display genuine curiosity about what makes them tick? Or do we see them as tools for us to achieve our goals – or worse yet, nurture contempt for them, rolling our eyes when they act like… customers?
  • What behavior should we absolutely not tolerate if we want to live our brand? What behavior should we celebrate?

Building a high integrity brand is never easy. But its value, while hard to quantify, is on display every day for the smart organizations who nurture them.

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Things we love to call salespeople: Heroes, Goats, and Magicians

By: On March 13, 2012

If you’re like me, you have a love-hate relationship with certain groups or products.  I love my Mac suite of products – except when I don’t. When they hum along with all of their elegant simplicity, sync’ing my information beautifully while looking and feeling eerily stylish, I love them.  When I’m right in the middle of a really important document and they give me the Mac equivalent of the “blue screen of death” (which means it’s a nicer interface in more languages telling me that I’m still screwed) I hate them.

The same happens with how a lot of leaders feel about their sales team.  In my last post, I wrote about the tendency we have to credit or blame the sales organization for revenue performance.  When sales are up, we love the sales team. When sales dip, we loathe the sales team. Why? I think it’s more complicated than just the numbers. I think it’s often because non-sales leaders often put the sales team into one of three categories – heroes, goats, or magicians.

  • Heroes: I once worked for a company that glorified sales.  When sales were strong, salespeople were the heroes and could get virtually anything they wanted done in the company.  Need to spend a little unbudgeted money? Done.  Need to take a pass on some corporate initiative? No problem. Want a little extra vacation? Go for it.  The firm knew that revenue was its life-blood. While many other people worked hard to win and bill the revenue, those few who had figured out how to consistently get deals done were special. They won the awards. They got limos to the annual meeting. They had their own suites at the hotel. They were the royalty.
  • Goats: Here’s the irony. At the very same company I described above, salespeople were also seen as the goats. If sales numbers stumbled, they were the ones grilled by senior execs. (My personal favorite was an “Account Review” where a senior exec tossed his reading glasses on the table in disgust at the numbers delivered by one account exec.) While a lot of people should have been accountable for dropping sales numbers (and should have contributed directly to getting them to turn around), it felt really lonely on the sales team when the numbers tanked as others gladly let the accountability fall on the unlucky sales schlubs.
  • Magicians: In some organizations, most people honestly have no clue how salespeople actually do their jobs or what separates successful ones from stragglers.  They see sales as a magical art that a few special people have mastered through an apprenticeship with a mysterious master.  Ask them how salespeople do it and they’ll usually say, “Beats me! But I sure hope they keep doing it.”

All of these labels are really unhelpful.  Great leadership teams and great companies see the whole and own the whole. Revenue is everyone’s responsibility. Whether you work in operations, HR, marketing, customer service, IT, legal, or finance, you should have an impact on your organization’s ability to attract, win, and retain customers – and that’s what makes revenue really happen.

When we share responsibility for revenue and help every single person know how they contribute, a beautiful thing happens: Salespeople are seen as valuable members of a the company-wide revenue-generating team who all roll up their sleeves and lift revenue every day of  every month. No more heroes, goats, or magicians – just team-mates who make a difference like everyone else.

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Revenue’s up? Revenue’s down? If you think it’s just sales, think again…

By: On February 20, 2012

Words matter.  I work with a company where people say that all of the time. They’re right.

Mostly.

What matters even more is the meaning we give to certain words.  There are certain words that, while innocuous enough on the surface, have become twisted or shrunken or blown out of all proportion.

Here’s one example: sales.

First, a confession: as a doctor’s kid, I saw sales as a dirty word.  Sales meant getting your money from your pocket into mine for something you didn’t want or need.  Thankfully, I met my first boss, John Grau.  He showed me that sales could be helping people get what they truly wanted and needed in a way that respected their right to choose. That was a mind-bender and led me to having a surprisingly successful sales career of my own.

But as I have worked with organizations over the years, I’ve noticed that my own upbringing wasn’t the only thing that had twisted the meaning of the word “sales.” Organizations use the word in all sorts of ways, often in the shape of questions:

  • Why are Sales  up (or down) this month?
  • Why does Sales want to discount and cut corners all of the time?
  • How can we get Sales to sell the value of our company better to customers?

Here’s the rub: Sales = revenue and revenue is the life-blood of any organization.  (It’s more precise to say that cash is the life-blood, but stay with me…) “Sales” appears on the Income Statement. “Sales” are reported to owners on a regular basis.  You learn this in basic business classes or when you’re staring at your own P&L as an entrepreneur.

Sales is also, unfortunately,  a department or an organization or the responsibility of a particular group.  Whether a retail associate, a partner of a consulting firm, or a national account manager, usually someone carries the bag of dirt for getting the revenue numbers.  (A friend of mine calls these people “quota carriers.”) And that’s where things can get really messy.

When they slow down and think for 3 seconds, most leaders would agree that their company’s revenue performance  is everyone’s responsibility – because it represents the sum total of the whole team’s work whether they’re in R&D, Marketing, IT, HR, Legal, Operations, or whatever. But we have these departments called “sales” and it’s very easy to say that revenue is their issue. It’s not. It’s everybody’s issue.

So let’s re-frame those questions:

  • Why is our revenue down this month?
  • What’s happening in our organization that tempts us to discount or cut corners to win customers?
  • How can we make what we all do so valuable to customers that they happily pay our fees and even tell their friends about us?

When we ask questions like that, we challenge ourselves to see the bigger picture. We all take ownership and we all get the – dare I say it – joy of making a serious contribution to our company’s success. Sales teams are just one part of the team – not heroes or goats – and we probably end up driving our whole organization to do its best work.

Ted Harro is Founder @ Noonday Ventures

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