Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Understanding Top Sellers: Observation Four on "Curiosity"



T
op Sellers approach a sales call in a manner different from average sellers. The Top Seller is thinking about what he/she wants to learn in this call to help accomplish the goal. The Top Seller is curious. The goal is well-defined, and the pre-call thoughts are about what questions to ask and what information to look for to move the process forward. The average seller is thinking about what questions the prospect may ask of them! This is a critical difference between Top Sellers and average sellers. Top Sellers are thinking about what they need to learn, and average sellers are thinking about what they need to say. It is, therefore, not surprising that a Top Seller does far more listening in a sales call than an average seller.

Top Sellers know the power of knowledge. Information gives them confidence and an increased sense of the control they seek. As a result, they are always looking to see what they can learn that will help them achieve their goals. They ask questions and they listen.

A food ingredient company had been working with a major food processor for several years. The sales people worked closely with the R&D lab where new formulations were being tested. One day, while leaving the lab and walking through the main production floor, a new sales person on the team asked, “Isn’t that tomato soup?” “Yes, of course,” he was told. “That is our biggest seller.”

It turns out that tomato soup needs a key ingredient that was one of the primary products sold by the food ingredient company. But for two years or more, no one had ever asked what else the customer made and would there be other opportunities to sell them additional products. They had simply gone to the lab and sold small orders of their products. Until a new sales person, a potential “Top Seller”, joined the team, no one was curious enough to look around and ask about other applications.

Unlike the sales team above, Top Sellers are curious. They ask questions. They truly want to know. They are interested in what is around them and what they can learn from others to help them have an advantage. This curiosity can sometimes take the form of competitive intelligence gathering, such as reading a competitors invoice that was accidentally left on someone’s desk. Just as often, it is an active and conscious effort to ask questions and learn more about a customer as well as a market. It is not surprising, perhaps, that there is a program called “Question-Based Selling.” Top Sellers ask questions.

But these questions cannot be canned. They can’t learn “Five Questions to Ask Your Prospect.” True curiosity is not just an attitude. It is a behavior.  Top Sellers are not looking for answers. They are looking for insights and information.  They ask questions and listen to the answers. Top Sellers want to know what the prospect worries about and wants to achieve. What problems does the prospect have? What help does the customer need? How does the prospect want to be sold?

The questions that are important to a Top Seller are not “qualifying questions”. They are not part of “consultative selling”, a process that can test the patience of some buyers. The typical sales process where a sales person asks about needs or current vendors or similar “questionnaire” questions does not provide what Top Sellers want to know. In fact, such questions can seem like an interrogation and can be off-putting to prospects. 

Top Sellers want to know who the prospect is, what is important to that person, and how is the best way to influence and make a difference to this individual. What is the business and where is the pain? Who are my competitors? Who is influential in making decisions in the business? What is your wish-list? These are more broad-based than “How many pounds of nitric acid do you use in a month?” These are things she can learn by listening and observing, not by following a checklist of questions. These are not answers to questions she has to ask because her sales manager requires them. These are answers she wants to discover to satisfy her curiosity and to give her an advantage.

It may be because of their curiosity that Top Sellers are good listeners and, often, good conversationalists. They often have a broader knowledge of topics and issues, and because they are always learning, they can talk intelligently about many different topics. Still, it is their ability to listen that most correlates with their success in sales. It is hard to sell value if you do not want to listen and learn.

Curiosity also fits well with the competitive drive of Top Sellers. Simply put, they want to know more than the next person. They want to know how someone else can sell or make a change, and they use that information to make themselves more competitive and successful.

Another key correlate of curiosity is the Top Sellers’ relative comfort with ambiguity. Few average sellers are comfortable outside the lines of what they expect and know and are accustomed to seeing. Top Sellers are not afraid of ambiguity, because they are curious. They want to know more. They want to understand and find clarity. Average sellers (and politicians) want to get back “on message” and talk about what they planned to talk about.

In a similar manner, Top Sellers leave a sales call re-playing the interaction in their head. They are thinking about what was said and what they could have said in a different manner. They are learning from their experience, even if they failed to achieve their goal. Every interaction becomes a learning experience. Average sellers typically are thinking about what they need to do next or where they need to go now that the sales call is concluded.

Curiosity does not typically equate to wanting to participate in “sales training”, however. Top Sellers are curious about ways to reduce their fear and the risk of failing with useful knowledge and information. While curious and motivated to learn what will give them better control and influence, they are not eager to participate in formal learning situations. They are skeptical. They are also fearful of looking foolish or stupid in front of their peers. Typical training programs are painful to most Top Sellers. Still, they will be curious and learn enough to use a new skill when they need it to win their goal.

The President of a small manufacturing company was a participant in a workshop on psychological selling skills. He was largely unimpressed with the program, because he believed he was a very successful seller and did not need to do the work needed to learn some new skills. In the participant survey, he did not rate the program very high.

The next week, he was making a sales presentation. Unfortunately, it was not going well, and he knew it. As he described it later, “I didn’t know what to do, so I tried one of the crazy things Lakin was talking about last week. All of a sudden, the room changed, and I got my price without any real pushback or negotiation. I would like to change my rating that I gave that presentation last week. It was definitely a ‘10’.”

Top Sellers, like most people, do not want to work hard enough to change how they do things. However, Top Sellers have the courage to notice when something is not working and the curiosity to ask themselves, “What else might work?”  Others see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. How often has a sales person told her manager, “Oh, I think it went very well” when, in fact, it did not go well at all. This is not a lie. This is simply failure to have the courage to notice when things are not going well.

Top Sellers expect to win, and they know when they are not winning. They have the determination to stay engaged and involved until they are successful (if possible). As a result, if they are aware of a new option or a new way to make a proposal, they will often be one of the first of their peers to try it. While not showing a lot of enthusiasm for the training per se, they will draw from that training when they need it.  

Trainers should not expect Top Sellers to be enthusiastic participants in a training session, unless they can incorporate competitive games into the learning process. Yet Top Sellers are often the first to test a skill in the field and report results back to the others. But they will only use the skill when existing skills are not working for them and they ask themselves, “What else might work here?” Learning for the sake of learning will not motivate them. Learning must contribute to their sense of control over a situation when failure is suddenly a real possibility. When there is a chance they might fail, they will learn and use anything that is seen as a useful way to give them a competitive advantage. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Understanding Top Sellers: Observation Three on "Grit"


It takes energy to sell. Any good seller is motivated to get up and go to battle. But for the Top Sellers, it is different. They have more than energy. They have more than “motivation.” They have “grit.”

Angela Duckworth is an assistant professor at Penn. She has been studying “grit” for many years. She defines it as “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.” A person with grit has more than energy. He or she has stamina and determination.

A Top Seller with “grit”  wants a goal badly enough that working toward that goal is not work but just part of the process. An average seller, for instance, is willing to make cold calls but may complain about it and find other things to fill the day when possible. A Top Seller who needs to make cold calls to sell will look upon the activity as just another thing that has to be done. It is not separate from the goal of being a good seller and meeting sales goals. It is one and the same.

A recent candidate told me about getting a job with one of the largest chemical companies in the world. He said his first two months were spent in what they called Sales Boot Camp. About a third of the people left before the training was completed. either of their own choice or because they were asked to leave. He said it never occurred to him that he might not finish. (Optimism) It was hard, but it was what was necessary to get the job and excel.

Many people have goals. But how many never let go of them? As Duckworth points out, graduating from a two year school is a challenge, but it is nothing like graduating from a four-year college. It usually takes “grit” to hang in and go through all the academic hurdles, pay the price, and forego other activities to get the four-year degree.

In spite of Duckworth’s example, a college degree…or the absence of a college degree…does not, by itself, lend any clues about “grit.”  Does getting a degree online require as much “grit” as getting a degree in a conventional academic setting? It depends. It is not the degree; it is what it took to get it. That is how you find out about “grit.” The candidate who told me recently that he is thinking about getting his college degree does not have “grit”, at least in the area of academic achievement. Thinking is not all that tough. But the person may have “grit” in other areas of his/her life. Academic “grit” is not a pre-requisite to being an achiever in the work world and in sales. But the successful candidate must show some “grit” somewhere in life that is meaningful and relevant to the position in question.

A Top Seller must have “grit” to meet quotas and excel. It helps to be smart and driven, but it is focus and persistence that characterize “grit.”

Athletes often have “grit”, and their stories give a hint about what to listen for when interviewing in search of a Top Seller. “ You gotta want it so bad you are willing to be exhausted” was how one football player described college pre-season.  Vladimir Horowitz, the esteemed piano player, hated practicing, but he practiced four hours a day, because that was what it took to be great. A pro-bowler in the NFL said, “Sure it hurt, but I knew it was worth it” when describing the exercises and drills he endured every year of his playing career.  A Navy SEAL described his experience in this way: “It was the toughest training I ever experienced but I knew it was necessary.”

“Worth it”? “Necessary?” These words only make sense when paired with a clear focus, even obsession, toward an end goal.  To someone with “grit”, the end goal is so important that whatever it takes to get there is worth it. Necessary. No complaints. No skimping. No sneaking out of practice or finding excuses to not make calls. The goal is clear and the steps to get there are simply part of the process.

When interviewing sales candidates, ask “grit” questions.

            "What have you wanted so badly that you gave up other
             things to achieve?”

“Was there ever anything so important to you that you suffered through things others might have called boring or hard or even impossible? Describe what you endured. Why did you do that? (Listen for the goal.) Why was that so important to you?”

“What was the most difficult learning experience you ever had?”

“What was the toughest challenge you ever faced? How did you overcome it? Why did you go to so much trouble?”

“Tell me about something you wanted to master but had to really struggle to reach that level.”

“Grit” is character. Character differentiates good sellers from Top Sellers. People with “grit” do not give up. Nor do they complain. They do the “reps” and run the steps and study the financial reports and hit balls out of the sand and play scales. They do what they must to reach their goal of being excellent. Some say it takes 10,000 hours to excel at something. Those with “grit” are not keeping track of the time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

When beliefs become behaviors


I was recently reading a review of a new book by Dan Ariely on honesty, lying, and lying to ourselves. Part of a reported study discovered that when participants were reminded of a set of rules, such as an Honor Code or the Ten Commandants, there was significantly less cheating.

The story reminded me of a company I worked with for many years that had a strong culture of honesty. As the Chairman told me when I first met him, “We bring our own stamps to work”, a message far broader than the simple fact that people used their own personal stamps to mail their personal mail rather than using company postal machines for non-business-related mail. This company was dedicated to high standards of honesty and integrity, and the Chairman wanted me to understand that fact from the beginning of our relationship. It was key to hiring people who fit the culture. Whenever there was a meeting, people were reminded of the values that drove the organization. I never heard of anyone in that company stealing funds or behaving dishonestly.

Simply reminding people of what you believe as a leader can have a significant impact on your organization. A culture exists when beliefs become behaviors. If people do not know what you believe, you will not be able to create nor sustain the culture you desire. Speak up. Let people see in your daily behavior what you consider to be important. And keep speaking up. There will always be someone who hears it for the first time.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

34th Anniversary of Lakin Associates: THANKS

Thanks to all my clients and friends who have helped Lakin Associates enjoy 34 years of providing service to executives and companies throughout the world. It continues to be a great run. Thanks.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Understanding Your Top Sellers: Part 2


UNDERSTANDING TOP SELLERS

OBSERVATION TWO:  Need to control

A Chicago company that processed residential mortgages routinely hired new college graduates for their training program. Once trained, these young people would be assigned to field offices to sell their services to residential brokers. Part of their sales pitch was a commitment to processing loans quickly to enable the realtor to get a closing date quickly.

The training program was in the home office, and all trainees were immediately assigned to processors who handled the paper sent from the field. It would only take about three days to know who was going to be a top seller. By the third day, at least one new hire would realize that his/her future success depended on these office people. If the process was to be controlled after the papers were sent to the office, the processing team needed to be responsive to the person submitting the papers. Future top sellers saw this immediately, and they began bringing donuts and coffee or taking the processors to lunch on a regular basis throughout the training program. 

Top sellers fear they will fail. To manage that fear, they develop a strong drive to control. They believe that if they control enough factors in the sales process, they decrease their risk of failing. They are able to tell themselves that they are preventing the problems that will hurt them.

Anyone who has worked with a top seller has seen this need to control. As soon as an order is submitted, the top seller will be calling to see the progress on the order. He/she will be checking with production or the warehouse to ensure that the product will be available as promised. Although sales managers want their sellers in the field talking with customers, top sellers often spend much of their time trying to control the internal sales ordering process. It is not unusual for a sales manager to suddenly see a top seller wandering the halls of the office or filling emails with questions and follow-up requests for status reports.

When you ask a top seller what he/she wants in sales manager, you will often hear this control issue.  As a recent candidate told me, “I want a manager who can be a resource to work with finance or production to be sure that things get done.”  

When interviewing a sales candidate, one of the first things to look for is how effectively the candidate tries to control the interview. Top sellers are able to stay “on message” in spite of attempts to distract the candidate. They are polite but focused. They may refer back to an earlier question by saying, “You were asking earlier about…”, for instance. 

The top seller candidate also may not be eager to engage in small talk. The stereotype of the sales candidate who references the fish on the wall or the photo of the family skiing is misleading. The top sales candidate will stay focused and want to talk about his/her sales successes in the past as well as why he/she would be a great fit for the company doing the hiring.

A recent sales model referred to as The Challenger Model describes a seller as someone who wants to debate and push the customer. While this is not wholly inaccurate, it seems to miss the real point of the behavior. The top seller will push and advise only when he/she sees a need to step in and control. As long as a top seller feels in control, he/she will not push. There is no need, and the risk of being seen as pushy is too great. Knowledge that can be shared and the ability to lead the customer to trust the seller’s judgment result in the control a top seller needs. He/she does not have to be entertaining, assertive, or pushy.

Top sellers know it is not the customer who needs to be controlled. The top seller learns how to control the sales process, which includes influencing the decision to make the purchase by knowing what to talk about and how to make themselves valuable. Top sellers do not worry about “closing techniques.” They see ways to control the process long before the traditional close.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Understanding Your Top Sellers: Observation One

INTRODUCTION

Are you trying to hire top sellers? Do you understand what makes them tick?

An interesting challenge in any industry: how do you identify who would be a top seller?

Test manufacturers would have you believe that you can “profile” top sellers as a guide to hiring practices. They take the top producers, give them a test, and then use the combined averages as a guide to whom you should select and whom you should ignore.  

Unfortunately, such a practice does not work. It only sells tests.

It does not work, because no test can sample how a seller thinks. It is the thinking process that differentiates top sellers from the rest of the pack.

Try this: Take your top sales producers and put them in a room. Do they look alike? Do they dress in a similar way? Do they sound alike? Do they have similar interests? Are they all extroverts? Are they all verbal?

Probably not!

Any group of top sellers is more likely to include more individual differences then similarities on the surface. It is only beneath the surface that you can begin to understand and see that a top seller thinks in a unique way when compared with an average producer. 

In my 35 years of interviewing and watching the development of sales professionals, I have identified what really differentiates the elite sales force. I hope my observations are helpful.


OBSERVATION ONE:  Top sellers are driven by fear and anxiety

When working with Dean Witter many years ago, I was once told the story of a senior manager who took his top two producers to breakfast one day. He said, “You both make well over a million dollars a year. Yet you are both the first ones in each morning and the last to leave at night. Why? I want you to write as simple an answer as you can on the back of this piece of paper.” He gave them a moment and then took the papers from them. Both had written the same word: FEAR

Top sellers act confident. They can even appear arrogant and superior at times. But beneath the surface, their driving force is fear. They are anxious that their string of successes will run out. As a result, they must work harder each day to prevent such failure.

The top seller from the food distributor John Sexton & Co. had come within $50 of breaking the all-time record sales for a fiscal year.  I stopped by his desk to congratulate him. I mentioned how close he had come to breaking the record. He just laughed and opened his bottom desk drawer. In the drawer, he had thrown a stack of papers. I indicated that I did not understand. He said, “Those are orders I did not turn in this month.  I was afraid I was just getting a lot of end-of-year orders, and I would have no sales at all in January. So I tossed the orders in here until after January 1.” In his drawer were at least $500 worth of sales orders.

Most top sellers will not admit to fear. But listen to their words. They often talk about being “lucky.” When asked to explain what they do that is different from others, they will grasp at concepts that only sound good but reflect little of what they do. “Lucky” means they believe it could all end tomorrow. They rarely can tell you why they are successful.

“Lucky” also means “I’m not sure I can do it again.” As a result, it is often the top sellers who yell loudest about having their quotas increased. A larger target for the next year, based on their performance for this year, only increases their fear. They typically sandbag their forecasts, not just to ensure that they will get their bonuses, but as a way of dealing with their fear about their future.

I once heard a sales manager complaining about the lack of urgency in a seller. She had been a top seller before being promoted. Her complaint: “This may be the only time we have such a window of opportunity with this customer.” Logically, this is not likely to be true. However, she is a top seller by nature, and her fear is that such an opportunity could disappear.  It is not “We have an opportunity and let’s move on it.” Instead, it is “We have an opportunity and may lose it.”

Top sellers could be classified in psychological terms as “Away-from” personalities rather than “Toward.” They want to prevent or avoid failure. That is why, as Daniel Pink has observed in a recent book, incentives do not really work with top performers. Top sellers are motivated to prevent failure, and a quota with bonus is nice but not a driver. Their drive is internal and comes from their need to avoid that which they fear the most—failure. If they do not get their bonus, they are disappointed and even angry, but the real reason is that missing their target suggests that failure may be lurking ahead. If they achieve their bonus, it is enjoyed, but it does not motivate them to do anything different the next year.  It is also why some top sellers, when they get in a slump, have more difficulty than most crawling out of it. A slump may be seen as temporary by average sellers. Top sellers assume it is their worst nightmare coming true.

The fear I see in top sellers is what I call a “healthy neurosis.” It is the reason they answer the phone quickly, yell about orders being slow to get through the office, or complain that customer service is not being responsive to a customer need. When a neurosis becomes so bad that a person is afraid to act, then it is no longer a motivator but a liability. But a healthy neurosis is seen as an excellent source of motivation. It drives the top seller to work hard the next day rather than relax after a big sale. After all, today may have been the result of luck, and tomorrow may begin a long drought of no-sales. Therefore, they get up early and tackle the job that needs to be done.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Why is "sales" a dirty word?

In looking at a recent article in a psychology journal, I found a study on "faking" psychological tests. In the study, the authors said, "...there may be some jobs where it is useful to adapt to situational demands to the point of distorting the truth (e.g., sales)..." (Italics are mine.)

Since when does sales equate with distortion of the truth? This is the same unfortunate view of sales that leads so many young men and women to avoid considering sales as a worthy profession. Why do so many competent people say, "I don't want to be a salesperson" or "I can't sell"? (Incidentally, these two phrases usually mean the same thing: I don't want to sell.)

Many companies try to get around this perception by playing  name games. They call their sales people "Territory Managers" or "Account Representatives." Why not call someone a "Sales Professional"?

Selling is teaching. Selling is guiding and helping. A good teacher makes you want to learn. A good seller makes you want to buy. This requires trust, not distortion.

A good sales call is one in which the prospect or buyer learns something. Rather than distort truth, the seller is trying to help people confront reality and see where something might be improved. Today's seller is faced with helping people overcome denial and talk about where real pain or opportunity exist. Selling is as much a helping profession as social work or psychology when done well.

We professionals need to help the public realize that sales is not the Hollywood version of used car dealers or aluminum siding hawkers. In fact, anyone who makes a living in sales will tell you that a sales person who tries to distort the truth will quickly fail.

In short, a successful seller today must create trust and not distort truth.  A good seller must be the guide who can help someone else make the right decision. Let's help the next generation of professionals see that sales is not a dirty word. Be proud when you say, "I'm a sales professional."