Wanted – Humble Sales People

iTEJd_6QOne of the challenges when you're hiring salespeople (or coaching them) is the dichotomy between being confident and being humble. Part of being effective in sales is coming across as knowledgeable and confident, but if your sales people push that too far they'll be seen as arrogant and cocky.  What would happen if they came across as humble and curious as well as confident? You can explore this tension between confidence and humility as you're interviewing salespeople.  Ask tough questions and change topics quickly to see how can they handle pressure. Also, ask for examples of how they've grown and what they've learned - then listen carefully for stories of humility and curiosity.

From a practical sales perspective, the balance between confidence and humility really comes down to being a great listener. Nobody wants to talk to a know-it-all, and yet so many sales people spend all their time focusing on mastering the technical aspects of their product. You certainly need to know your product, but more importantly you need to know what questions to ask. It's not about having the right answer, it's about having a great set of questions – without being overbearing – that can uncover the compelling reasons for a prospect to buy and help them understand the full impact of their current situation.

An arrogant salesperson will ask a question then begin to answer it before the prospect has a chance to jump in to contribute to the conversation.  Or, they'll asks overly complex questions that make the conversation harder than it needs to be. Many salespeople falsely believe that showing off their intellect and demonstrating their technical knowledge makes them seem more confident.  Usually they are just masking their insecurity and are afraid to just have a conversation.

In our experience, the most effective questions are simple, direct, and straightforward. Most importantly, a good salesperson takes the time to pause after asking a question. There’s no need to rush in and start talking right away if the prospect is considering your question.

Humble sales managers can make a huge difference as well.  We’ve seen great sales people get promoted to become a sales manager, and suddenly it's like they walked through a magic portal with the title "sales manager" above it and forget to ask questions. The very thing that made them so effective and helped them rise to the top of their sales team was likely their ability to ask great questions and be a great listener. Yet, when they become a sales manager, they forget all about that and instead they start telling their team, "Well, here's what you need to do."

What ends up happening is rather than developing a team of diverse personalities, each with their individual strengths, they start building a team of clones. Sometimes that can work well in the near term, but ultimately they’re limiting the growth of each team member by just making them do the job their way. It's not about telling your team, "Do this, do that, here's what you need to do next in this situation," because you're doing the thinking for your sales people. Instead, think like you're back in a sales role. How can you get them to the right answer? How can you ask them questions that help them discover what they need to do next?

If your sales people come to the conclusion on their own, it's their idea and they'll start to apply it. They'll have more ownership. If you just tell them what to do and it doesn't work, they can blame you. For salespeople, be humble and ask questions. Ask questions that make the prospect think and give them a pause to answer the question. For sales managers, rather than telling your team, “do this, do that,” ask a question to help them get to the right answer. Being humble enough to ask questions rather than show off how much you know because you were once a top distribution salesperson can really make a big difference.

Two Great Sales Lessons From the Film Free Solo

A few weeks ago I was flying across the country, and was able to watch the Oscar-winning film Free Solo. Watching it in an IMAX theater would have been a lot cooler than on a four by four screen on a Delta airplane, but I enjoyed the movie nonetheless. There were two awesome sales lessons hidden in the film, and in no particular order, I'll share them here.

The whole movie is centered around Alex Honnold and his desire to “free solo”, or climb without ropes, El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. El Capitan is probably the most famous rock wall in the world, and it had never been free soloed. The thought of free soloing El Cap is truly insane. It's a monumental accomplishment. After he climbed it, somebody on the film crew asked him, "Well, what are you going to go do next?" And he just said, "Well, I'll probably go do some hang boarding." He'd been working toward this goal for years and years, thinking about it, staging it, doing similar climbs, trying to prepare for it mentally, overcoshutterstock_280705463ming all of the fears and doubts that he had, and then after this pinnacle achievement what does he go do? He goes back to fundamentals. The sales lesson here is you can win the big deal, you can close the big sale, you can get the biggest sale in company history and just be humble and go back to the fundamentals. 

The best time to make a cold call is immediately after closing the big deal.  Go make some cold calls. Go practice your next pitch. Go think about other questions you can ask. Let that momentum of a big goal accomplished be a slingshot to carry you toward your next goal rather than an opportunity to rest on your laurels. Don't rest on your laurels!  Accomplish something and then think, what can I do next? Go back to the fundamentals.

As Honnold was going through his prep work to do that ascent of El Cap, he went through and rehearsed key sections. There were four or five critical sections that he wanted to dial in on and really practice every single move he was going to make. He did this with a rope so that when he was without a rope, when it was showtime so to speak, the muscle memory would kick in and he would be able to climb without hesitation. There was one particular stretch called 'the boulder problem' where he had two options: He could either leap from one tenuous ledge and grab onto another more substantial ledge, but he'd be totally out of contact with the wall, or he could do what he calls the karate kick, which is a little bit more complicated, but he would stay in contact with the wall. He went back and forth between these two moves, really thought it through and decided to do the karate kick.

The lesson we can take learn here from a sales perspective is how much time is your sales team using to prepare for a phone call, meeting, sales pitch, etc.? Are they really thinking through every option, looking at it from every angle, and thinking through who's going to be in the room? Who's going to be on that call? What are their primary objectives? What are their concerns about our product or service? You have to go in the sales call, just like Honnold had to go on the climb, prepared and able to react well in the moment.

There's probably no better example of being in the moment than when Honnold is free soloing, but that relentless preparation and rehearsal made it possible for him to just glide through the climb without hesitation. So, a few valuable lessons from Alex Honnold's successful free solo of El Capitan are: Don't rest on your laurels, and relentless preparation will help your team perform well when the moment comes.

As a sales leader, how are you enabling your sales team to 'free solo' on their cold calls or in the field? Are you tracking whether your top performers are resting on their laurels after a big win, or if they're using that momentum to exceed their targets? Next Tuesday, June 25th we're going to have a live Webinar on Sales Enablement Mistakes and How to Avoid Them. To join us in conversation on Sales Enablement best practices, click HERE TO REGISTER. 

Using Sales Role Play To Spot Trends

Role PlayOne of the areas we focus on during our sales development programs is skills improvement through the extensive use of role play.  We actively demonstrate the open questioning style, use of tonality, neuro linguistic programming (NLP) and many other techniques. Then we practice all the various scenarios sales people run into in the field. 

Not only do we want the sales people to improve during an active role playing session, we also want sales leaders to observe what we do and how we do it so that they can get better at leading role play sessions when we’re not there.  If you’re looking for ways to implement this type of interactive role play in your sales meetings, start with our 5 Rules For Effective Sales Role Play.

An interesting thing happened during a role play session the other day at a client.  During the workshop sales people took turns playing both sides of the sales conversation – the role of the sales person and the role of the prospect.  As we worked through various scenarios, we noticed a few objections kept coming up. No matter who played the part of the prospect, we kept hearing about pricing concerns (not uncommon) and it was framed in the context of price for value.  After a few sales people struggled to overcome this objection we stopped and asked “Is this something you’ve recently started to run into on calls?” and everyone said “Yes, absolutely this is what we’ve been hearing lately.  A month ago we never heard questions asked this way.” 

As we discussed it further we learned that a key competitor had repositioned how they go to market and had done a very effective job of positioning their product as being a “better value.”  The action item out of that role play session was for each sales person to gather more information (from both customers and prospective customers) to gain competitive intelligence on how their competitor was framing the value conversation.  A week later they compared notes and developed a very effective response to regain the high-ground in these conversations (without trashing the competitor). 

I am convinced that without this role playing session it would have taken MUCH longer to identify this new threat and develop a response.

Your sales managers and sales people probably hate doing role play.  They’ll make excuses, they’ll resist, they’ll tell you it’s a waste of time, they’ll say it’s beneath them, they’ll say they’re too experienced for this kind of stuff, they’ll complain, and they’ll try to get away with going through the motions. 

Don’t buy into their excuses. 

Simply ask them “how will you get better at your craft if you’re not willing to practice?”  Have your sales leaders build team role play into their sales meeting structure and the more the sales team does it, the easier it will get.

Effective and consistent sales role play produces several benefits, here are a few:

1. Trend spotting – listen for common objections or tough questions from the sales person playing the part of the prospect.  They usually are drawing on their experience from recent sales calls and this gives you great insight into what is happening in the field.

2. Greater comfort – a lot of sales people need to get out of their comfort zone during sales calls.  Creating a safe opportunity for them to practices tough timely questions during role play will increase the odds of them using similar questions on real sales calls.

3. Progress recognition – by practicing sales calls consistent sales managers should see steady improvements and progress by each team member.  Recognizing this progress and providing feedback builds momentum and motivation across the team.

4. Better sales results – if the right things are happening during sales role play, the right things should happen on actual sales calls and you should start to see better results (higher win rates, better margins, better customers, etc.).

If your sales managers are not doing regular, consistent role play as part of their one-on-one coaching and their sales team meetings, your company is missing a great opportunity for growth.  What can you do to change that today?  Already doing role play consistently?  What are the benefits you’re seeing?  Please leave them in your comments below.

Slowing Down May Help Increase Revenue and Deal Velocity

Blog Tortoise

In this fast paced world, a lot of sales teams have a high-speed mentality. But it turns out that being fast isn’t always best. It seems counter-intuitive, but one of the best ways to increase revenue and improve deal velocity is to have your sales people slow down during the early stages of the sales process. 

During many of our “Must Win Deal” workshops, a trend we often find is sales people who rush to the proposal stage.  Once there, they realize they may not have discovered enough compelling reasons to truly create urgency for the deal and for the prospective client to build a strong case internally to gain approval and funding.  Even seasoned veterans who have decades of sales success behind them can fall victim to this mistake.

What can you do as CEO?

  1. Take the time to ensure that your sales managers (and even you) are listening effectively.
  2. Have your sales team take a critical look at the opportunities in their pipeline in the later stages of your sales process.  Are these opportunities as strong as your sales people are reporting? 

Listening Effectively

You know the old adage…”Never assume, because assuming makes an...”  We’ve all heard it, but when you’re in the sales meeting with an exciting prospect it can be hard to take a moment to step back and ensure you (and your sales team) are listening effectively rather than assuming you know what your prospects need.  A great time to practice this before you preach to your team, is in your next sales meeting with them.

Step one is deciding to step outside of your comfort zone, and make the conscious decision to effectively listen rather than over speaking.  Next, listen slowly.  What does that mean?  Take the time to sit and really listen to what they are trying to say to you.  Instead of over-analyzing, and thinking of your next step to respond, instead only focus on what they are saying to you at that moment.  Showing them you’re listening is as simple as a head-nod or smile.

Finally, after you listen – ensure you are asking clarifying questions for any details you may not understand 100%.  These questions will not only show you are listening, and validate your sales team (and customers later on) – but demonstrate that you understanding completely.  As these skills are combined, you will be able to better structure the content and remember it as it happened – eliminating forgetting any details or needed next steps.

A Practical Story About Effective Sales Listening

Blog Listen Train

I’d like to share a personal sales story to illustrate an issue we often see in our coaching conversations with the sales people and sale managers at our clients’ companies.  It provides a practical, real-world example of effective listening skills.

I recently had a meeting scheduled with a CEO after completing the first phase of our program -- a detailed analysis of the people, systems and strategies impacting sales (our Sales Effectiveness & Improvement Analysis).  We had already reviewed our findings and identified the biggest issues and challenges facing his sales organization, and we had scheduled a meeting to review our recommended course of action and the investment required (both in terms of time and money) to make a meaningful impact on their sales organization, revenue growth, and profitability.  

At the appointed time I called the CEO (they’re in a different city and it wouldn’t make sense to fly there for a one hour meeting) and was about to begin reviewing the action plan we had developed.  When the CEO answered, he sounded a bit harried.  I asked him if this was still a good time and he quickly recovered and said “Yes, yes of course, this is important and I’m looking forward to getting started and learning how we need to proceed.”

While he was extremely convincing and was working hard to make me feel comfortable, my instincts told me he was masking something.  So I paused and asked a follow up question, “Jack, you sound a little stressed, are you sure everything is ok?”  And he smoothly replied “Well, I am a little rushed this morning but let’s go ahead.  We scheduled this meeting so let’s go forward.”   

I still wasn’t buying it.  Something told me I wouldn’t have his full attention on this call.  So I followed up with “Jack, if you need to take care of something else this morning we can easily reschedule this call, it’s not a big deal.”  And finally he said, “Really? That would be tremendously helpful.  Can we talk next Tuesday morning at the same time?  Thank you, that’s really nice of you.  We have a bit of a crisis this morning with a key customer and I need to get involved to help turn this situation around.  Thank you so much for you flexibility!  I really appreciate it.”  

So let me share a few observations about this exchange:

  • I can’t pin down exactly how I knew he was preoccupied, but something in his tone of voice told me he was under some stress. 
  • I didn’t accept his immediate response that “everything is ok.”  I had to press and probe three times to get to the real issue.  He wasn’t giving it up very easily.
  • On my sales forecast I had this meeting down as a high-probability close. I probably would have been able to slam through the meeting and close it right then and there.  But I would have missed a great opportunity to build up our relationship and may have even created some resentment.
  • Slowing down and asking these follow up questions allowed me to bond with the CEO and build our relationship.  He was very appreciative when he finally admitted he was preoccupied with a customer crisis.
  • When I’m in the program talking about effective listening skills with his sales team, I will ask Jack to share this story and that will create tremendous credibility (he’s a pretty intimidating dude and I think most of his sales people are afraid of him).
  • A lot of sales people would have missed these signals and would have just barreled ahead with the call, thrilled to get the CEO on the phone.
How would you rate your sales team’s listening skills?  Would they have picked up on these signals and slowed the process down, or would they have moved ahead full speed?  What would happen if everyone on your sales team had the courage to slow down the sales process and apply these types of listening skills?  What kind of relationships would they build for your company?

Why Your Sales People Fail to Listen Effectively

Blog Listening Cartoon

I love this cartoon because it is so true.  The more you listen the more you sell.  How effective are your sales people at listening?  At truly listening…not just to what is said, but what is not said.  Not just for the words used, but also the intent behind those words.  If there is one thing you can get your sales people to do more effectively this year that will dramatically improve sales, drive revenue growth, get into new accounts, expand existing accounts, increase profit margins, and improve customer satisfaction -- I can make a strong case for improving listening skills.

First, let’s look at what gets in the way.  Here are the top barriers to effective listening we’ve observed in our sales consulting practice.  How many do you recognize on your sales team?  Sales people fail to listen effectively because they…

1.     Lack confidence

When sales people really know their stuff, they have no problem listening effectively and asking open questions.  When they are unsure of themselves and lack confidence, they tend to talk about what they know rather than ask about something they might not know.

2.     Rush their calls

Instead of slowing down and investing quality time in quality prospects, many sales people buzz from call to unqualified call.  They sure look busy!  But being busy is not the same as being productive.

3.     Lack empathy for their prospects

For too many sales people, it’s all about them.  No, it’s all about the customer and prospective customers.  It is impossible to listen effectively if your sales people feel it’s all about them.

4.     Never learned how to listen

Yes, your sales people can get better at listening.  Just like they can get better at asking questions or making prospecting calls.  Listening is a learned skill and like every skill worth having, it takes practice and consistent maintenance to stay sharp.

5.     Ask lousy questions

If your sales people sound like they are reading from a script, they are probably waiting for the prospect to finish talking so they can get to the next question on their list.  Great listeners stay in the moment, giving all of their attention to the person speaking and responding with great follow up questions because they are fully engaged.

6.     Cannot quickly synthesize information

Great listeners can absorb everything being said, pull it all together succinctly, and summarize the key points back to the prospect.  As a sales person improves their ability to quickly synthesize what is being said and provide a concise summary that is accurate and on point, they will learn what to listen for and how to listen better.  When they can make connections that the prospect has not considered, they will do even better in terms of moving the conversation forward and being memorable.

7.     Talk too much

Some sales people just like to hear themselves talk.  It may be because they lack confidence (see #1 above), but it can also just be that they like to talk.  We have two ears and one mouth for a reason – we should listen twice as much as we talk.  So in a one-hour sales meeting your sales people should talk for about 19 minutes and listen for about 41 minutes.

8.     Don’t practice enough

How full are your sales people’s calendars?  Listening takes practice and if your sales people are not regularly engaging in qualified sales meetings to keep their listening skills sharp, they fall apart when they finally do get in front of a prospective buyer (or worse, they think they do great but when your sales manager debriefs them it becomes clear that they didn’t truly listen).

9.     Are too focused

While it is helpful for your sales people to know what they should be listening for, they also need to be flexible enough so they can catch all the information being shared.  Sometimes sales people are simply so focused on listening for the one or two specific issues they know they can solve, they miss great information that could also move the conversation forward.

10.  Get inconsistent coaching

Listening is a skill that needs constant reinforcement and development.  Are your sales managers doing everything they can to coach and reinforce effective listening skills across your sales team?  Do your sales leaders know how to coach for improved listening skills?  What would happen to your revenue and profit margins if they did?

If some of these issues ring true for you, tell us the top three listening challenges your sales team experiences. I also recommend reading Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone by Mark Goulston. And never underestimate the power of a good listener.