Canned speeches, robotic presentations, endless product demonstrations and let’s not forget the “hard closing techniques,” that are synonymous with the art of selling still send shivers down my spine today, just as much as they did when I first learned them when I went through my formal sales training many, many years ago.
Sure, you can dress them up with any term you like — “collaborative,” “consultative” and a myriad of other terms if you really put your mind to it, but it all boils down to the basics of engaging a prospect, presenting/demonstrating your products and/or services and then the final part of getting the order, or as it is termed…closing the sale.
But times have a-changed.
Thanks to the Internet, we have now become a world of buyers — as one buyer who works for a large multinational explained to me that she often knows more about the product lines, history, vision, and values of the companies who pay and send their salespeople to sell to her, than the actual salespeople themselves.
She can do this of course, all from the comfort of an Internet connection and some thinking time!
As I am writing this I sympathize with all of the product and service salespeople out there in the world today, trying to make their sales quotas, having to attend endless sales training courses, where the techniques of yesteryear are still drummed into them by trainers who are simply out of touch.
These days of selling are long over and it is now a matter for salespeople to ditch this outmoded and outdated stuff and start to learn how to influence people by engaging from the standpoints of commercial awareness, common sense, logic, and compelling data-driven value propositions.
Influence — the power to make other people agree with your opinions or do what you want.
And to be an influencer you have to command the attention, respect, and trust of the right people.
You need to be a high-level influencer.
For now, I will stick to the term “salesperson” and allow you to work out the transition to becoming an influencer in your own right and if you a sales director, executive leader, or CEO, it is time to take a long, hard look at how your sales business function operates.
As a young and struggling salesperson way back in the day, I empathize with all of the salespeople who are in the same boat as I know exactly what you are going through and as a CEO running several companies generating millions of dollars of sales, I can also talk about being on the other side of the fence, buying products and services from a wide range of salespeople — some good, some bad and of course, the indifferent.
Why is it that, despite all of the sales training systems, methodologies, and advancements in technology there is such a dire shortage of good, solid, and talented salespeople who can be relied upon to perform and regardless of any economic environment?
Surely after all of this time and all of the training programs, we should have an abundance of such people.
As an entrepreneur, businessman, but firstly a salesperson, I have struggled with this very problem throughout my entire career.
And I am not alone.
From the “power 1980s” through the “collaborative 1990s” and into the Internet-enabled 2000s, the world of selling really hasn’t really changed at its roots — the person who cold-called my number just the other day was using the same sleazy sales tactics that I was taught was back in the 1980s where flashy suits, cars and an equally flashy lifestyle which was fuelled by debt, was all the rage.
Until it wasn’t.
This means that sales training hasn’t really changed at all and there is no way that the young-sounding voice on the other end of the phone just the other day, trying to get me to switch energy companies would have come up with the ridiculous pitch trying to “close” me for an appointment — she would have to have been taught it.
Nor was I surprised by the approach of the door-to-door canvasser for a large double-glazing company, who again was determined to arrange an appointment for me to simply have a quotation for new windows, doors, and a conservatory because they were “in the area” fitting the same products, for a number of my neighbors.
And they wanted me to have the opportunity to take advantage of the discount that they were doing as a “one-off” special favor to other people in the neighborhood.
I started my sales career doing exactly the same as this young guy and was taught exactly the same tactics thirty-five years ago, which I hated then and still do now.
The corporate selling world hasn’t changed much either.
In the 1980s it was all about “closing” and getting pen to paper on those lucrative deals that would fuel the debt-fuelled lifestyle and you were nothing if you were not “closing deals.”
“I’m, not a salesperson…I’m a closer,” was how many top salespeople referred to themselves and if you were, you became part of the elite in sales, back in those days and it took a quick stock market crash back in 1987 known as black Monday, to set the scene for a recession that soon took the sails out of both the salespeople and the economy that saw many fast cars and expensive apartments getting re-possessed and salespeople wondering how they were going to live.
The 1990s saw technology giant IBM, who fell victim to the death of the mainframe computer, transform itself from a product to a services company on the face of things, but in reality, they became a solutions company wrapping up the offerings of hardware, software, and services.
The rest of the sales industry soon followed suit and corporate salespeople would now start to work collaboratively and in “partnership” with their clients, trying to become a trusted advisor, a confidante, and all in the hope of distancing themselves from the “hard closers” that were the icons of the sales industry in the last decade,
And millions were spent on training, coaching, and developing these so-called sales executives of the future.
Now comes the game-changer.
Physical boundaries were slashed, communication became almost instantaneous, and combined with the growth of mobile communications technology, we were truly in a new era, and unlike anything before.
The digital transformation was underway.
The Internet changed everything and soon everything was going to be replaced by technology…at least that is what the investment community believed by plowing billions into start-ups that put company valuations into new, uncharted territory.
Just like the power 80s, this bubble had to burst and in truth, the Internet economy was not a trusted one — people were reluctant to hand over their cash to a website and the dot.com bubble had burst.
It was a dream for salespeople at this time — there was plenty of cash, plenty of start-ups hiring in droves, and with mainstream corporates trying to follow the lead of IBM, plenty of opportunities to become part of this “new breed” of collaborative sales executives who were going to re-define the world.
The tech crash did take its toll, but it also restored the faith in the traditional economy and for some companies that were threatened by Internet domination, there was a huge sigh of relief.
So where are we today?
The Internet has turned us into a nation of buyers thanks to the widespread adoption of online purchasing.
Today, we are so much more informed and can get information at the touch of a button, whether that is to review a product or service, compare prices or get the heads up about the company we are considering for a major purchase.
So what about those salespeople working in the corporate sector — well they are still collecting Airmiles, still burning up endless amounts of fuel on motorways, still occupying hotel lobby’s for “essential” meetings, and trying to find those last-minute hotel deals to book the room for that all-important sales presentation that ticks the boxes that will allow the sales managers to tick the boxes to pacify the sales director.
They are essentially order takers and this is where their role in the world of selling is not going to be in line with future demand.
I hear so much about how this is going to affect sales jobs and my attitude is simple — if you are a real salesperson and that to me means you are a high-level influencer, then technology will accelerate your success.
If you are, however, nothing more than an order-taker, then be prepared to be automated.
My “formal” sales training
Now I want to open with the fact there are many excellent coaches, trainers, and mentors in the field of selling, and what I am going to talk about in this article is not about them — they know who they are and their worth.
I started my career selling home improvements door-to-door to earn some extra cash while I was at college in the early 1980s and worked my way up to selling into the boardrooms of some of the world’s largest companies.
I have trained hundreds of salespeople around the globe in my own real-world and real-life sales strategies and techniques and apart from the formal training I received and discarded very quickly, which I will talk about here, I am self-taught.
That is not to say I haven’t had help from anyone because I certainly have received a ton of help over the years, but that was more to do with commercial awareness, self-discovery, and personal development than it ever was about learning how to sell.
For example, it was martial arts that transformed me from a bullied and shy schoolboy to a confidant young man that could even contemplate a career in sales.
It was meeting some unlikely mentors along the way who gave me their time and energy to help me understand how the world of business and finance really works.
And it is my continual thirst for knowledge that keeps me on my toes constantly, never accepting the “now” and always looking to the future.
After my time in direct selling, I decided it was time to move into the commercial world to get more experience and that meant joining a large company to receive the formal training I was convinced I needed to have in order to get more experience.
Being ushered into a room full of people and asked to stand up and tell the room about myself did not phase me at all, as it did many others — I had built up a skin thicker than a rhino due to my direct sales experience, but I was far from “polished” and I no definition of the word “professional” in terms of selling.
Soon we were learning how “not to sell,” through the age-old role-playing scenario involving two people, where one has to try to sell the other a pen — those of you in sales would understand this pointless and futile exercise as it seems to be the benchmark of deciding someone’s aptitude for selling!
I was now bored and very bored.
Next comes the answer and demonstrated by our two sales trainers who of course, execute the process perfectly.
People are in awe –“is selling as simple as that?” is one of the equally pointless and even more futile questions from the willing and compliant audience that is totally unchallenging to the “masters.”
I would have loved to take these two trainers around one of the estates I used to have to sell home improvements in and put their methodologies to the test — they would have crumbled in a heartbeat.
We moved on to learning how to sell on the telephone and to simply get an appointment — that was the only goal, just to get an appointment because if the salesperson could get his “foot in the door” he or she had their chance to work their magic.
It was exactly the same goal for me when selling door-to-door, only I wanted to make sure that the appointments that I obtained were worthwhile, which is why I was very happy when I heard that the salespeople back in head office would fight over who got my appointments because they knew they had a higher chance of success.
After the telephone sales part came face-to-face element prospecting or cold calling — call it what you want and now we went through the process again, only this time we had to get the aim of getting the business card or name of the decision-maker so that we could then call them in to make that all-important appointment.
Finally, we get to a face-to-face meeting, and here is where the training really starts, at least so I was told. a
The whole process was conducted in a role-playing situation and the meeting would commence with me asking a series of open-ended questions, and you know the ones — those that you cannot simply answer with a “yes” or a “no” and then with the trainer being deliberately obstinate and difficult, I would have to get through the process, overcoming any objections that were put forward and ultimately get the client to commit and sign on the dotted line.
This aspect of the sales process involved making sure you do everything you can to get the prospect, client, customer and again call them what you want, to put pen to paper, so that you can return to your office, place the order, put your name on the sales leaderboard and rinse and repeat.
“Telling isn’t selling” and “always be closing” were the mantras.
I am not going to go through the entire process and demonstrate some of the techniques, but you can get a good idea about the framework and process in this article.
Any client is going to have a series of questions they want to ask before committing to buying anything — you do and so do I and it is of course, only natural…but not to our sales trainers, who simply see these objections as a roadblock to the ultimate goal.
The whole sales training industry is built on this outcome and for me, after getting through my formal sales training course, I was put with the sales manager in order that I could go out into the field and put the classroom theory into practice.
It was an absolute disaster.
We were selling office equipment to small companies and I think in the first week of cold calling I managed to get three out of the required five appointments for the following week as from five appointments you would get one sale.
The following week I attended the appointments with my sales manager and I actually got my first deal, with his help to close it from those appointments and I should have been elated.
I absolutely hated it — everything we did I found unnatural and something inside me told me it was all wrong.
I was eventually fired from the company for non-performance which was a blessing because it gave me to enter the world of recruiting and staffing — an industry I immediately fell in love with and I never looked back.
This, by the way, was only one of a handful of courses that I attended and although each was very different superficially, the underlying message and philosophy amounted to the same.
Eventually, I started my own recruitment agency followed by a software company and this is where I started to define and refine my own sales training methodologies, which I still practice and teach to people today.
I grew my company from my small apartment in London to a $65m global concern in six years, with a small, but highly effective sales team, personally trained by me.
You can read my story in this article, “How I started my first business from a living room in London.”
And as I said right at the beginning, I am going to share my philosophy and methodology here with you in this article and it won’t cost you a dime!
So let’s begin.
My sales training philosophy
In my opinion, we are all born salespeople, and please stay with me on this…
Deep inside of us is an intrinsic nature of survival and one of the most important aspects of surviving is to be able to barter.
The exchange of help and goods for reciprocation has been central to the development of mankind and it formed the basis of all commerce today.
We are also conditioned to fight battles to protect ourselves, families, and loved ones and just look back in history and in fact, most of today’s corporate strategies have come straight from the battlefield as we were fighting battles long before we had established corporate boardrooms.
Take a look at the famous book “The Art of War” by the ancient Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu.
But it was having children that really shaped my thinking further on this subject.
I had children late in life, with my daughter being born when I was forty (I am now fifty-six) and my two sons are thirteen and ten this year.
Children seem to work purely on instinct, simply because nobody can teach them much when they are young and I used to watch how my daughter, who was only a few months old would scream if picked up and held by certain people or relax and even sleep in the arms of others.
This continued with all of my children and then when they could walk, each of them would instinctively run to certain people and also run away from others.
They also had plenty of “imaginary friends” who they would delight in telling me about and endless stories of what they all got up to, but it was their sheer ability to get what they want that intrigued me — that ice-cream cone just before dinner, playing their mother and me off against each other and using every emotion under the sun to do so.
They also loved to hear and when able to, read stories — selling is largely about storytelling and we have all been conditioned to hear and read stories.
They were fearless, persistent, creative, imaginative, single-minded and even today, my daughter provided me a “value proposition” for me buying her a puppy despite me telling her for over a year that she couldn’t have another dog!
But she dedicated herself to the process for literally one year!
These are precisely the qualities that we require from a good salesperson and we were all born with them!
So what happened?
Children need no “permission” to be themselves — they are who they are and have no problem articulating it.
But over the years these qualities are, in some cases, drummed out of us — our imaginary friends are dismissed, negotiating an ice-cream cone before dinner is no longer funny and we are influenced heavily by our parents who deep down want the best for us I am sure, and then steer us into other hobbies, activities, sports, and professions.
We become in effect, detached from our instinctive childhoods and now have to start thinking for a living!
I therefore never teach anyone how to sell, because they already know it — it’s just a matter of uncovering what they already know and the only real factor is down to their willingness to accept this concept and the time it takes to grasp it is dependent on how far removed they are from their original child-like state.
It’s amazing what outcomes this process has and the most important one is an increase of self-confidence as now the person concerned gives themself “permission” to be themselves.
This “reconnecting” step is the most important one and once this occurs, it is a matter of leaving it well alone and using it as a building block for further understanding and development!
What I do teach, however, is how to influence.
So my message to you is simple — stop trying to learn the latest sales philosophies, strategies and methods that are being force-fed into you today as they are a waste of time and as I have said, you already know them.
Devote your time to learning how to reconnect with yourself and take that newfound state and channel it into a direction that you are passionate about and here I am going to channel it into sales and the art of selling, or what I would rather term “influencing.”
Sales training — become a key influencer
This is the formula for re-shaping your entire sales career and let me assure you it is totally liberating as the shackles are going to be slowly released and you are about to embark on a tough, but rewarding journey.
My objective with this blog is to share my life story in the hope that it will help and inspire yours, so I always like to keep things real, so let me give you a real-life example of how I placed the Grand Canyon between myself and my competitors in the world of global technology staffing solutions before I break down each component part for you.
It was a cold, wet, and miserable day in Europe and I was waiting in reception at the headquarters of my largest client, to meet members of the board to put pen to paper and sign one of the largest deals of my life.
It was a formality, but I never take chances and came even more prepared than I was when I first entered the building some two years earlier, to start the entire process.
You never know what to expect and meeting two board members would require me to be not only alert but ready to answer any question that could be thrown at me.
I had done my homework and the meeting that was supposed to be a ten-minute formality lasted well over an hour and yes there were some very direct questions, which I handled effortlessly.
The deal was signed and there were a few celebrations with the team that had been invaluable throughout this process comprising of technical, sales, and creative experts.
I had come a long way since my early days of selling home improvements door-to-door simply to earn extra cash when I was at college.
We had all worked tirelessly on this deal, which was worth millions of dollars.
Right from the start, I decided I didn’t want to “play” in my competitor’s space — they would be concentrating purely on their recruiting and staffing capability and quite rightly so, but they were swarming all over the operational and line management that in their eyes had the problem.
They were right in a sense, but they didn’t grasp that the problem was handed down to them — it had been driven from the top. I needed to work strategically and not just deal with the problem itself but look to prevent it in the future because sometimes the root cause of the problem, bears no initial relation to the end result.
I also worked with different departments in the organization — the ones that I also knew that my competitors would not, such as legal and compliance, marketing, education, and research and development.
I needed to get the big picture and then deliver solutions that would both solve the problems of today and anticipate and equally solve the problems of the future.
I compiled data from deep and detailed research and validated this through various sources and there was no “selling” in the sense that most salespeople would define and a lot of asking questions and letting people tell you their frustrations, then asking for their opinion as to how they would solve the problem, should they have the power to do so.
There were many social engagements during the period also, but neither I nor the team would ever try to sell our services, but just enjoy the moment to get to know our clients better. Sure we would answer the ton of questions that clients ask, but again, in a manner that simply asked the question and not to pre-empt a sale.
We collected a ton of data, uncovered a load of problems and now it was time to sit down and construct a compelling value proposition to get our already engaged company to the top of the tree.
The result was a presentation to a senior executive team comprising of different business functions from purchasing to education and there were no “sales objections,” rather just running through what we had presented.
The result was an acceptance of the proposal and a board member’s signature to which one of our executive leaders commented to me that I had spent more time with the board member than he had in his twenty-year career!
There were many such examples during my career and let me tell you there is a vast difference between trying to “pitch” your ideas to an operational team in a meeting room to have a strategic discussion with a President of a corporate division of one of your largest clients on a yacht.
And that actually happened!
Once you make the decision to commit yourself to this process and providing that you stick to it, you will never go back to your old ways of selling…but it does require absolute commitment and this is not for the faint-hearted because many people fail, but if you are like me, you would not want it any other way!
So let me start to break the process down.
Sales training — research
Too many salespeople know very little about their own marketplace, let alone the global stock market, and geopolitical events and if you want to be a key influencer you need to have a handle on all three.
Remember the comment from the buyer I talked about at the beginning of the article?
Global corporations are directly affected by global market conditions and the effect spirals down to the smallest of players within the overall industry and no company is exempt.
Let’s take the airline industry for example and you have the main carriers such as American Airlines and British Airways, manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus, who between them drive the market for us travelers.
If you are lucky enough to be able to fly privately, then you may own, lease or charter a plane from a manufacturer such as Cessna.
This article from UK essays talks about three factors that affect the industry — fuel price, interest rates, and currency price.
To you and I, we may understand that the airline industry is dependent on oil prices, as many carriers will try to control prices by locking down rates for the future, but this can go for or against them depending on what price they locked in at the time of purchase.
But hopefully, you can now, see the inter-relationship with other key factors.
Just knowing this information will give you greater confidence to communicate with anyone in your industry and let’s say that you are an electronics company selling your products to another company somewhere in the chain of the engineering process and this may be a key supplier to Boeing for example.
You are at the mercy of the macroeconomic factors that affect the industry and if they are adverse, you will be affected as a natural part of the cause and effect process.
So you had better get a handle on them.
You combine these factors with the individual company analysis that you should do with your own clients before even making an approach to them and if you are operating in the industry right now and want to progress then start the process and work your way up the executive value chain.
“Knowledge is power,” as the famous saying goes and information is the gateway to knowledge, but you have to turn that information into profit, at least in the art of sales.
Today you can get most of the information you need online and I pay particular attention to analysts whose job it is to constantly analyze companies for investment purposes — they will give an opinion on whether to hold, buy or sell, the stock of the large corporations as well as companies listed on the alternative investment market (AIM).
But you can also call these companies first hand and conduct your own research as I did and get the information from the people in the company — most will be happy to help and tell you why they are different from their competitors and why they chose to work for the company.
It is about making the decision to simply pick up the phone and make the call — and it is far more effective than simply emailing…I promise!
I was always fascinated by the financial markets and financial trading — my wife used to work for a major international bank as a currency trader so I was very close to the industry and I would marvel as to how they would look to predict the market movements from the past analysis.
My entrepreneurial mind is always active — it took over and I constantly tried to apply what they did in their world, to the world of business and then one day, I met an owner of a hedge fund when I was in Singapore trying attending the first meeting with the chief financial officer (CFO) of a large corporation… and the light switched was turned on!
This hedge fund guy had me absolutely hooked when he explained how the industry worked and more importantly how it was different from the traditional investment methodology.
I had a long discussion with him and always trying to use the thinking and apply it to my business… he didn’t disappoint!
My wife’s former boss eventually left the bank and founded his own currency trading hedge fund and now I was doubly fascinated.
To make things simple, the hedge fund offers so many more opportunities than simply investing in a market hoping that it will go up and it relies heavily on analytics, predictive modeling and they can profit in both good and bad times.
It is the “predictive” part that I love — in the recent Brexit drama that the UK had to endure, my wife had spoken to her former boss who calmly told her that he had factored in all of the consequences and that was it.
But this work was occurring way before the event — constant analysis and scenario planning for whatever event would emerge…within reason of course — this is the “hedge” part of a hedge fund and hence the saying “hedging your bets.”
Start to become predictive in your industry and put together all of the research and look at potential outcomes for that research and how it will affect your clients — you may also find some new clients during this process as well.
You are not trying to become an investment analyst, you are using investment analysis to augment your own knowledge.
Remember that the people you wish to influence will be well-versed in all of this, especially in the large corporations and as you move down to the smaller companies, the interest may well be less — but you will at least be able to hold your own in any conversation and might impress others which goes a long way to securing those valuable contracts.
Don’t be too smart though as I did and try to impose your knowledge as it can backfire and I quickly learned that it is not a good idea to try to outsmart your clients!
Sales training — position yourself & your company
You need to position yourself and your company as an authority in yours and its own field.
It’s a lot easier in today’s world than it was when I started out just before the Internet was launched commercially where thousands were spent on producing glossy brochures and other marketing material.
I started to write some key articles that I would send out to my clients in order to give my opinions from the research I had conducted — this combination served me well as I effectively combined my own knowledge and experiences within my industry, with my new-found research and analysis.
But this took off at warp speed when I hired a traditional PR company, who positioned me in the global media and not just in the industry-specific publications, but also in the national press, television, and radio…but this came at a cost, which was more than worth it by the way.
Today it is far easier and you can mount your very own PR campaign by simply starting a blog.
Here is an article talking about why I started my blog and on the WordPress platform to give you my reasons.
A blog gives you a chance to showcase yourself and what you know to the world and if you are a salesperson, it is a perfect place for you to articulate your knowledge and opinions and your own company may even have a blog on its website so get familiar with the posts and even better, work with the content writers to influence what goes gets posted on the blog.
You are an influencer, right?
But as a salesperson, you are a person in your own right and you have your own opinions, so get them out there.
So you should have no problem launching your own blog!
If you really work at producing some great, quality content that helps people, then you will in time, start to see your blog climbing up the Google rankings, which means people including your clients will see it and you may even have a few job offers and other opportunities to go with it.
Every salesperson should have a blog and you have nothing to lose, so start one today!
If you want to really understand how the process works, then take a look at what my friend and Internet marketing mentor, Fernando Raymond has to offer.
Fernando also offers competitive hosting from his hosting company SeekaHost and he will also teach you everything you need to learn about online marketing from his online education site, SeekaHost University.
Having been around Internet marketing since its inception, I can assure you, Fernando, is the real deal and I have been around many.
You can still do as I did and produce some nice articles that you can send to your clients, but make sure that you send information that actually helps your clients, rather than simply regurgitating what is already available on the Internet.
You cannot compete with Google!
For example, Fernando Raymond offers so much information for free on his various websites and this helps to build a tremendous amount of trust and goodwill to those who follow them — he is eager to help people start their online journey and what he terms as “building the foundations of their online real estate portfolio.”
I am with him on this as I really think online real estate will be more powerful than physical property in years to come.
When you put all of this together, you can start to build the foundation for a very powerful blog, that will, if done correctly, effectively “bring the market to you,” which is the dream of every salesperson.
One word of caution here — make sure you have your own house in order in the online sense.
I had a meeting with a Chief Operating Officer of a large multi-national technology company who after I sat down told me that he had seen my videos on martial arts on the Internet and we had a short discussion about it — he explained that he “googled everyone” and this was ten years ago.
Some of the public profiles I see on people are totally unsuitable in the world of business and I know it is the choice of the person concerned, to do what they want on their own social media channel, but remember, you may be judged for it.
It’s up to you!
Sales training — engage at the highest level
Unless you are experienced in dealing with C-Suite and executive leaders, you are going to find them a totally different prospect to what you are used to in your current sales environment.
Overall, I found these executives much easier to deal with than the lower-level operational and line managers.
There was no real ego involved and each of them without question, had the best interests of their companies at heart and would listen to any suggestions as to how to improve anything that would streamline costs, improve profits, or both.
But on the flip side, there was no room for error and I had to make sure I respected the most valuable commodity of all when meeting people at this level — and that is time.
Most CEOs are fire-fighting and if they are publicly listed companies, they are dealing with the very analysts that you were looking at in the research phase of this process. Their colleagues are in similar fire-fighting modes dealing with customer and internal issues and each of these executives must behave in a very structured and organized manner and can never waste a moment in a day.
You must remember this when you get to meet with them…if of course, you can ever do so in the first place.
Now for all of you who believe your product and/or service would never be bought at this level, you are correct and that is if you focus purely on the product in question — they have plenty of people empowered to buy products down in the management hierarchy.
You, on the other hand, should be working strategically and talking to your clients about the impact of your product and/or services on their overall business strategy, how it helps them grow and how to anticipate and solve their problems.
You should adopt a totally pro-active approach, predicting the problems and challenges of the future, but you should also stress the importance of being able to react quickly, efficiently, and with precision, regarding the problems that exist today.
It’s a two-pronged approach.
There is no time for pure salesmanship when dealing at the top — everything has to be supported by data-driven facts and solutions which I will cover in the next part and these people can “tune out” in a nanosecond if they think you are wasting their time.
I go deeper into this subject in my article, “How to become a linchpin at work and be the best employee.”
Your goal is to be at least able to “hold your own” which will not be a problem if you have done all of your research and homework as I have talked about previously.
There are other aspects to preparing yourself and one is to make sure you have done an audit regarding your personal presentation.
You are not entering a fashion show, you are about to start the process of conducting serious business.
When you are presenting at the highest level, you want the absolute focus to on what you are presenting rather than what you are wearing, and even down to the cologne or perfume you eagerly splash over and spray over yourself.
I have had meetings with salespeople when I was a CEO where I could smell their cologne from a distance — I was thankful for the flies they have killed in the process, but there was no way I could begin to concentrate on what they were about to say.
Please remember that understated is better — leave the fancy watch, flashy suits and crazy haircuts behind, and also remember that you want to be judged on your proposal and not remembered for your cologne.
Brush up on your communications issues also — make sure you are comfortable speaking in front of an audience as many of these meetings involve groups of people.
Practice speaking naturally and with no notes in front of colleagues, sales managers, or even your own CEO — they all win if you win.
Lastly, make sure you are comfortable in all social situations including events, parties, breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.
As you progress with this approach, you will find yourself in all sorts of social situations and when you start to build trust with your newfound and high-powered executives, you will find that many meetings are conducted over meals.
After all, everyone has to eat!
A word of caution, I have seen many deals lost in social environments — people drinking too much and also not being able to handle important dinner functions, just as examples.
Take a look at this article on dining etiquette from Hubspot.
You will have done a lot of hard work to get to the meeting stage, so don’t blow it over what you could have avoided with a little dedication to acquiring some extra knowledge.
Initial client approach
This is the critical point where you have to put your research and ideas into action.
Let me explain this further by going back to the real-life example that I mentioned earlier.
You have to remember that compared to today, I was far less commercially aware at that time, but I still had a sense of fearlessness that led me to make a direct phone call to the CEO of the company.
I didn’t get the CEO on the phone which was not surprising, but I did get to talk to his assistant.
Now there are many times that you are taught in sales to “get past or even blast through the “gatekeeper” and trust me, this is a very bad approach.
As a CEO of at one time, four companies, and generating millions of dollars of revenue, I have had assistants to make sure that my time — the most valuable asset as I have discussed earlier, was protected.
My assistants were more than capable of deciding who they needed to put through to me on both an urgent and non-urgent basis and I would not tolerate anyone who was rude to them or tried to undermine their importance in any way.
The fastest way to get on my radar was to upset my assistant and then no matter what, you were off the list.
Let’s get back to my example:
My approach to the assistant of the CEO was to simply ask her advice and on the basis that I would now ask her to tell me if the proposal in question that I wanted to forward to her boss, would be of interest to him.
She told me to send the proposal through in writing, after our conversation and she would put it to him and for me to call her back in a week.
I did exactly that and she told me that her boss recommended that I talk to another vice president, who was part of the leadership team, who he felt was the best person for me to talk to.
The assistant gave me the details and copied me in on an email to the vice president’s assistant and the end result was a meeting that ultimately led to business.
The approach was as simple as that and there are two pre-requisites:
- You have done your homework and identified a strategic need that will get the required attention.
- You have a proposal ready to go.
Now as I said, I was not as commercially aware as I am now and with hindsight, I would have probably got the attention of the CEO if I had known then, what I know now.
It took me two years to get back into the boardroom and to sign the deal, but that was down to my lack of knowledge and the fact that I was in the early stages of defining and refining my approach, which I now term as a “key influencer” approach and not a sales one.
I will stay with this example as we move on to the next stage.
Sales training — present data-driven facts & solutions
Now all of your previous hard work has come to fruition and you are invited to a high-level meeting to present what you have discussed.
Whether or not you are meeting with the CEO depends on the strength of your proposal, but if you have followed the procedure correctly, you will be meeting with a high-level person(s).
My proposal to the CEO in the example involved putting together a strategic team of high-level specialist technology experts to help with the international growth of their business — they were more of a troubleshooting team that could be deployed across the globe to help in the “hotspots” of growth markets and areas where there was trouble.
It was a three page and succinct proposal highlighting the issues of today, the potential issues of tomorrow, and the proposed solutions.
Hence the meeting with the vice president and also looking back, there was no way I would have got a meeting with the CEO.
But I did end up providing that team to the company and that motivated me to get back o the top and to develop a proposal that would get at the very least, solid board-level attention.
Meetings and presentations
When you are invited to meet and present at this level, you have no time to do the usual “fact-finding” process that you would be expected to do if you are following say, the SPIN selling system.
Now I have no problem with this type of selling because it is logical systematic and depending on who is delivering it, it can be natural, but to meet with executive leaders and question them to cover their current situation, the problems they face, to then highlight the implications of those problems and therefore determine the need, is a waste of their time.
You need to know all of those factors and implications in advance and do you really think the senior executives of large corporations have the time to answer those sorts of questions from their suppliers?
You must do your research and your homework and get that information.
That is why the research phase is so important and also to talk to people who work in the organization.
In my specific example, I knew the company was under pressure to find the right people to support selling activities across the globe and had little time to recruit and train local labor in those countries that they had now established a presence in.
Also, they had exhausted their own human resources in terms of deploying them to other countries away from their homes.
The implications of this were that they would potentially lose market share to their competitors should they not be able to deliver and this was unacceptable in the highly competitive market at the time.
What they needed was a “virtual workforce” that could be available at their demand, anytime and anywhere.
These workers would be strategically recruited and would be able to handle fire-fighting situations as well as transfer their knowledge to local workers and then be either deployed somewhere else or let go.
Over the next two years, I and my team systematically grew this proposal to encompass global regional standardized rates for specialist outsourced labor, the legal and immigration implications (we were working with all nationalities), and to also make sure we worked with internal education function to ensure technical competence.
Furthermore, the entire solution would be web-based.
Now we were getting somewhere and in order to engage these divisions, we needed to collate a ton of data and then convert this into a solution — the data must also be reliable and that meant using outside agencies to maintain credibility, pretty much like a scientist would need to reference their work.
Now I had a reason to get to the board.
Death by PowerPoint
Having given so many presentations and been on the receiving end of what seems to be a never-ending slide deck, I can give you both perspectives.
The last thing any busy executive wants to be part of is a long-winded presentation, that seems to ramble on and on, never making any real points, and worse still, to have the presenter read every slide point by point.
People can read, they can understand and remember the part about respecting time?
Executive leaders loathe these presentations if they were to be really honest and especially the ones I have spoken to, but they know their importance, so if you start from that perspective, you will at least have understood what you are up against.
In my early years, I used presentations to showcase my company, how good we are, and how well we have performed and in my case, with regard to recent assignments.
Nobody cares, nobody is remotely interested and at the level, we are talking about operating at, you can square root the value of caring in that respect.
I like to have one generic set of slides (if I am using that method) where the first three would appeal to anyone in my client organization and at any level — from there it is all about customization.
In my real-world example that I started with, I had customized presentations that would be targeted to many divisions and some of them had as many as thirty slides…but they were there mainly for information to be left, rather than information to be presented.
The best success that I ever had with a presentation was when I removed all of my logos from the slides, as well as the fancy designs, I simply wrote key points and all relative to the problems and challenges that my clients faced.
The sum total of the deck was three slides and from there I turned the meeting into a Q&A session, which engaged the audience and made for a nice relaxed one-and-a-half-hours.
At the end of the meeting, I gave each person another deck, which consisted of the same slides, plus a few supporting ones.
One other thing to remember at this stage is that if you are printing paper copies of a presentation to hand out to people then make sure each slide has at the footer, your contact details, and your key message.
Many printed presentations are left in meeting rooms and you never know who might walk into the meeting room next, plus you must assume that some of your slides will be lost.
There are many tools and technologies available today to help you simplify the process and the temptation is to bombard your clients with the latest gadgets in order to “wow” them.
That may work at certain levels, but at the level, you are operating in, or aspire to operate in my advice for you is to keep things simple.
Executive leaders have enough on their plates without having to get a technology to work in order to view or hear what you have to say — even in my high-tech world over the years, the simple solutions were always the best ones.
Sales-training — pricing & negotiation
Many salespeople crumble at the pricing point and it is usually the roadblock to concluding the deal, especially as the deals get larger.
High-level selling is actually much easier pricing wise because you have a few advantages:
- You are at the top of the money tree and where budgets are allocated, destroyed, and re-arranged when necessary.
- The people concerned are just as interested in value as well as cost.
- You will get a decision quickly — good or bad.
Let’s go through them one by one and break it down.
I will give you a personal example here concerning budgets and around the time of the banking crisis of 2007.
I froze all spending across all of my companies, as my first priority was survival and departmental growth was the last thing on my mind, all for except one department.
The budget stakeholders were, understandably not happy, but they understood as their plans were quashed and put back months.
I had put a freeze on any new hiring and the staffing companies that sometimes supplied us would have been blocked in their first call with human resources, all except one who called me directly.
He explained that he had a top-flight salesperson who I simply needed to meet and after a quick summary of his background, I agreed to look at his resume and to cut a long story short, he was hired.
As a CE0, my job is to grow the company, and there was a clear opportunity to grow it and when my competitors would be focussing elsewhere and with the help of my CFO, we re-allocated spend to accommodate.
People buy perceived value and not price — a purchase is only about the price if you have an example of two identical products, say a food item, where one food store will sell it at a lesser price than the other.
Anything else is about the value that a person or a company perceives in relation to what that product actually does.
The key phrase here is “person or a company perceives” and it is up to you to make sure that you clearly articulate the value that is offered and make sure that your pricing equates to that value.
This is your basic starting point — save the “10X value speeches” as nobody really believes them unless of course, you can prove them (remember the part about data-driven facts)?
Many salespeople will talk about the sales cycle and for example, “our software typically takes two years from customer engagement to a final decision.”
This can be true, but in most cases, these salespeople are working fro the “bottom-up,” where progression from engagement to approval is dependent on many parties.
Starting “top-down” can be faster because you will be engaging with the budget holders and decision-makers right from the start, but it is not always that way.
The executive leadership team on the face of it can make any decision it chooses, but they also empower others to do the same.
It’s like an army — the general is in overall command, but he also has a staff of other officers who have their own key duties and responsibilities depending upon their rank.
Now the general will not usually over-rule his officers as this would be seen as “pulling rank,” but he can certainly influence them!
The corporate world works in pretty much the same way.
I found through my own experiences that you will not so much get instant decisions from dealing at the top, rather, you will get “sponsorship” and that sponsorship is key because you are now going to be introduced to the relevant people who can make those decisions and there is nothing more powerful than having sponsorship from the top.
It is then up to you to articulate your value, present a competitive price and you will find that deals are completed, or not as the case may be and if you are rejected, which I have been on only a few occasions, there will be a clear reason, which you will be made aware of.
In one example, I found out early on in the process that I was roadblocked by a senior vice president and I couldn’t shift the block and this happens — you just have to accept it and move on because you can always come back to try another time.
On another occasion I simply could not convince a team in the technology department that our solution was the right one — I had suspected they had a favorite supplier and all I could do here was to flag the issue with the top, but in such a way that I was not accusing anyone and I knew that at least, I would have prompted someone to look into things.
But that is life in the corporate world.
But it’s not only the clients who can cause problems at the pricing stage — some over-zealous sales directors can put the blocks on deals internally and that is exactly what happened to me in December 1987!
I was working for a recruiting agency in London and traditionally December is the month where little get’s done and celebrations are rife.
It was no exception in this agency, but I had one client who was desperate for three people to start in January the next year and I had found them in December, which would mean they would fall into my December sales targets and allow me to qualify for a nice end-of-year bonus.
The deals were done…or so I thought and our standard terms of business (fees) were twenty-five percent of the annual salary of each person and as the client had three, then he wanted a discount.
Not unreasonable and I suggested we drop to twenty percent as a nice Christmas gesture as we had done a lot of business together, but I would have to get approval.
My sales director agreed but now had to get a sign-off from the managing director who flatly refused.
I then re-negotiated (with a profuse apology to the client) a higher fee of twenty-two percent, which was still refused internally.
“If you can get him up 2.5% then you can get the full fee,” came the response from the top.
But for my client, it now became a matter of principle and he stood his ground, I lost the deal, he lost the people and I left the company!
I should have spent my time influencing my own managing director, but I had enough to do in my job!
Either way, there is nothing more demoralizing for a salesperson and sometimes you feel as if you have to sell to two parties.
This, by the way, can be necessary as in a software company I co-founded, we had a strict pricing policy in one region because the first customer we singed demanded that we could not sell to their competition for a lower price and as it was a very large deal, we agreed.
My advice is to make sure you get internal support and approval before you embark on the journey to land that big deal.
Now we come to the topic of negotiation and again, there is nothing to teach, unless you want to take lessons from my daughter who negotiated the puppy with yours truly!
But I will give you a few guidelines and let me start with something we are all familiar with.
Back to my daughter — there is nothing I wouldn’t do for her or any of my children and each of them have their moments of “negotiation.”
In reality, they are minor negotiating points and I will allow what I think is acceptable and obviously in agreement with their mother.
But there is always a line drawn in the sand and that is accompanied by a big fat “no,” and I will hold this position regardless.
We all have that point within us.
With my children, it is all about love and unconditional love but I have no such connection with my clients.
So the point of drawing a line in the sand is nowhere near the same point that I have with my own children and it is also not that I am a ruthless businessman, because I am certainly not.
I simply want a fair deal where all parties benefit and that is how I negotiate.
Let’s say I am going to invest in a business with someone — I am putting in the money and them, the expertise.
I am quite happy to give them the lion’s share of the business to incentivize them.
Companies are there to increase shareholder value and the goal is to buy the best products and services and at the keenest prices.
However, they must be careful that they don’t force suppliers out of business in the process and to make sure they are incentivized to supply.
Equally companies and salespeople are out to gain maximum returns in order to increase their own company value as well as earn a decent commission.
But they must also be careful not to take advantage of companies by inflating prices.
I’m sure that you can interpret the information and come up with your own line in the sand and create a win-win for yourself and your clients.
Allow for a natural conclusion
This should be the easiest part and yet for some, it is a nightmare…simply because they cannot let go of their previous sales mindset of being a “closer” and this is where you have two choices:
- Allow the process to happen.
- Risk everything you have done by trying to ask for the order.
Now sales training purists will jump in and try to hang me here, but bear with me.
You effectively “close” (I hate that word as you know) the sale from the first engagement with the client.
This is simply because you have done your homework, researched the company and you know precisely what challenges and problems your clients are facing and more importantly what they are going to face.
You will have sat down and devoted some creative thinking time to decide how your company can best help your client in a pro-active manner and also react to the existing problems and challenges of today.
You may even have summoned your CEO to a meeting to discuss this (and why not — he wins as well) and he will also offer some advice and experience to help.
Ultimately you are going to make a call to the company to an assistant to an executive leader, as this will show that you respect the time of the persons’ boss, who you do not want to disturb unnecessarily and by involving the very person he or she has recruited to protect that time.
This is where you demonstrate your implicit understanding of the market, the company, and demonstrate in a few short paragraphs how you can help them grow their profits, rationalize their costs, improve efficiencies, etc.
Your “closing” statement has just been released right there and then and you now simply have to prove exactly how you can achieve those goals, that you are a credible company and that your pricing is in line with the value that your client will perceive and you will, of course, have gone through all of this before you even contemplate making that first and very important call.
All of the meetings, presentations, and negotiations should be a mere formality, but we live in the real world and a human one (for now at least) so we are dealing with human emotions — but you are self-aware, have a high degree of emotional intelligence, so you are more than capable of empathizing with those people who are part of the process…you take it in your stride and display your qualities of being a key influencer.
It’s now not about selling, but understanding, and of course, you pair this understanding with hard facts, supported by key data to present a compelling value proposition for all parties concerned.
It’s that simple.
Now it is up to you that you handle the meetings correctly and professionally, so again, make sure you are prepared for all of this before you even start the process.
I cannot guarantee you success, but I can tell you that you will be playing in the real sales arena and where ultimately, all sales are signed off and all memorable deals are done!
As a final point, here are some thoughts to leave you with:
- There is no “secret” to selling and anyone who tells you otherwise is simply after your money.
- There are no shortcuts — you simply have to put in the hard work and run from those who tell you that you must work smart, fewer hours, and still enjoy the fruits of success. Hard work comes first and the “smart” part comes later.
- Technology will not replace sales…yet. Yes, I can imagine a world full of robots that have emerged from hybrids of humans and robots — just look at the Hollywood movies, there is an uncanny truth to what you watch. But, in my opinion, this will not happen anytime soon.
- Use technology to augment what you are doing — it is an enabler and the gateway drug to doing more, with less.
- Position and showcase yourself to the world — everyone should have an online presence and especially salespeople…that’s how I reached you.
- Find mentors coaches and influencers that you resonate with — everyone needs help and to this day I have two key mentors, one is in his seventies and the other twenty years younger than me.
- Start to look deeply at emotional intelligence (EQ) and become more self-aware — these are the real keys to sales success.
To your success as a key influencer!
Last modified: May 21, 2021