The pathway to sales success is strewn with lost opportunities, embarrassing moments and downright stupid mistakes. In my opinion, one major difference between top sellers and average ones is their ability to turn these disasters into growth opportunities.
Painful though it might be, top performers revisit their gaffes to figure out how they can avoid similar outcomes in the future. Scarred, but not beaten, they gradually learn what it takes to be successful.
I know. I've been there. Over the years, I've had more than my share of blunders. And just the other day, some of my biggest ones came flooding back to me as I was driving to do a training program for a local printing company.
When I exited the highway onto Como Avenue, I was immediately transported back to my days as a Xerox sales trainee when I covered the 55414 zip code. It's where I learned many invaluable lessons that I still embrace today.
Lesson 1: How to Get Unstuck
After finishing the Xerox training program, I was assigned to follow Jim Farrell for several weeks to learn the ropes. But finally the day came when I was sent out on my own.
At 9 a.m., I pulled up in front of Quality Products to begin my cold calls. But I couldn't get out. I was terrified and tongue-tied, convinced that my sales career was over before it even began.
After nearly 30 minutes of being paralyzed in my seat, a song wiggled its way into my mind: "I Have Confidence" from the movie, The Sound of Music.
I started singing to myself, quietly at first, then louder and louder. I was particularly enamored with the refrain, "I have confidence in confidence alone, and as you can see, I have confidence in me."
I really didn't believe the words, but they got me moving off my "stuckness." I pulled out my cold call plan that I'd studiously prepared the night before and reviewed it. I practiced my opening lines again and again.
Then I got out of the car and went in. By the end of the day, I'd made over 20 cold calls and uncovered some potential prospects.
Over the years, I've been confronted with many tough situations that I didn't know how to handle because I lacked the requisite knowledge or experience. I've learned that you can't know everything before you start. And I've also learned that "movement" is key to discovering the answers.
Lesson 2: How to Get to Higher Level Decision Makers
One of the prospects I uncovered while cold-calling was Trussbilt, a company directly across Como Avenue from Quality Products. They've been gone for many years, replaced by the printing company where I was doing the training. The deja vu I felt when I walked into their offices was palpable.
Back then, I was working with Tinsey, a very articulate woman who told me she was in charge of the copier decision. Shortly after our first meeting, I read a book that said salespeople should only work with the top dogs - not their underlings.
Since my contact was an administrative assistant, I realized I needed to rectify the situation immediately. I called Mr. Big directly and set up a time to meet. Then I prepared like crazy to ensure I did a great job.
Unfortunately, I never had a chance to capitalize on this opportunity. Tinsey came to the lobby to escort her boss's visitor to his office. When saw me, she demanded to know why I was there.
"I'm here to see Mr. Big," I replied, suddenly not so sure if the tactic I'd taken was appropriate. I was right. She proceeded to yell at me like I've never been yelled at before.
I was appalled. Mortified. And suddenly very light-headed and shaky. I fainted dead away right there in the middle of the lobby.
As you can imagine, I never did business with Tinsey or Trussbilt. But I sure did learn that once you're working with someone it's never appropriate to go around them without their knowledge. They'll get mad. Furious. It's a normal human reaction.
Today, to ensure my ability to work with whomever I want in an account, I always tell prospects, "Usually when I'm working with clients, I need to talk with the VP of Sales, Regional Sales Directors and sometimes even Marketing." Doing it this way prevents the people problems that can derail your sales efforts.
Lesson 3: How to Cut the Crap & Net it Out
The Kaplan Company was just down the street and around the corner from Trussbilt. When I walked in the front door, there were at least 30 desks filled with women who were busy doing order entry and handling customer service issues.
I told the receptionist that I wanted to speak to the person who made copier decisions. After a quick check with the boss, she escorted me past all those working women into his office.
"Sit down," he said gruffly. "You've got 5 minutes. Talk."
"If you're busy, I'll come," I said, trying to be gracious.
"Nope," he stated. " 5 minutes. Tell me why I should buy your product. Your 5 minutes is starting now."
I mumbled. I stumbled. I tried to engage him in conversation. I tried to explain that I needed more time. He wasn't one bit interested. After 5 minutes, he arose and said, "Your time is up. You can leave now."
That ticked me off. I told him he was rude and obnoxious. Then I turned and stormed out of his office past all those women, shouting back at him, "I'll never sell you a Xerox machine. You don't deserve to work with Xerox."
I know it's hard to believe, but I really did lose my cool. And I'm also sure that guy never wanted to work with Xerox again. But he had a point. I couldn't concisely state why he should listen to me.
I wanted to build a relationship and warm up the call. That made me feel better. He was a busy man who chose to use his time judiciously. I didn't respect his needs. After that cold-calling disaster, I learned to net it out. That lesson is even more important today than it was years ago.
The School of Hard Knocks can be brutal. If you're making sales calls, you know how tough it can be. Every time you're knocked down or out, you have to make a choice about how to react. Are you going to get up again? Will you learn from the situation?
The hardest thing in the world is to look at your own complicity in the situation, yet that where the maximum growth is for you and ultimately, the key to your long-term sales success.