If You're Not Learning, You're Not Earning

Every day, I expect to learn or re-learn something that will have application in the future.  If it doesn’t happen, then shame on me.

The thrust of my post today is that the best sales people and sales leaders are driven not only by a desire to succeed, but they are driven by a need to learn.  They know they need to learn about some or all of the following as a regular part of their interactions with customers, with peers, and with their organizations:

  • What is my customer trying to accomplish?  What business issues are they experiencing?  What opportunities are they trying to capture?
  • What problems does my company solve?  What opportunities can we help customers to capture?
  • Who has experienced a situation like the one I find myself in right now?  Can I learn from their success or their failure?
  • (If I’m a sales manager)… how do I make sure that I am helping my team to understand what really matters to our customers?  Are there key questions I can ask or messages I can deliver to them?  Who can help me to sharpen my abilities in this area?
  • How can I do what I do better tomorrow than I did it today?
  • How have things changed since the last time I …(fill in the blank)?

And on and on….  You and I could probably list a hundred things that salespeople need to learn every day.  These are just a few examples.  The question to you, good reader, is this, “Do your sales leaders and salespeople understand the correlation between learning and success in sales?”

If they do understand the link between learning and success in sales, do they demonstrate an appetite for learning each and every day?  Are they self-aware enough to acknowledge what they don’t know?  Are they humble enough?  Do they encourage others around them or below them (organizationally speaking) to be active learners, or do they de-emphasize learning by their own lack of attention to detail or their own arrogance?

If you’re not sure about whether your sales leaders or sales people are driven by this need to learn that I have defined, then consider the following:

  • If they’re not actively learning, what assumptions are guiding their decisions and activities?
  • Are those assumptions necessarily correct?
  • What opportunities might we be missing if our sales leaders and sales people are not validating what they believe by learning, by questioning what they know?

If you are concerned at all about whether a “we know it already” culture has developed within your sales team, then get in touch with someone who can help.  There are great training firms like Huthwaite that can teach your existing team how to challenge their own assumptions, ask great questions, and help customers gain new insights.  And then, there are professional sales agencies like United Sales Resources that can immediately infuse a dose of brain power and sales talent into your organization.  Regardless of which path you choose, you must ensure that the people who are charged with selling your company’s capabilities are true learners who are able not only to apply the lessons they’ve learned in the past but who are also able to challenge, test, and adapt those lessons to the opportunities of the future.


To Support Innovation, We Must Create Value

I just read an article in Inc. Magazine, “To Innovate, We Must Make,” and the crux of the article is that rejuvenating manufacturing, actually making stuff again right here in the U.S.A., is going to be the key to awakening America’s innovation engine.  The article’s author, John Rogers, points to the fact that we have a shortage of skilled-labor here in America, and that labor shortage prevents us from being able to make (meaning make, test, break, rebuild, finish) new prototypes which are key to the process of innovation.  The article makes a case, albeit subtly, for more of the kind of education that will produce a new wave of skilled labor which will drive America’s new innovation engine.

Sounds good to me.

But I wonder, what will happen if American companies can’t afford to make investments into education or support those investments with their tax dollars?  Doesn’t the whole plan to develop a larger skilled labor force fall apart?  Does that mean that American innovation will be virtually wiped away for good?  Maybe, and that sounds really scary.

Let’s look at the possibility that American companies cannot afford to make or support investments into the creation of a new, larger skilled labor force.  Why would that be?  The answer, I think, lies in the fact that most American companies have been dealing with the steady pressure of commoditization, and therefore, reduced margins for a couple of decades now.  Buyers no longer see value in “the products” that companies have to offer, as the constant barrage of information via the web and the lack of differentiating messages from those companies make everyone’s offerings appear to be exactly the same.  On top of that, today’s buyers have very high expectations for product quality.

High expectations of quality… buyers who cannot appreciate the differences between one product and another… producers who are willing and able to play the low-price game… these are the forces that are naturally pinching off the profits that pay for innovations.  Which brings me to the point of today’s post….

How can American innovators (or for that matter, innovators anywhere) grab enough cash to support investments into education, the development of a robust skilled labor force, and “future value” (i.e. innovations that will become tomorrow’s must-have) products?  I believe they have to do more to earn a premium for the products they make and sell today.  Put in a different way, I believe that American innovators need to pay a great deal more attention to HOW their products are being sold, as the products themselves no longer differentiate.

The need for “value creation” in the selling process was first highlighted in the book, Rethinking the Sales Force, by Neil Rackham and John DeVincentis back in the late ’90s.  Rackham and DeVincentis were quite ahead of their time when they posited that how a product was sold had become more important to many buyers than what was being sold.  Sellers who seek to earn a premium for their products, the book suggests, must create value for buyers by helping them to gain insight on their own businesses.  Fast forward to 2011/2012, and the same challenge remains.  Only now, there are a great many sales organizations that understand that they need to focus on creating value for customers.  (How many can really do that is another question.  Hence, the need for professional sales firms like ours.  I digress.)

And so, the gauntlet is laid down.  If you innovators out there want to support the education and development of a skilled labor force which will better enable innovation in the future, then sell more effectively today.  Create insights and value for your customers.  If you don’t know how to do that, then get help now.  The future of American innovation is at stake.

Thanks for spending a few minutes reading today’s post.  If you like what you see, please either write a comment below, forward the link to our blog to your associates, sign up to join our mailing list, or drop me a line at matt@usr-llc.com.  If you prefer live human interaction like I do, then feel free to call me on 888-877-1956, extension 102.  I’d love to hear your feedback.


Breaking Down Barriers…You First!

While sitting down over a bowl of oatmeal this morning, I had a deep thought…well, deep enough by my standards to write a post about it. I thought about conversations I’ve had recently with customers and peers about their frustration with prospects and customers. I can summarize their frustration in the statement, “These customers won’t share enough information with us, and they won’t help us gain access to other key people in their business.”

Sound familiar? Whether you’re a sales coach, a senior leader, or a field sales executive, you’ve probably heard something like that. Maybe you’ve been the one saying it…. But if we’re to be truly customer-focused…if we’re really going to put ourselves in our customers shoes, we’d be asking a different question. We should be asking, “Why would they give me this information that I need? Why would they make that introduction to so-and-so? Have I earned that much of their trust?”

If we’re answering that question of ourselves honestly, I am willing to bet that we’d say more often than not that we haven’t earned enough of their trust yet. If you were in the customer’s shoes, would you give that extra bit of information to help a salesperson make a sale? Would you make that introduction between a seller and a key decision maker or influencer? What assurances would you need from the seller in order to feel comfortable enough to open up a bit more?

As sellers, what assurances can we give? Do words matter? Do deeds matter? Can we stretch the truth or be less than candid with a customer about our company’s capabilities and still expect the customer to be open with us?

Being honest, we should all say, “No,” to that last question. If we want customers to break down barriers for us, then we must first break down the barriers that we put between us and them. Be candid. Be competent. Ask for more from the customer only after you’ve shown them that you have their best interests in mind. You can’t fake that. They’ll see right through you. And up the barriers will go, once again.

If you are on the same page with me, feel free to drop me a line at matt@usr-llc.com, or comment on this post at your first chance. I’d love to hear from you.

Talent Wars: 2011

The Deadliest Catch… Whale Wars… Dirty Jobs… Cupcake Wars? I just had a great idea for the next reality / competition show for basic cable TV. Clearly, the bar isn’t set very high for these kinds of ideas, so I think I have a real winner on my hands.

I’ll call it, “Talent Wars: The Hunt for The Next Great Salesperson.” It will feature a group of lovable but struggling business owners who are fighting to keep their businesses alive and growing. Their challenge? They have to choose one great salesperson who will deliver results for their business out of a cast of dozens who look the part but lack the skill, motivation, or discipline to actually be effective on the job.

It sounds like great TV, doesn’t it? Sales candidates will have to face challenges with names like “The Objectionator,” “The Low-Reactor,” and “The Commoditizer” to prove their worth as salespeople, and the business owners will have to judge based on their own, unique criteria. Only the “luckiest” business owner will win the prize at the end of the season, and the rest will lose something significant. Some may even lose everything.

Screen tests begin soon.

Listening to Neil Rackham

I had the opportunity this week to spend some time with noted author and creator of the “SPIN Selling” model, Neil Rackham.  Neil is perhaps best known as the author of not only SPIN Selling but a few other, terrific business books, Major Account Sales Strategy, and Rethinking the Sales Force.  Neil is also the founder of Huthwaite, the company that I worked for before I founded United Sales Resources.  (In the spirit of full disclosure, I am fortunate now to have Huthwaite as a client, and I have a great deal of respect for that organization and for the people who work there.  If I appear in this blog to have a bias toward Huthwaite’s approach to consultative or value-based selling, it’s only because I do.)

Neil was speaking with a group of sales and organizational development leaders about issues that are significantly impacting the growth and the profitability of businesses today.  These “silent killers” as Neil and Huthwaite describe them, are all generally within a sales organization’s control to a degree, but they can be really tricky and, at times, painful to address.  One example of the “killers” was the “Feel-Good Funnel.”  (Look for Huthwaite’s white paper at www.huthwaite.com on this topic soon.)  As I was listening to Neil, my thoughts turned from the large companies that were represented in the room to the small to mid-sized businesses with whom USR typically engages.  I thought, ‘If the large companies represented in this room have overly optimistic views of their own sales pipelines, then smaller companies must suffer from the same overly optimistic feeling about theirs.’  They have no more analytical capability or more data to work with than larger companies.

In fact, small to mid-size companies often have very little or no data to support what is in their sales forecast…if they have a sales forecast at all.  As a small business owner myself, I understand how difficult it can be to make investment decisions when the future is even the tiniest bit uncertain.  Not knowing when you have a problem in your business pipeline is certainly worse than knowing.  And so… sipping my coffee this morning, I resolved that my staff and I will not only do everything in our power to help our clients capture their next, big opportunity, but we will do everything we can to help them see the future more clearly.  We owe them that.