Questions: The Answer to Sales

Why can’t I compete anymore?

Mitch’s drive off the second tee was pretty good, a slight fade landing nicely in the fairway. Harry wondered when Mitch would get around to telling him the real reason why they were on the course this morning.

The call had come a week before, Mitch phoning out of the blue to invite Harry to play a round of golf. “I have an ulterior motive,” Mitch had said. “I want to talk to you about a career issue I’ve got.”

Though they spoke on the phone from time to time, they hadn’t seen each other for almost four years. Now Mitch had something on his mind. But what? The conversation so far had been limited to catching up on wives, kids and current events. Mitch was fun to be with, as always—outgoing, upbeat, confident. But now the cheerfulness felt a little forced, and the confidence seemed brittle, as if it would shatter if he weren’t careful. That was new. So were the worry lines around his eyes.

You’ve been under some stress, buddy, Harry thought. Why don’t you tell me what this is about?

Harry’s drive was a good 20 yards beyond Mitch’s. As they began to walk up the fairway, Mitch finally came to the point.

“Bet you’re wondering about the career problem I mentioned,” he said.

That bet you might win,” Harry said, hinting that Mitch wouldn’t win their golf bet after his double bogey on the first hole. “What’s up?”

“I’m losing it. I can’t sell anymore.”

The mask of cheerfulness dissolved altogether as Mitch trudged across the grass, suddenly oblivious to the beautifully conditioned golf course and the clear, sunny morning. “I’m losing it, Harry,” he said. “I can’t sell anymore.”

“Ah,” Harry said when it became clear that Mitch was waiting for a response. “I get it. So you’re training to go on the Champion’s Tour.”

“I’m serious,” Mitch said. “Ever since you showed me the ropes back at Walco, when I started out, I’ve been a top salesperson — number one at three different companies. Or, rather, I was for, what, 12 years? But about two years ago, I started to slip. Lately it’s gotten worse—a lot worse. And I don’t know why! I’m good, Harry, you know I am. But now it ain’t working. I’m only 40 years old! I’m too young to be losing my grip.”

They reached their balls, dropped their bags, selected clubs, hit their next shots, and moved on. The conversation continued as they played, with breaks dictated by the requirements of a game that was no longer either man’s main concern.

“The most important things I ever learned about selling, I learned from you.”

“Harry, you’re the best salesperson I ever knew,” Mitch resumed. “You were my mentor and my role model. The most important things I ever learned about selling, I learned from you. You helped me become successful. And you’re still at the top of your game. I did some checking, and I know you’re a sales star at your new company. I want to ask you to help me figure out why I’m sliding.”

Mitch’s words hit Harry like a shanked five iron. The most important things you’ve learned about selling, he thought, came from the drivel I was spouting back then? I’m sorry to hear that, Mitch. I’m truly sorry.

“Whoa, slow down,” Harry said aloud. “What do you mean by ‘I’m sliding’ and ‘it ain’t working’? Give me some specifics.”

“Sure,” Mitch said bitterly. “Specifically, I was the top sales performer at every company I’ve been with since you left Walco. I got my current job five years ago and became the top performer there. But two years ago, for the first time since you took me under your wing, I missed my quota. I hit only 82 percent. Last year I hit 74 percent. Now I’m standing at 48 percent of year-to-date quota with just three months left in the fiscal year. Harry, four years ago I hit 140 percent and considered that unremarkable—for me.

“Want more specifics? Last week my sales manager actually called me on the carpet to discuss what she called ‘the erosion’ in my territory. And she was right. I haven’t added a new account in 18 months. Me, Mr. Charm-the-Birds-Out-of-the-Trees! I used to rain new accounts! Not a single new account in a year and a half.”

“My sales manager called me to discuss ‘the erosion’ in my territory.”

Harry flashed back to a scene of Mitch as a rookie, coming to Harry for approval after landing his first blockbuster account. “Mr. Charm-the-Birds-Out-of-the-Trees!” Harry had exclaimed, giving Mitch a high five. He winced at the memory. He still stuck his wedge shot near the pin, though.

“Why aren’t you landing new accounts?” Harry asked. “At what point in the sales process do things break down?”

“Well, for one thing, I’m having trouble getting to decision makers,” Mitch said. “I get bogged down with lower-level managers and sometimes even technical specialists. So no matter how great my presentation is, I’m not delivering it to someone with final buying authority.”

“I’m having trouble getting to decision makers.”

There’s more to this than I’m hearing, Harry thought, as he marked his birdie on the scorecard.

“You’re down two,” he said. “What else?”

“I don’t know,” Mitch said, shaking his head, “it just seems there’s no urgency to act anymore. Everybody’s kind of interested, everybody’s thinking about making a buying decision—but they want to go on thinking about it forever. The decision-making process drags on, and on, and finally it just kind of peters out.”

“Is that always true?” Harry asked. “Or do they eventually decide to buy from someone else?”

“After all the stalling, they just buy on price from the lowest bidder.”

“Yeah, I guess a lot of them do,” Mitch admitted. “Usually, after all the stalling and so-called agonizing, they just buy on price from the lowest bidder.”

“Why would they stall if they’re going to buy from the lowest bidder anyhow?” Harry asked.

Mitch flinched as if the question were painful as he sliced his tee ball into the woods. “Once in a while, they go with a competitor who charges more than we do,” he said. “Those are the losses that really haunt me. Our product and service package is at least as good as any in the industry. We’re a top-of-the-line outfit with a great reputation. I hate to say it, but there’s only one reason a customer would pay as much or more for any of our competitors’ products, and that’s if one of their salespeople just plain outsold me. But I don’t know how they do it!”

I could tell you in three words, Harry thought, but you’re not ready yet. He mulled a response while he pulled a six iron for his next shot. Then he said, “Let me see if I’ve got this straight. You’re having serious trouble adding new accounts. You often can’t get through to decision makers, and you can’t seem to generate any urgency with the people you do see. The buying-decision process either stalls or they buy from someone else—usually, but not always, based on price alone. Does that sound right?”

“Pretty much,” Mitch said.

“So, these problems are with new accounts. What’s happening with your current clients?”

“That picture’s not so hot either,” Mitch conceded. “At two large accounts, where I was their so-called ‘first call,’ I’m now number two or three. The competition is chipping away the mid-market, too, despite the great relationships I have with my clients. Again, I think it’s usually price. When it isn’t price…well, sometimes I hear, ‘I didn’t know you carried that product.’”

Mitch missed his first putt, jabbed at the second one and then picked up, down three after three holes.

Are you listening to yourself? Harry thought. Those don’t sound like “great relationships.” “I see,” he said, as they walked to the next tee. “What have you done to try to turn things around?”

“I’ve tried everything! I’ve tried more small talk to build better rapport, but everybody’s so busy that no one has time to talk anymore. It’s just, ‘Get to the point.’ So I’ve practiced my delivery in a dozen ways. I’ve customized my presentation—taken some material from the marketing department and made my own PowerPoint slides that really zero in on our key differentiating points. I’m convinced I have a better presentation than any salesperson in the company. And Harry, you know that when I get going, there aren’t many better. I’m stumped.”

“Everybody’s so busy that no one has time to talk anymore.”

Harry sighed, as they waited for the group in front of them to clear the green. Might as well get to it “Mitch, do you want to hear it straight?”

“Absolutely. Please.”

“All right then, I have two thoughts. First, you said nobody has time to talk anymore. It would be more accurate to say that nobody has time to listen to you talk. Second, whether you designed your presentation or the marketing department did, it doesn’t include any differentiating points at all. Because you deliver it before you have any idea what a differentiated need is.”

“Nobody has time to listen to you talk.”

Mitch stopped cleaning the grooves of his four iron with a tee. “What do you mean?”

“First, tell me this: You said the most important things you know about selling came from me. What, exactly, did you learn from me 15 years ago?” Harry braced himself as if he were about to take a beating.

“Are you kidding?” Mitch said. “I remember your favorite line: ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.’ You taught me that everything really important in sales starts with that. It’s all about enthusiasm during the pitch. If I act excited, the customer gets excited. With some charisma, I pitch my products confidently and convincingly. I gain credibility. If the customer finds me likeable and credible, then I’ve won their trust. ‘And a customer who trusts you will buy from you,’ you always said. You showed me some good techniques, too, but in the end, you said, it comes down to enthusiasm, credibility and trust. And to get those things, it’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.

“That’s what you taught me, Harry, and I know it’s true,” Mitch continued. “So how come I can’t seem to say it right anymore? Sure, people are busier, but has there been some other earth-shaking change I missed? Do they want to hear something different? Or is it me?

“Do I stink?” he asked, sniffing his golf shirt. “Have I grown a giant wart on my nose that’s visible to everyone but me? What the heck is going on, Harry? My career is going down the tube.”

Harry felt ill. Yep, he thought, that was my motto, all right: “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.” I guess I got you into this mess, Mitch. Now I need to get you out of it.

“The green is clear. Let’s hit first, then talk,” he said.

“It isn’t what you say and it isn’t how you say it. It’s what you ask.”

Harry squared his shoulders as they walked toward the green together. “Back then, I thought I was doing you a favor, Mitch, but I was wrong. Yes, I believed that selling was fundamentally about the gift of gab. I got by on it for years, and so did you, because we’re both unusually good at it. But I know now that it isn’t what you say, and it isn’t how you say it, either. It’s what you ask that makes the difference between success and failure. Everything—the whole ball of wax—is about what you ask. Want to know how those other sales reps took away your business without discounting? I can tell you in three words: They asked questions!

Mitch couldn’t believe his ears. “Give me a break! You mean I should qualify prospects? I said my career is in trouble, Harry, I didn’t say I just fell off a turnip truck. Of course I ask questions—whenever they give me five minutes to do it!”

Harry shook his head. “No, you only think you ask questions. Fact is, you don’t ask the right questions at the right times and in the right way to give you the information you need before your talking skills can even begin to help you.”

“How would you know?” Mitch asked.

“I know from every single thing you’ve told me,” Harry replied. “I don’t really have to ask this, but have you heard of Action Selling ®?”

“What’s that, one of those sales-training programs you always laugh at? I could use a laugh right now.”

“It’s a sales system, yeah. But this one I didn’t laugh at, Mitch. This one saved my career.”

“What are you talking about? You never had any…”

Harry cut him off. “This trouble you’re talking about? This thing where suddenly the old charm isn’t working anymore? It hit me about a year before it evidently hit you.”

Mitch stared in disbelief.

“I’m dead serious,” Harry said, marking his ball about 15 feet from the hole. “A few years ago I was you” — a chatty dinosaur, gabbing my way toward extinction, he thought—“my volume down, struggling to add new accounts, nobody with the time to talk to me. Or rather, to listen to me talk. I decided that maybe I was getting stale in the same old job—I had worked in the same place for six years. So I switched companies, partly for the change, partly because I figured I’d better move on while I still had what was left of my reputation as a top sales rep. I told you about the company I work for now.”

“A few years ago I was you—a chatty dinosaur.”

Yes, part of their earlier conversation had been about Harry’s new firm. He’d said he liked it there.

“Turned out they use a system called Action Selling ®,” Harry said. “The first thing they did was to put me in a course. You can imagine how I felt about that.”

Mitch smiled despite himself, remembering the sarcasm Harry used to heap on sales-training programs he was forced to attend. Harry claimed he could tell what a sales vice president had been eating for breakfast by the gimmicks expounded in the seminar the VP decided everyone needed this month.

Mitch’s chip stopped two feet from the hole. “Nice shot,” Harry said. Then he continued, “Well, I went in expecting the same old stuff. But I came out of this one realizing that I’d been selling for more than 20 years, and I had never actually known squat about how to manage a sales call. I was just a seasoned amateur, and that wasn’t cutting it anymore.”

“I was just a seasoned amateur.”

Harry sunk a long birdie putt on the fourth green, and then stood up straight with the putter dangling from his hand. “A few years ago I couldn’t imagine saying something like this about a sales program with a straight face. But, Mitch, my friend, I stand before you today as a Certified Action Selling ® professional. That’s why I know that you don’t understand a thing about asking questions. And that you’ll never dig yourself out of the hole you’re in until you do.”

“I guess you’d better tell me about it,” Mitch said. “What have I got to lose?”

“Wrong question,” Harry muttered under his breath. You don’t know it yet, Mitch, but this is about what you have to gain.