When I was a kid my best friend and I decided to make a fortress in the woods. There was a ditch that we had to cross over to get to the place where we decided to build our stronghold, but the ditch was full of muddy water. Not to be deterred we put an old board over the ditch to make a bridge. With our bridge intact we thought of the muddy ditch as a defensive moat. We had the coolest fortress any 10 year old’s could build. That was, of course, until the bridge gave way under our combined weight and we were covered from head to foot in mud. The problem wasn’t that we didn’t have a bridge. The problem was that our bridge wasn’t strong enough to support the weight of two 10 year old’s. In today’s selling environment every company has a value proposition as part of its go-to-market strategy. The problem isn’t whether or not a company has a value proposition, the problem is the foundation of the value proposition. Does your company’s value proposition work in real life? Is your company able to deliver on the promises it makes to prospective and existing clients? If not, then you have a lot more at risk than just falling into a muddy ditch.
Author Michael Skok defines a value proposition as, “a positioning statement that explains what benefit you provide for who and how you do it uniquely well.” Professional salespeople usually do a very good job of articulating what their company does, how it benefits the customer/prospect, and how good their company is at what it does. When their company is able to live up to its value proposition, then it has merit and becomes a powerful, differentiating tool for the salesperson. A good value proposition is part marketing and part promise, but the promise part depends on the credibility of the company or salesperson. If the salesperson is the source of the problem, then they can be coached up or moved out. But what if the problem is more structural? What if a company’s value proposition is suffering because the company cannot deliver on its promises? This happens all too frequently in today’s marketplace. When a company cannot deliver on its commitments it’s not just the credibility of the company that suffers, but also the credibility of the salesperson. And since most salespeople make their livelihood by persuading their customers/prospects to accept their value proposition, credibility matters.
So, what advice would I give to a salesperson who is battling with a sub par value proposition?
- Address your concerns with management. It goes without saying that you should do this professionally. Make sure you look at yourself first. The last thing you want to do is be critical when your own house is not in order. But if your company’s failure to deliver on its promises are impacting your sales, you have every right to bring this to management’s attention. Don’t assume that management already knows or understands how serious the problem is.
- Offer to be part of the solution. One of the reasons criticism is often ignored is because the person making the criticism wants no part in fixing the problem. The problem may very well be above your pay grade or beyond your level of expertise, but let management know that you are willing to put some of your own sweat equity into finding a solution. This could change the response that your criticism receives, and it certainly won’t hurt for you to be seen a true team player.
- Call an audible. If your company is not able to deliver on part of its value proposition, omit or change what you actually say to your customer/prospect. Remember that your personal credibility is on the line here, not just your company’s reputation. For instance, if your company promises 24 hour service response time, but the best your local branch can promise is 48 hours, change your value proposition in this area. Don’t promise 24 hour service response time until your company is able to provide it. Of course this is based on the premise that your company recognizes its own shortcomings and will allow you make this change.
- Mum’s the word. Don’t throw your company under the bus in front of customers/prospects. It may be tempting to make yourself look good by blaming your company for its failures, but since you are a representative of your company all you would be doing is making yourself look bad. Take the high road. As long as you’re taking a paycheck from your employer, do everything you can to take care of your customer.
- Be willing to redeploy. Sometimes a company is unable or unwilling to change. Senior Management may have a form of organizational myopia that causes them to see serious flaws as just minor irritants. When these flaws become endemic it is a major catalyst as to why top sales talent start to leave. High performing sales professionals understand that their personal value proposition, and reputation, need to be in congruence with the company they work for. Problems occur, and the first response should never be to change scenery. But sometimes there is no other choice. It is a hard decision to make, but it is one to be considered if your company does not change.
- Perform your due diligence. I saved this one for last. If you are looking at a new sales opportunity drill down on your prospective employer’s value proposition before you go to work there. Make sure you are fully informed about any company you interview with. If a company’s word and deed are not aligned you may want to think twice before accepting their offer.
As a sales professional you have a responsibility to protect your own moral code. Never compromise in this area.
It has been five days since my position was eliminated and I joined the ranks of the unemployed. Nothing drives me more crazy than to have nothing to do. God created me to do, not to vegetate. So, I began networking as soon as I left the building of my former employer for the last time. The good thing is that I do have a network. LinkedIn has proven to be a valuable friend. It helps that I have cultivated friendships with people. The axiom that Zig Ziglar used to share, “People buy from people they like” applies to using your network in your job search. “People help people they like.” The resume has been updated. My suits have gone to the cleaner with freshly pressed shirts ready to go. I have even picked out some killer ties that are sure to impress. But the most valuable asset I have – what any job-seeker can have – is a winning attitude!
I remember seeing the musical Annie in London’s West End. The lyrics in one of the songs was, “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.” I can still hear the tune in my head. Those lyrics are spot on! A genuine smile comes from a good attitude, and a good attitude is absolutely necessary when searching for a new job. I call a good attitude a winning attitude, because a winning attitude will always achieve something. A person with a winning attitude understands that losing their job is only a temporary setback, not something permanent. A person with a winning attitude understands that most good things in life are hard won. A person with a winning attitude understands that an opportunity has been set before them and they are on a journey to find it. Lastly, a person with a winning attitude understands that there are people worse off then them. It is amazing that, by helping others, you are actually helping yourself. Seek out opportunities to be engaged in the lives of others. Do a charity walk or volunteer for a good cause. Find some way to give of yourself. It will give you a better perspective and rescue you from feeling sorry for yourself.
My next article will focus on networking.
Yesterday I lost my job. It pains me to write those words. I was so busy doing my job that I never stopped to think what it would be like to lose it. Earlier this year my company was acquired and merged with our once largest competitor. As is the case with most mergers, personnel decisions can take a while to play out. In my case I was just one of too many sales leaders in a region that needed to scale down. So, here I am joining the ranks of those looking for a new opportunity.
First, let me state that I am not worried. My faith assures me that God is completely in control of my comings and goings. Second, this article is really not about me. Many of you have gone through this, and still many more will go through it sometime in the future. Call it for what it is. Regardless of how someone becomes unemployed, it stinks. If you need a day or two to sulk and get all those negative emotions and feelings out of your system, go ahead and do so. As human beings God made us with an emotional component that we cannot deny. But once you have taken a few days to get your emotions sorted out, it is time to get down to the hard work of getting back up on your feet. With that in mind I am going to chronicle my mission to do just that. I will not mention the names of individuals or companies that I interview with, but I will share with you how the process is progressing in my life. Perhaps someone else will be helped by my own experiences. So, let us start.
The most beneficial, yet rewarding, thing you can do is to take a good, long honest look at yourself. It does not matter what you tell others about why you lost your job, you cannot lie to the person in the mirror. With the benefit of hindsight, what things would you have done differently in your previous position? Did you work as hard as you could? Did you complete projects on time? Was your work of high quality? Did you have a good attitude and get along well with your team members? You do not need to share the answers to these questions with anyone but yourself, but they are important questions to ask. We all have room for improvement. Now that you are in the market for a new opportunity, now is the time to identify those areas in which you need improvement and start working on them. Even if your job loss was due to a headcount reduction, and had nothing to do with your performance, invest some time in becoming a better you. Being honest with yourself should be the first step you take.
In the next article we will discuss developing a written action plan.
A former professor of mine brought a bucket of water and a sponge into the classroom. He let the sponge soak in the bucket of water while he gave his lecture. At the end of the lecture he lifted up the sponge. It was totally saturated. He asked the class, “How much more water can this sponge absorb?” The answer was obvious. The sponge could not absorb any more water. He then squeezed the sponge and wrung it out. The majority of the water contained in the sponge went back into the bucket. The sponge was able to absorb water once again.
As business people we are constantly learning, honing our craft. We are blessed to live in an age when we have the best sales and corporate trainers available. Self-improvement is one book or website away. But just like the sponge; there is only so much that a person can absorb. If we do not use what we learn then we eventually run into the law of diminishing returns. Sometimes there is too much learning coming our way. It can be like trying to take a drink from a fire hose. Keep in mind that it is not necessary for you to act on everything that you hear or read. Start with just one area that you want to improve. Small, measurable, and incremental steps allow us to squeeze the sponge which makes additional learning easier. As Master Yoda so famously said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Bernice had two different business encounters in the same week. The first encounter was a phone call from a highly irate customer. The customer had a valid gripe and bent Bernice’s ear about it for nearly 15 minutes. Three times the customer threatened to quit, but in the end he gave Bernice the opportunity to fix the problem. Bernice took advantage of the opportunity. She had the problem fixed to the customer’s satisfaction and retained a valuable client. The second encounter did not involve a loud, verbose complaint. One of Bernice’s customers called to inform her that her product was on the loading dock ready to be picked up. No advance notice. No complaint. The customer simply canceled and replaced Bernice’s product with that of a competitor. No doubt Bernice wished that encounter #2 was a complaining customer.
If you have a complaining customer it is easy to become frustrated and complain about the complainer. But in most cases all you are doing is wasting valuable time and ensuring that your complaining customer will become an ex-customer. Instead be thankful that the customer has done you the courtesy of tipping you off that they are unhappy. Just like Bernice experienced during her first customer encounter, the complaining customer is giving you a chance to make them happy and keep their business.
Be thankful for complainers.
In his best-selling book “To Sell Is Human”, author Daniel H. Pink introduces a Latin phrase that is probably new for most of us: Caveat Venditor. It means “seller beware”. We all know the antithesis of Caveat Venditor; it is Caveat Emptor: “buyer beware”. We live in an age when buyers have unparalleled access to information they never had before. Thank you, Internet. In his book, Pink points out that car buyers often know more about the vehicle they want to purchase then the salesperson. For the unscrupulous salesperson this is bad news. Buyers are wiser than they have ever been and are more difficult to deceive. But for the ethical sales professional Caveat Venditor is cause to celebrate.
Zig Ziglar is often quoted as having said, “People buy from people they like.” That is a fact. But let me add that people repeatedly buy from people they trust. For today’s sales professional it is not enough to be likable, you must be trustworthy. What if your prospective buyer knows more about what you are selling then you do? That is not outside the realm of possibility. Software sales professionals know this all too well. Their customers are often times quite capable of writing their own programs. They know the capability of their hardware. Bold promises that strain credulity are not going to fly with these people. Persuading buyers to act in their own self-interest is still very much a part of selling, but gone are the days when buyers are manipulated — and that is a great thing!
If you are a sales professional in today’s market the time has never been better for collaboration between you and your customer. Instead of one person selling and one person buying, the buyer-seller relationship is more of a business partnership. Negotiation is still there. Objections are still heard. But instead of an adversarial contest of wills, both buyer and seller are working together to solve problems and create opportunities. Exceptions will always be there, but that is why they are called exceptions. In my opinion there is no better time to be a sales professional then right now. And what of Caveat Venditor? For my brothers and sisters in the great profession of selling, it should be music to our ears.
Former Dodgers manager Leo Durocher is credited with saying, “Nice guys finish last.” The meaning behind this phrase is plain to anyone who has ever played the game of baseball. No matter how much you may like the guy on the other team you are playing to win. Personal relationships cannot enter in to how you play the game. There is a carry-over of that principle into the business world. We are playing to win too. But in the midst of winning there is a lot to be said for winning as a gentleman or gentlelady.
Your success in business has as much to do with the assistance other people provide you as it does with your own drive, determination, and talent. Sincere acts of appreciation go a long way. Calling people by their first name means a lot to that person. Recognizing that their time is just as valuable as your time is a common courtesy that many business people ignore or forget. I just returned from a visit to my company’s corporate offices. There are many individuals who occupy cubicles and offices that make it possible for me to do my job. I tried to visit with as many of those individuals as possible to say hello and thank them for their support. Why? Because I thought it was the kind thing to do. I was raised by my mother to thank people who do nice things for me. That lesson has carried over into my career. Is it a sign of weakness on my part? No. It would be a mistake to confuse my courtesy with a lack of job focus or determination. I happen to believe that being kind is a display of good character. It can only be an asset in one’s career.
President Harry S. Truman had a sign on his desk that read, “The Buck Stops Here.” The meaning behind the saying is clear. The person who stops the buck is the one who takes responsibility. “The Buck Stops Here” is a Franklinesque saying. But in the arena of providing memorable customer service experiences it is a rare commodity.
I remember a new salesperson I had hired who walked into every salespersons nightmare. He scheduled an appointment to meet with a prospective new customer in the trucking repair business. The salesperson met with the general manager of the prospect company and the call was going well – that is until the owner got involved. It turns out that this salesperson’s company had been fired by the prospect a few years earlier for bad service. The owner proceeded to excoriate the salesperson’s company. It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out the salesperson’s odds of winning this former customer back into the fold.
To be fair this salesperson was not to blame for the bad service this former customer had received. He could have truthfully said, “I wasn’t here when that happened” and maybe earned some sympathy from the business owner. Instead he displayed a high level of professionalism and personal responsibility. He became the poster-child for “The Buck Stops Here.” When the business owner finished his diatribe, this new salesperson said, “Sir, I am sorry for the poor service you received from my company. You had every right to fire us. As a representative of my company I will assume the responsibility for this failure. Please accept my sincere apology.” There were no excuses. No equivocating. No blaming. The business owner responded positively to the salesperson’s sincere apology. While he was not willing to consider doing business with the salesperson’s company at that time, he did leave the door open for future dialog when his current contract came up for renewal. That opportunity never would have happened had the salesperson taken the easy road and removed himself from the line of fire.
Owning the Buck does not mean taking the blame. It simply means taking responsibility – owning the situation. People who take responsibility are typically decision makers; shakers and movers in their organization. More often than not they are the go-to person that can get things done. Why? Because with taking responsibility comes trust, and if you work directly with customers, trust is the most valuable asset you can have.
I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.
I love baseball. I remember when the game reached out and grabbed me. It was Friday, August 22, 1969. My grandfather was a member of the Marconi Club, an Italian-American fraternal organization in Kearny, New Jersey. Every year Marconi rented a bus and went to a ball game in New York City. That year the Marconi Club went to a New York Met game at Shea Stadium. 1969 was the year of the Miracle Mets and August of that season was when the Mets won 14 of 17 games and began to close the gap against the division leading Cubs. Baseball reached down deep into my heart that evening in Flushing, Queens. It created a bond between my grandfather and me that lasted until his passing. Baseball was my personal field of dreams long before W.P. Kinsella wrote his book “Shoeless Joe” on which the movie “Field of Dreams” was based.
Like any kid growing up in Northern New Jersey in the 60’s and 70’s, I wanted to emulate my big league heroes. My dream was to be the starting third baseman for the New York Mets. But in order to make my dream come true I had to learn how to play the game. There was one thing standing in my way as a kid playing Little League — I was terrified of the ball. When the pitcher threw the ball I instinctively flinched. I was terrified that the ball was going to hit me in the head. My grandfather gave me the right advice. “Face your fear!” I wanted to face my fear. Each time I was on deck I said to myself, “Don’t flinch. Don’t flinch”. But when I got to the plate the fear was overwhelming and I would flinch after the ball left the pitcher’s hand.
My coach did not give up on me. He knew how scared I was, so he took the time to throw me batting practice. He started off lobbing the ball slowly and then increased the speed. Eventually he was throwing the ball at the same speed as most Little League pitchers, and I was making contact when I swung the bat. My coach said to me, “If you can hit the pitches I throw, why not the pitches by another team’s pitcher?” He was right. My confidence soared. But my triumph over flinching in the batter’s box was incremental. The first step was not flinching. I remember standing there and letting the pitcher throw the ball. I never swung the bat and struck out looking. But at least I didn’t flinch! That was a first. Finally I worked up the courage to swing, but still struck out. Eventually my new found confidence in the batter’s box translated into success. Not only didn’t I flinch, but I swung and got a hit! After the first hit I couldn’t understand why I had been afraid of the ball to begin with. I had been paralyzed by fear of something I thought I could never do. With the help of a patient coach, and determination, I learned how to hit.
What challenge are you facing that you feel like you cannot do? It may be true that you are not capable of doing it yet. Some skills are acquired by doing. My chosen profession is sales. I learned how to sell not only by classroom instruction, but by watching accomplished salespeople display their craft and then adopting it myself. The old joke starts with the question, “How do you get to Broadway?” Comedian Jack Benny would answer, “Practice, practice, practice!” It doesn’t matter whether your challenge is selling, public speaking, or presenting an idea to senior management. Face your challenge the way I did – incrementally. If you get nervous at the idea of speaking in public, find a group of co-workers or friends that would be willing to listen to a brief 5 minute talk. Making sales calls? Role play with your manager, fellow sales reps, or other people in your organization. The important thing is to transfer the skills you develop in practice into real life. Don’t measure yourself by the standard of perfection. Allow yourself room to improve. The best at anything developed their skills over time. You are no different. With small, measurable, and incremental strides you will rise to the occasion and meet your challenge.