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How to Sell Anything to Anyone Anytime

The Five Most Common Mistakes Salespeople Make

by Dave Kahle

Over the decades that I've been involved in sales, I've worked with tens of thousands of sales people. Certain negative tendencies -- mistakes that sales people make -- keep surfacing. Here are my top five. See to what degree you (or your sales force) may be guilty of them.

Mistake Number One: Over concern with strategy instead of tactics

Gather a group of sales people together around a coffee maker and listen to the conversation. After the obligatory complaints about all types of things, the conversation inevitably drifts to questions of strategy. How do I accomplish this in that account? How do I get this account to this?

In my seminars, I often hold a "clinic" where sales people write down any sales-related question and submit it to the group for discussion. These questions are almost always related to strategic issues. In one form or another, they ask the same question: How do I achieve this effect in this account?

While this thoughtfulness is encouraging, it reveals an erroneous mindset. The belief behind these questions is this: "If I can only determine the right sequence of actions of my part, I'll be able to sell this account, or achieve this goal."

This, unfortunately, is rarely the case. These sales people, based on this erroneous belief, are looking for a solution in the wrong place. Almost always, the answer to the question is not a more clever strategy, but better execution of the basic tactics.

It is like the football team whose players don't tackle well, miss their blocks, throw erratic passes, and fumble frequently. The solution is not a better game plan. The solution is better execution of the basic tactics. Learn to do the basics effectively, and the strategy will generally take care of itself.

The real problem with this over-concern for strategy is that it seduces the sales person's energy, substituting the pursuit of a better strategy for the real solution - better execution of the basics.

When I'm asked these "strategy" questions, I find myself asking the sales person to verify the fundamentals. Have you identified the key decision makers and influencers in the account? Have you created trusting personal relationships with each of them? Have you understood the customer's situation at a deep level? Have you presented your solution in a way that gives them reason to do business with you? Have you effectively matched your proposal to the intricacies of the customer's needs?

This line of inquiry almost always reveals a flaw in tactical execution. It's not the strategy that is the problem, it's the tactics. Focus on doing the basics first, and the need for a clever strategy diminishes.

Overcoming this tendency

Clearly the solution is to focus on improving the basics. What skills are the "blocking and tackling" of sales? Here's a short list:

- gaining access to the right people

- making a positive first impression

- creating rapport and building positive business relationships

- asking questions and understanding the customer

- making an articulate presentation

- gaining commitment for action

- following up to assure satisfaction.

Now that you have the list, how do you improve these skills? The same way a football or basketball player would improve their skills. You study the techniques, and then you practice them. That means that you search for good models of each of these skills. It could be books, seminars, audio program, Internet classes, or the teaching of a competent manager or sales trainer. Regardless, you regularly expose yourself to the best practices of those who have a record of success. You gain ideas from them, and then you practice.

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Dave Kahle
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I have been a Detroit Pistons fan for years. In their Bad Boy days, they were led by All Star Isaiah Thomas. One year, the Detroit News reported that Isaiah had a new home built. In it, he had a basketball court, so that he could practice free throws in his spare time. Imagine that. An All Star practices the most basic basketball skill in his free time. That dedication to excellence in the basics is exactly the same thing to which I'm referring. Focus on the basics, practice forever.

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Mistake Number Two: Lack of thoughtfulness

The typical field sales person has, as a necessary and integral part of his/her personality, an inclination toward action. We like to be busy: driving here and there, talking on our cell phones, putting deals together, solving customer's problems -- all in a continuous flurry of activity. Boy, can we get stuff done!

And this high energy inclination to action is a powerful personality strength, energizing the sales person who wants to achieve success.

But, like every powerful personality trait, this one has a dark side. Our inclination to act often overwhelms our wiser approach to think before we act.

In our hunger for action, we neglect to take a few moments to think about that action. Is this the most effective place to go? Have I thoroughly prepared for this sales call? Do I know what I want to achieve in this call? Is this the person I should be seeing, or is there someone else who is more appropriate? Is it really wise to drive 30 miles to see this account, and then backtrack 45 miles to see another?

Customers these days are demanding sales people who are thoroughly prepared, who have well thought-out agendas, and who have done their research before the sales call. All of this works to the detriment of the "ready-shoot-aim" type of sales person.

On the other hand, those who discipline themselves to a regular routine of dedicated time devoted to planning and preparing will find themselves far more effective than their action-oriented colleagues.

Overcoming this tendency

Unfortunately, it almost always takes hard work and discipline to overcome a bad habit that is easy for us to create. That is true of this tendency. The habit of thoughtless action is easy to create, because our basic personalities so easily gravitate toward action.

To change it, we need to use discipline to create the habit of thoughtfulness. I'd suggest that you build dedicated planning time into your schedule. During this time, you plan and prepare (in other words, you think about it before you do it). Here's the schedule of thinking time that I recommend:

- an annual planning retreat of one to three days

- a monthly planning time in which you create a specific plan for that month

- a weekly time to plan and prepare for the coming week

- a daily planning time at the end of every day to prepare for the next

- a two-minute thought-time before every sales call to focus and ground yourself in the objectives and strategies for that call.

All of this sounds like a lot, and it is. My rule for years has been to spend 20% of my time planning and preparing (thinking about) the other 80% of my time. The discipline of thinking about it before you do it will make you much more effective in the 80% that is dedicated to actually doing it.

Want to dig deeper into this issue? Consider the book, 11 Secrets of Time Management for Sales People, or the Time Management training course in the Sales Resource Center.

Mistake Number Three: Contentment with the superficial

There are some customers on whom you have called for years, and yet the sales person doesn't know any more about them today than he/she did after the second sales call. These are accounts where the sales person cannot identify one of the account's customers, explain whether or not they are profitable, or identify one of their strategic goals.

Most sales people have a wonderful opportunity to learn about their customers in deeper and more detailed ways, and often squander it by having the same conversations with the same customers over and over. They never dig deeper. They mistake familiarity with knowledge.

What a shame. I am convinced that the ultimate sales skill -- the one portion of the sales process that, more than anything else, determines our success as a sales person -- is the ability to know the customer deeper and in a more detailed way than our competitors know them.

It's our knowledge of the customer that allows us to position ourselves as competent, trustworthy consultants. It's our knowledge of the customer that provides us the information we need to structure programs and proposals that distinguish us from everyone else. It's our knowledge of the customer that allows us to proactively serve that customer, to meet their needs even before they have articulated them.

In an economic environment where the distinctions between companies and products are blurring in the eyes of the customer, the successful companies and individuals will be those who outsell the rest. And outselling the rest depends on understanding the customer better than anyone else.

Overcoming this tendency

Here's where a couple of these negative tendencies spill over on one another. The best way I know to overcome this tendency toward superficial is to think about the sales calls you want to make, to think about your customers, and to plan, before you are in front of the customer, what information you would like to gather. And the best way to do that is to ask yourself what you would like to know about this customer. Create a series of questions that you ask yourself. Questions like these:

"Do I know how this product application fits into the rest of their systems?

Do I know what the consequences are for them if they don't get a good solution to this problem?

Do I know what the positive implications are for them if they do solve this problem, or achieve this objective?

Do I know what those consequences and implications mean for the key decision makers?

Do I know how this account makes their money or how they appeal to their customers?

Do I know this account's vision of their business, their mission and their basic strategy?

Do I know what motivates the key decision makers?

This is just a start, but you have the idea. Once you create a set of questions for yourself, the next step, for any question for which the answer is "no, I don't know that," is to seek out that information.

When you seek and discover the information prompted by these questions, you'll gain a deeper understanding of your accounts.

Want to dig deeper into this issue? Consider the book, Question Your Way to Sales Success. Click here.

Mistake Number Four: Poor questioning

This is a variation of the mistake above. I am absolutely astonished at the lack of thoughtfulness that I often see on the part of sales people. Most use questions like sledge hammers, splintering the relationship and bruising the sensibility of their customers by thoughtless questions.

Others don't use them at all, practically ignoring the most important part of a sales call. They labor under the misconception that the more they talk, the better job of selling they do, when the truth lies in exactly the opposite approach.

And others are content to play about the surface of the issue. "How much of this do you use?" "What do you not like about your current supplier?" Their questions are superficial at best, redundant and irritating at worst.

The result? These sales people never really uncover the deeper more intense issues that motivate their customers. Instead, they continually react to the common complaint of customers who have been given no reason to think otherwise: "Your price is too high."

Fewer sales, constant complaints about pricing, frustrated sales people, impatient managers, and unimpressed customers - all of these as a result of the inability to use the sales person's most powerful tool with skill and sensitivity.

Overcoming this tendency

We're back again to planning and preparing. This time, the focus of our planning time is creating good questions. By taking the time to prepare good sales questions, word for word, before the sales call, we insure that our questioning will be far more effective than if we rely on our spur of the moment ability to create on the fly. Spend some of that planning time doing just that - creating good questions word for word.

You'll find a much more detailed explanation of the role of good questions and how to create them in my book, Question Your Way to Sales Success.

Mistake Number Five: No investment in themselves.

Here's an amazing observation. No more than 5% of active, full time professional sales people ever invest in their own growth. That means that only one of 20 sales people have ever spent $20.00 of their own money on a book on sales, or subscribed to a sales magazine, taken a sales course, or attended a sales seminar of their own choosing and on their own nickel.

Don't believe me? Take a poll. Ask your sales people or your colleagues how many of them have invested more than $20.00 in a book, magazine, CD, etc. in the last 12 months. Ask those who venture a positive answer to substantiate it by naming their investment. Don't be surprised if the answers get vague. You'll quickly find out how many sales people in your organization have invested in themselves.

Sales is the only profession I know of where the overwhelming majority of practitioners are content with their personal status quo.

Why is that? A number of reasons.

Some mistakenly think that their jobs are so unique that they cannot possibly learn anything from anyone else.

Still others think they know it all. They have, therefore, no interest in taking time from some seemingly valuable thing they are doing to attend a seminar or read a book.

Some don't care. Their focus is hanging on to their jobs, not necessarily getting better at them.

But I think the major reason is that the overwhelming majority of sales people do not view themselves as professionals and, therefore, do not have professional expectations for themselves. They worked their way up from the customer service desk or they landed in sales by chance, and they view their work as a job to be done, not a profession within which to grow.

They are content to let their companies arrange for their training or development. And between you and me, they would prefer that their companies really didn't do anything that would require them to actually change what they do.

Overcoming this tendency

Decide to fix it. It really is that simple. If you rarely, if ever, actually invest in your own growth, then decide to fix it. Decide to view your job as a profession, and decide to be a professional. That means that, of course, you'll invest in your own growth.

Once you make that decision, then it's easy to come up with resources to do so. Decide to go to at least one seminar a year, and start watching your mail box for likely suspects. Decide to read a book once a month, and visit the library or your local book store regularly. Decide to expose yourself to new and good ideas, and regularly visit the websites and newsletters that support sales people.

Once you decide to do it, the doing is easy. It's the decision that's required.

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These are the five most common negative tendencies that I see. It may be that you and your colleagues are immune to these dampers on success. Good for you. But if you are not immune, and if you spot some of your own tendencies in this list, then you are not reaching your potential for success. You have tremendous potential for success -- for contentment, confidence and competence - that is being hindered by these negative behaviors. Rid yourself of these negative tendencies, and you'll begin to reach your potential.

About the Author

Dave Kahle is one of the world's leading sales authorities. He has written ten books, and presented in 47 states and ten countries. He's personally worked with more than 300 companies, and helped thousands of sales people, sales managers and sales executives be more effective. Sign up for his free weekly Ezine, "Thinking about Sales," and contact him to help your team sell better!

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