“Selling is more difficult now that it was just a couple of years ago.” Most of the participants in my sales seminars nod solemnly when I make that statement. And then they begin to fidget in their seats when I follow that up with this: “And it will be more difficult next year than it is today.” They become really uncomfortable when I extend that idea: “And it will be increasingly more difficult every year thereafter.”
That’s a sobering truth that we don’t like to face. Yet, just a little bit of reflection will convince us of the likelihood of that statement holding true. Aren’t the products and services you sell growing more complex and sophisticated all the time? Aren’t the demands of your customers growing more complex also? Aren’t the processes that you use to do your job effectively growing more intricate every year? Isn’t competition growing more challenging every year? Isn’t your company changing rapidly, and expecting you to be a part of those changes?
Now, ask yourself one more question. What’s the likelihood that one day in the near future all of these trends will stop on a dime and everything will become simpler?
You know the answer. The job of the field sales person will continue to grow more complex, more challenging and more difficult for the foreseeable future.
So what does that mean to you? It means that you will need to continually change and adapt constantly. It means that you will need to become proficient at learning new things and improving yourself. It means that, from this point on, you will have two jobs:
- Doing your job
- Constantly changing and improving yourself.
At first this seems unfair. There was a time, not so long ago, that a field sales person could pay his/her dues, put in a strenuous few years, and then begin to coast as you leveraged the relationships you created and the product knowledge you gained. Those days are gone. In their place is the time compressed, stress laden, constantly changing atmosphere we currently inhabit.
It may seem unfair. You may have been born a few years too late. But, really, it’s not so different than other components of our economy. Aren’t manufacturers expected to constantly improve their products, and every now and then bring out a breakthrough new technology? Isn’t your company continually improving its processes? Aren’t your suppliers constantly bringing you ideas and services? Don’t your customers strive to continually improve their businesses and their processes?
So why should field sales people be any different? They’re not. Welcome to the 21st Century. Welcome to the world of two jobs.
What does all this mean to you? It means that you have to work as diligently at improving yourself as you do at selling and serving your customers. It means that you have to invest time and money in your other job. It means you need to become serious about taking your performance up a notch — to the next level.
Where to start?
I like to compare this job of continually improving yourself as being like golf. Everyone can golf. I know that, because I have done it a couple of times. Eventually I put the ball in that hole. So, I, like millions of other people, can golf. But I can’t golf very well. That takes some effort.
If someone were to say to me that, by this time next year, I must be able to make my living golfing, I’d suddenly become very serious about it. I’d find the best golf coach I could find, and arrange a whole series of lessons. I’d invest money in the best clubs I could get. I’d spend hours every day practicing. I’d invest major amounts of time and money in improving my golf skills.
Continuous improvement in selling is like that. For the rest of your working life, you’re going to make your living, at least in part, by continually improving yourself. And, while everyone can do it, not everyone can do it well. Those people who learn to improve themselves well to grow faster and better than their colleagues, will be those sales people who will enjoy increasing income, more fulfillment, opportunities for greater challenge, and a satisfying personal life. It’s like golf. If you want to become better at it, you’ll invest time and money in improving your game. Here are some ideas to help you along.
Start with a commitment of time and money.
Begin by accepting the idea that constant improvement is now part of your job, and make a decision to take it seriously, to invest time and money every week in the process. Remember, it’s like golf. To get good at golf, you’d invest time and money. To become proficient at continuous improvement, you need to invest time and money also.
Focus on best practices.
I recently received a phone call from VP of Sales who said he was looking for the latest, new state-of-the-art selling techniques. I replied that he wasn’t going to find much of that. Almost all the behaviors of highly successful sales people are the same as they were a hundred years ago. The applications are more sophisticated, but the core behaviors are the same. Sales is still about creating relationships, understanding the customer, matching your product/service to the customer’s needs, negotiating next steps, leveraging satisfaction, planning and preparing properly.
There is no magic to selling, and there are no secrets. Those are just enticing words designed to sell the latest sales book. Instead of magic and secrets, there are best practices and core competencies.
Every profession in the world has evolved a body of knowledge about how to effectively practice in that professional. That body of knowledge is generally available to all the practitioners of that profession, and becomes the standard by which professionals in that field are judged.
Every time I get on an airplane, I’m comfortable in the knowledge that my pilot has learned the best way to fly this plane, and it doesn’t much matter who the pilot is, everyone of them has been trained in the best practices.
When I review the financial statements my accountant has prepared, I’m confident that those statements reflect her disciplined use of best accounting practices, and that every other accountant would recognize them.
When I go in to see my doctor for my annual physical exam, I’m confident that he is using the best practices of his profession. That if I went to another doctor, because there is a recognized way to do this, the process and the results will be very similar.
And so it is for every profession. It’s the way the world progresses. We build on the wisdom and experience of those who have gone before us. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it has already been around for generations.
Why is it, then, that we think that every sales person has his own way of selling and that is OK? Why is it, then, that we think sales people should learn by trial and error, on the job? Would you expect your pilot, doctor, or accountant to figure it out for themselves? Are there any self-taught professional golfers out there?
There are best practices for the job of field sales person. If you are going to continually improve, you need to study those practices.
It’s what you do, not what you know.
Occasionally I come across a sales person who says something to the effect of this: “I knew all that.” Too bad, he/she missed the point.
The point is, continuous improvement is all about what you do, not just what you know. In other words, once you understand the best practices, you need to incorporate them into your routines. It is not enough just to know, you must do. Life is not about academics, and we don’t get paid for what we know. We get paid for the results we bring as a result of the actions we take.
If you are going to grow, you need to be constantly prodded to put into action those things that you already know. Most human beings, left to themselves, would rather watch TV and goof off than do the hard work of continually improving themselves.
Back to our golf analogy. I know how to grip the golf club, I know how to set up the shot, and I know how to swing correctly. But I very rarely do it! My problem isn’t what I know; it’s what I do.
So it is with sales people. Ultimately, continuous improvement is about what you do. It’s one thing to know something, it’s another to consistently put that knowledge into action.
I recall Isaiah Thomas, the superstar guard for the Detroit Pistons during their Bad Boy days. Isaiah had a new home built with an enclosed mini-basketball court. Why? So he could practice foul shots in his off time. Isaiah knew how to shoot. He had practiced that shot tens of thousands of times. But he was not as good at it as he could be, so he continued to practice.
How about you? Do you know it all? Or are you, like Isaiah, dedicated to continuously improving what you do?