Remembering The Most Powerful Sales Lesson of My Life

Posted by Dave Kurlan on Tue, Sep 06, 2016 @ 15:09 PM

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Hold on for a moment and I'll share that lesson with you or, if you can't wait, scroll down to "How I Learned to (Really) Sell.  

If you had to choose a single idea, concept, tip, tactic, developing strength or strategy, which one do you think helps salespeople succeed more than anything else?

It is a difficult question to answer because while we have plenty of science to identify the biggest reasons why salespeople struggle and fail, simply fixing one of those isolated issues won't automatically translate to instant success.

For example, one salesperson might be failing because he needs so much to be liked.  But another salesperson, who doesn't have that issue, might be failing because he can't talk about money.  And yet another might be failing because his Sales DNA doesn't support hunting.  And a fourth might be failing because she lacks Commitment to sales success.  Those might be there single biggest weaknesses, but helping them to overcome their single biggest weaknesses without helping them with all of their other challenges won't lead to success.

So back to my original question, which one thing helps almost every salesperson succeed, even when they have other challenges?

Compared to what I usually write about, the science on this is a bit fuzzier but after more than 30 years of helping companies and their salespeople generate more revenue, I am certain that it all starts with sales process.  A staged, visual, milestone-centric process.  I've written a lot about sales process over the years and my most recent article, for Growth Institute, was one of the best.  

Sales process also causes one to ask, "Which sales process?"  This article answers that question but make sure you watch the video from that article - it brings the concept to life.

Regular readers should be familiar with my best-selling book, Baseline Selling.  Baseline Selling is both a sales process and methodology.  After 10 years, in response to all of the subscribers who have asked for an audio version of the book, the wait is over.  Michael Lenz did the narration and the audio book is now available.  You can order it here but if you are one of the first 5 readers to respond via email I will provide you with a promo code to receive a complimentary copy of the audio book! [Update - Congratulations to Jeff Woolf, Benjamin Barron, Brad Betson, Jeff Anderton and Scott McNeil - winners of the five promo codes.]

Let me share my favorite story from the book.

How I Learned to (Really) Sell

I learned to (really) sell from a career pots-and-pans salesman, Bob Jiguere, one of the top sellers at WearEver™ Aluminum from the 1940s through the 1960s. By the time he got to me in 1974, Bob was in his early sixties, and I had been with the company for just over a year, eleven months longer than most of us who began selling Cutco knives to people in their homes.

I will never forget the first call I went on with him, because it was so surprising in so many ways. First, the call was the complete opposite of the “features and benefits” selling that I had been taught to emphasize. Second…well, I should just tell you the story and you can draw your own conclusions.

We walked up to the third floor of a six-unit apartment building in Lowell, Massachusetts. We were calling on an eighteen-year-old girl who lived in the four-room apartment with her mother. Girls typically bought kitchenware for their hope chests; their mothers usually had well-established kitchen accessories. As we entered the apartment, I noticed that Bob didn’t have his samples with him. But I figured he wouldn’t need them, because this girl could not possibly afford a $250 (1974 prices) set of knives—never mind cookware, flatware, or china. I was sure she and her mother were destitute.

We all sat down at the table, an old gray, plastic-topped table with metal legs. Although Bob did talk with the girl, he spent most of his time talking with her mother. He asked her to make coffee, then cookies, and then complimented her baking.

We had been in there for about 45 minutes, and if it were my sales call, I would have been finished by now. But Bob hadn’t even started! He finally got around to asking the girl some questions—but why in the world was he asking these questions? “Would you ever like to be married?” “Would you ever like to have a family?” “Will you want nice things?” “Have you started putting things away?” “Do you have a hope chest?” “What’s in there?” “Are you helping her, Mom?” “If you found something really special and you really wanted it, could you put aside $10 a month?” I had been taught to present and build value by asking if a prospect was impressed with what I was demonstrating.  I didn’t know where he was going with these questions.

Finally, he sent me to the car for the samples. He opened them but didn’t demonstrate anything, didn’t explain anything, didn’t “build value,” or tell any stories about the knives. He just opened the display and sat there looking at the knives as if they were gold bullion.

Just then there was a knock on the door. It was the girl’s boyfriend, coming over to visit. I figured he was fairly possessive and jealous, because his first question was, “Who are they and what are they doing here?”

Well, the girl very nicely replied that “these boys are showing me some nice knives for when we get married.”

“You don’t need that shit,” he said.

I knew where this call was going. We were about 10 seconds from being back in the car and going on our next call.

Bob turned to her mother and said, “These punks are all the same today. All they want to do is get in your daughter’s panties.”

I was going to die, right there and then. I didn’t think it could get any worse, when her mother said, “You’re right! I want you out of my house!”

The punk replied, “Baby, you gonna let her talk to me like that?”

The girl said, “She’s right. Get out!”

Up to this point, I had been 100 percent wrong about everything that had happened. But even as I began to sense that Bob actually knew what he was doing, I couldn’t have predicted what would happen next. Mom said, “I don’t know how much you sell those knives for, Bob, but I’d like to get a set for my daughter—and another set for me.”

Bob said, “Of course. You are one sharp cookie and a hell of a baker, too. The two sets come to just $500. Do you have that under the mattress?”

The mother said, “Oh, Bob. You know me like a book. Come on into my bedroom and I’ll show you where I keep the money.”

He followed; she lifted the mattress, took out a wad of cash, peeled off $500, pinched his cheek, thanked him for coming, made us finish the cookies, and wished us well.

A dozen or so qualifying questions, no presentation, and he sells two outrageously priced sets of knives to a mother and daughter with no creature comforts or possessions to their name. If you were on that call, would you have sat up and taken notice? I sure did. Selling would never be the same again!

While selling has changed dramatically since then, the lesson has not.  He was ahead of his time and while he would have much to learn about selling today, that approach, integrated into a modern sales process, would fit in very nicely, thank you.

Topics: Dave Kurlan, Baseline Selling, sales process, sales methodology, sales tips, how to sell, sales lesson

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Best-Selling Author, Keynote Speaker and Sales Thought Leader.  Dave Kurlan's Understanding the Sales Force Blog earned a medal for the Top Sales & Marketing Blog award for six consecutive years. This article earned a Bronze Medal for Top Sales Blog post in 2016, this one earned a Silver medal for 2017, and this article earned Silver for 2018. Read more about Dave.

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