The Books That Taught Me How to Sell

I had brain surgery 90 days before I went back to working in my family’s business. At the time, I was not allowed to drive, a difficult obstacle to overcome when you have to book sales meetings—or if you need a few things from the grocery store. My younger brother would chauffeur me to appointments until the time I was frustrated by with the realization that my doctors would never release me to drive, even though I only ever had one seizure.

While I had always been a reader, during my recovery, I started reading a book a day. I told my neurologist that I was sure my brain was making new neural pathways and that it was on fire. He listened patiently and then told me there was no evidence that my theory was accurate and that it was more likely I was compensating for losing a significant part of my brain. We didn’t yet fully understand neuroplasticity, and it turns out both of us may have been correct.

At some point, I started picking up books on sales and business. The first book I stumbled upon was SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham. If you heard my story behind my book, The Lost Art of Closing, it was the three pages where Rackham described “the advance” as a key to success in sales. Once I understood I needed a commitment for another meeting, selling got quite a bit easier. I wrote a list of questions for each part of the SPIN model and started to work towards Implications (clumsily, I might add) and needed payoffs.

The book was so helpful that I picked up Major Account Sales Strategy, Rackham’s second book—and in some ways, his better book. I had been winning large accounts in California, but I didn’t have a very strategic view or a process. Mostly I just called on people who spent a lot of money in my category. Major Account Sales Strategy provided me with frameworks for thinking about big deals. I eventually read everything Rackham wrote and multiple times.

One book I picked up appeared to be new, but it was quite old at the time I picked it up. The book was Consultative Selling by Mack Hanan. Parts of the book were difficult for me, but what I learned that was useful was Hanan’s idea that you shift the conversation away from price to the increased profit the client will make by adopting your solution. The application of this idea made it easier for me to start sharing the soft costs my clients were not calculating in their overall costs.

The Miller Heiman books were both beneficial, The New Strategic Selling and The New Conceptual Sale. The first had me looking at stakeholders differently, even though the evolution of my thought here shows up very differently in Eat Their Lunch, which you might expect since 34 years have passed since they first published Strategic Selling. I don’t remember New Conceptual as well, but I remember it caused me to take sales calls seriously enough to plan them.

I read all of Stephen Covey’s work before my brain surgery, and even those books were not on sales, they caused me to recognize I had to improve who I was before I could improve my sales results. They also led me to read a lot more books on business improvement.

Some books that were not sales-related on their face were valuable to me. One of those books was Tom Peter’s Circle of Innovation, a book that made me think deeply about differentiation and allowed me to put technological solutions long before my larger competitors could do so, grabbing a competitive advantage in big deals. Another was Michael Hammer’s The Agenda: What Every Business Must Do to Dominate the Decade. From this work, I took the idea that my business existed to take care of its customers. I started to present how what I did for my clients helped them serve their customers. Pondering that idea for a while is an excellent way to get better at selling.

One of the more useful and transformative books I read was Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play by Mahan Khalsa. The ideas and the dialogue in this book massively improved my ability to have conversations about the changes the customer would have to make to produce the results they needed.

There were hundreds of other books on sales and business I read, all of which had some value, even if I didn’t recognize it right away. These few were core to my development and the ones I remember as changing my sales results.

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