How I Know What I Know About Selling

Recently, a salesperson asked me how I know the frameworks in my three books work, but particularly the ones in Eat Their Lunch and The Lost Art of Closing.

I had a slide deck professionally designed. The outcome for this deck was answering the question, “Why should I do business with you and your company instead of my current supplier.” It worked well enough, allowing my team to tell our story (something marketing people find more valuable to clients than it is in practice). It also allowed us to explain why we do what we do different from our competitors, creating separation from the market. Naturally, it had the trophy slide, which included all of the big logos we had in our client portfolio.

This deck was in service for years and faithfully updated. However, as the market changed, I began to struggle to help my clients make the changes they need to make to succeed. I knew what changes they needed to make, but rather than make those changes, they would stay with their existing supplier, or hire my company without making the changes. I wasn’t doing an outstanding job making my case, and in a moment of frustration, I built a new slide deck.

The New Deck

I built this deck intending to teach my clients and dream clients why they had to change. That is what we do in sales; we help our client’s change their results. Otherwise, why play at all?

The deck I built did not look anything like my professionally designed deck based on the best practices, as defined by marketers. It violated all of the rules. Many of the slides contained nothing but raw data. If it were a traditional deck, you would say it had too much information, but I wanted the client to see it in its raw format, with no interpretation. The slides that followed the raw data were charts I created in Microsoft Excel; it was clear that I had not had the deck professionally designed, because I wanted the client to see the trend line for themselves.

I clipped newspaper articles into Evernote for years, so I went back over those articles and captured images of the headlines and some of the money quotes. I supported the themes in the sections with data and with my company’s experience and internal data.

The First Call

The first time I used my new deck was in a quarterly business review with an existing client in 2002. I wanted them to make changes to their policies, and I wanted to provide them with the context that would help them understand what I understood. The engagement with the content was excellent, and I did a sufficient job guiding them through the ideas.

My focus was on how the trends and their implications were preventing my client from producing the results they needed. I focused on the strategic outcomes and nothing else. The conversation was among the best I had ever had with a client’s team, and we were talking about why they needed to change. By the end of the meeting, they believed they needed to change, and not because I alone convinced them. They had participated in deciding what things meant.

At the end of the meeting, one of the managers asked me if he could have a copy of the slide deck. When I asked why he wanted it, he told me he needed to brief his leadership team later that afternoon. I agreed to give him the slide, he thanked me, and then he asked me to remove my logo.

As I left the meeting, I realized the impact that the deck had on my client. I also recognized that I now had a Trojan horse inside my client’s four walls. It not only changed minds, but it began the conversation around change, changes they eventually made.

Saying Goodbye to the Old Deck

The outcome of the meeting using the new deck was so much better than the old deck. No one had ever asked for that deck, and it never did anything to create the type of engagement the new presentation had provided. The old slide deck was lean back content, with client’s sitting passively while I talked to them. The new one was lean forward content, causing the client to ask questions, and not only of me but of each other.

Even though I had the old deck on my laptop, I never had to use it. The new deck was more interesting to clients, and it sparked the kind of conversation where they discovered something about themselves.

How I Know What I Know

I am grateful that I grew up in a highly competitive, highly commoditized business, the kind of environment that causes one to learn how to sell. When you can’t lean on your company’s history, your solutions, or any other external factor, you become the value proposition. While it might have been nice to have some external factor that might have made selling easier by creating some compelling differentiation, I would have been deprived of having to work on myself.

I am not a researcher, not that you would know that by the way I read and study the things that interest me, the things I want to learn, and the things that are important to my clients. I have never developed theories and then set out to study them to create a framework or a book or some strategy. Everything I know, I learned from doing the work myself, calling prospects, making sales calls, nurturing relationships, and working to displace my competitors. The books that I read provided me with the concepts that helped me think about what I was doing, showing me things that I would not have seen had I not read them. Books can’t teach you to sell; they can only help you sell better.

I write from the experience of a salesperson because I am one. While I love research, I believe that research and theories are one type of knowledge, and experience is an entirely different type of expertise. I only know what I know because I have done it myself, and because I have helped others repeat it.

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