How time flies. I remember back in the mid 1970's when professional selling was easy and a whole lot of fun. We were Lone Wolfs back then. We controlled everything, we were professionals, we owned a patch of dirt. All we had to do to maintain ownership was to produce sales. We had our tools, a company car, trunk files, brochures, samples and a calendar/card file. As time passed, some of us even got car phones. Sure, we did call reports and had sales meetings, but make no mistake, we were pros. We owned that patch of dirt and most of the customers who were on it. If we chose to leave for greener pastures, most of our customers went with us. We had respect. Everything focused on relationships. I mentioned how I even remember my first sales training seminar, "Needs Satisfaction Selling." I was a rookie and having the time of my life. In fact, being a rookie was part of my strategy (although back then I didn't know I had a strategy) to develop relationships, especially with new accounts:
"Mr. Customer, I'm kind of new at this. I'm learning a lot. Can you help me understand
I called myself a rookie well past my fifth anniversary as a sales representative. Most purchasing agents felt sorry for me. They wanted to help. They wanted to teach. And, what better way to begin a relationship than to be the recipient of advice and counsel?
Words of wisdom
Everyone needs a mentor to become really good in sales. Sure, I treated my customers and potential customers as mentors. It made them feel good and it helped me build that relationship that was key to success in the 70's and 80's. But, we all have one or two special individuals in our lives that make a difference in our success as sales representatives: a former boss, colleague or professor, someone who turns the light on in our head and keeps it burning.
Those of us who have been successful in sales could probably write a book on lessons learned from our mentors. But, there are generally a few comments that stick with us for a lifetime. When it comes to relationship selling, two have stuck with me over the past 30 years:
"Establish a relationship with your customer, Rick. Build his trust, gain his respect and he'll tell you how to do business with him."
That's what relationship selling was all about. It worked. Cocktail lunches, ball games, golf, fishing trips and visits to a hunting lodge were all part of our repertoire. These were tools of the trade, relationship builders.
Getting to know your customer as a person, that's what it was all about. He became your friend. To do that, you couldn't spend most of your time talking about features and benefits or doing little product demos. No, you asked questions, questions about them, and then you shut up and listened. Another tidbit of advice from my mentor that stuck with me through the years emphasized that very thought:
"If you spend one hour with a customer and you talk for 45 minutes making a presentation about features and benefits, your company and God knows what else and the customer only talks for 15 minutes, you're a dead man. You'll walk out of there and your customer is not going to think much of you as a sales person, no matter how good your pitch was. But, listen to me, son, if you spend an hour with that customer, you ask a few questions and let him talk for 45 minutes about himself, the sale is 75% made. You'll walk away and the customer will think you are the greatest thing since peanut butter. You made a great sales call. How can he not think that when he spent 45 minutes telling you all about himself, his company, his family, and his problems? You alone have the control."
Change is the only guarantee in life
Things have changed in the last 20-30 years. We have gone through an evolutionary process in the world of professional sales. We cannot be Lone Wolves anymore. We cannot control every piece of data, every contact with our customer, or be in command of the total customer relationship. To succeed and grow as a professional in sales today we cannot afford to "own" the account. Buyers are more sophisticated today. Selling is more complex. It isn't good enough to just have product knowledge. We must have industry knowledge, market knowledge and, more importantly, we have to understand our customers' customers. To excel in sales today we have to educate our customers and help them make money. We must become total solution providers.