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It’s no stretch to say that sales changed more in the last 25 years than in the 100 before that. The salesperson no longer comes bearing the latest news from the outside world—that information is on every desktop. To succeed in the current culture, the salesperson has to be a problem-solver and a confidant, more a partner than a vendor of products.
In these 21 interviews, top-performing salespeople—on the front lines and in advisory roles—outline the lessons they’ve learned. It’s no longer enough to be aggressive and have a good line of patter—a minor in psychology is helpful, too. As Michael Valocchi of IBM says, sales leaders need “a deep understanding of their client’s situation and the environment they’re in. It’s about working with them to find a solution.”
Wealth Management Adviser
Eden Prairie, Minn.
Forrester is also a motivational speaker, “empowering women to take control of their finances.” From an unlikely beginning—she was a professional singer, working with the Cash family in Nashville, Tenn.—Forrester became Northwestern Mutual’s most valuable producer in 2008, and is a consistent sales leader. In 2011, she was one of 312 (out of 6,800) to qualify for Forum, the company’s internal awards program.
I created a vision statement when I started in this business in 1996, and I had it laminated and attached to my car’s glove box. I have read it every single working morning for 16 years. It’s my ace in the hole, and it’s anchored me through challenging times. It starts out, “It is my mission to be one of the most successful and well-respected businesswomen in the Twin Cities, secondary to being the best person that I can possibly be to those I care about most, including myself.”
I do a lot more than just sell insurance—I primarily manage people’s wealth and their investment portfolios. It all begins with the approach, visiting with clients and talking about what’s important to them, making no assumptions. If their priority is buying a home, paying for college or funding for retirement, I engage with my clients and map out a path to that goal. My intent is to build a relationship for the long term, to continue working with them all the way to the finish line. I’m not in a transaction-based business—it’s about values and goals more than about products.
Founder and CEO
Szaky, 30, is an international leader in eco-capitalism and “upcycling.” His company, which specializes in repurposing materials once headed only for landfills, was named “The Coolest, Little Startup in America” by Inc. magazine in 2006. He started his first business at 14. He left Princeton after a year to start TerraCycle. He had both Home Depot and Wal-Mart as clients within two years, and turned down $1 million from investors who wanted to de-emphasize TerraCycle’s environmental commitment. Szaky calls himself “effectively the chief sales officer of TerraCycle,” and recently outlined his top 10 sales tips for The New York Times. Sales, he says, “is not about what you are selling, but about making friends and about getting someone to see the world the way you do.”
I’m a CEO who is actually a pretty good salesperson. My job is to convince people to buy our services even though they may not even realize they have a problem. We recycle everything from potato chip bags to toothbrushes, cigarette butts and used diapers. For instance, we had to convince Frito-Lay that their bags actually could be recycled. Now we work with the company in five countries. It’s very important that your solution actually be valid, because otherwise you lose credibility and your reputation is damaged. So our claims have to be backed up with good documentation and trials. Sure, sizzle, charisma and salesmanship are important, but I have to prepare the hell out of every meeting. Sales is fundamentally a people thing. You have to believe in your product or service, and convince your clients to love it as much as you do. It has to be a win-win. The endgame is to have people share your view that garbage is raw material and has value.
BMW of Beverly Hills, Calif.
The highest-volume BMW salesperson in the United States since 1999, Shahrokhi was born in Iran—with a BMW in the family—and continued her affection for the brand after she moved to Manchester, England, for college in 1975. “I visited the dealership there, and that’s where I first heard that I had good potential to sell the cars,” she says. “I heard the same thing when I moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., for graduate studies. And so I started selling BMWs in the Los Angeles area in 1981.” It probably doesn’t hurt that the Westwood section of L.A. is known as “Teherangeles,” with up to 800,000 people of Iranian descent. But Shahrokhi says only 5 to 10 percent of her clients are Iranians—she sells BMWs to everybody, including the celebrities who are part of the Beverly Hills scene.
I don’t have a secret, per se. Everyone knows that if you go to the gym three times every day, you’ll end up with a muscular body. But not everyone will commit to doing that. The fact is that I enjoy my job, and that helps because I work long hours, seven days a week. I haven’t taken the nice trips that BMW has offered me or a weekend off in 13 years. It takes discipline, because I compromise a lot of things for my job. Being dedicated is the first thing. It’s also important to stay in touch—I still have my very first customer, even though he lives 40 miles away. I go out of my way to do a lot of things that people don’t expect, such as informing them of special offers and deals. When people ask me if I have the cheapest cars, I say maybe, maybe not, but it’s the total transaction that’s important, more than just the lowest price. I’m totally honest. If a customer asks me if they should buy an M3 for their 16-year-old son, I say, “No, it’s like giving him a loaded gun.” I’m willing to lose that sale. Once people think that all you’re doing is trying to sell them a car, then the relationship is broken.
Rackham has been a sales adviser to IBM, Xerox, AT&T and Citicorp, and for years was a member of McKinsey & Co.’s sales and channel management team. He is best-known for the books Spin Selling and Major Account Sales Strategy. Rackham’s research is based on work he started in the 1970s, when he led a team of 30 researchers in a project sponsored in part by Xerox and IBM that studied 35,000 sales calls in more than 20 countries.
More than half the people selling today are failing because they’re selling to the old customer, not the new customer. There are two types of sales today, and neither one involves old-style salesmanship. In the transactional sale, the customer has gone online and done the research—they know they want an RX14 with a double condenser. They don’t need help and advice, just the best price. In a consultative sale, however, the customer is looking for helpful advice, and the salesperson’s job is to create value by solving their problems. The consultative customer isn’t impressed when you tell them that your product is better than others—many possible choices would meet their needs. They don’t want you to just sell your mousetrap, but show them where to put it and what kind of bait to use. They want a value creator, not a value communicator.
Salespeople are getting the message the hard way, and lots of them are no longer meeting their quotas. The old-timers are going through a Willy Loman time, because they haven’t evolved from persuaders to problem-solvers. In a consultative sale, you need the three Cs—candor (Is the person being honest with you?), competence (Does the person know what they’re talking about?) and concern (Is he or she genuinely looking at the sale from my point of view or just trying to unload their product?). Ten years from now, there will be fewer salespeople, but they will be more highly paid, more expert and able to do much more for their customers.
“The World’s Greatest Salesman”
St. Clair Shores, Mich.
Over a 15-year period, high school dropout Girard sold more than 13,000 Chevrolets at a Michigan dealership, once selling 18 in a single day. He is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for several auto sales feats.
As a salesperson, I didn’t leave home without organizing my appointment book the night before and charting every move I was going to make. Most people don’t know where they’re going. I didn’t start my engine unless I knew the route I was taking. That approach was tested on the firing line for 15 years. To tell the truth, I never sold a car in my life. I sold Joe Girard. These days, I drive a Jeep. A Chevy isn’t good enough for Joe Girard.
Mason has earned the coveted “Grand Gander” sales award at global consulting firm BlessingWhite six times in the last 12 years. He started on the customer side as a human resources professional before moving into a sales role, providing leadership and employee engagement services and solutions. He stresses that sales isn’t a solo activity and therefore requires a strong brand, leadership and colleagues who can deliver what you sell. But to Mason, sales is ultimately personal.
Within an account relationship, there may be different people who influence decisions, but it always comes down to somebody’s job being on the line. When that person realizes you’re in it with them, that’s when things work.
Early on in my sales career I asked a client, “From your perspective, is this working for you?” She said, “You’re not like other sales professionals.” At the time I was worried that might be bad, not good, until she said, “I feel your office is next to mine, that’s how vested you are in the success of our relationship.” Now I look to build that type of connection, to make my individual clients successful in their careers, not just in finding the best solution for their organization. And when clients move into other roles, they know I’ll be there for them.
Executive Vice President,
Beverly Hills, Calif.
George forges partnerships with international broadcasters to find new markets for the Starz channel’s original programming, such series as Spartacus, Magic City and Party Down. Major markets are France, Italy, Germany and Spain (known collectively as FIGS), Australia, New Zealand and Japan. With a staff of just six, George was able to sell Spartacus into 100 countries. He is a winner in CableFAX magazine’s “2011 Sales Executive of the Year Awards.”
Starz is not a major studio—we’re not Warner Bros. Our international customers are looking to fill holes in their schedules. Because we’re not No. 1 in the markets and have limited content, it’s really important to go the extra mile and offer our customers the kind of white-glove support they’re not getting from their studio alliances. So we provide great imagery, posters, press kits and customized tags featuring the actors in the shows. Because we’re second tier to them, the relationships we have are really important. One way we forge long-term partnerships is by offering early looks at some of our future content. It’s crucial to understand the cultural morés of the different markets when licensing our content, and our staff is very expert in that. The conversations we have with clients from Germany are very different from the same talks in Japan, so it’s critical to adapt quickly. And if a show doesn’t work for our customers, we work closely with them to change the contract, monetize the programming over a longer period of time, and find replacement shows.
Senior Vice President of Worldwide Sales
Rulli joined the information management leader Iron Mountain from Infor Global Solutions, where from 2007 until 2010 he helped grow the software maker from sales of $200 million to $2 billion. He oversees the global sales team at Iron Mountain.
We work with worldwide corporations and government entities, from the creation of the document to its digitization, storage and possible destruction. We differentiate ourselves in being able to provide very complex solutions for large companies. If they have just one location, their needs might be met by a local competitor, but if they have 10 locations with very sensitive storage needs and major regulatory compliance issues, it’s not likely.
We train our salespeople on a point-of-view pitch, built around a solution set. If we can provide really good insights into our customers’ business, talk about the trends we see and continue to provide good solutions to their problems, they won’t be quick to jump.
It’s important to be good at analyzing the buying persona of a company—it may be one or two people making a decision, but it might be more group-think. To be successful at sales, you have to be able to read the person you’re talking to, and understand their personal agenda. There’s science to selling, but it’s still about people, and if you understand that you’ll have a higher win ratio than the competition.
Senior Vice President
The Corcoran Group
New York City
The Corcoran Group is a leading vendor of high-end New York real estate, started by Barbara Corcoran with a $1,000 loan. She sold the company in 2001 for $66 million and now serves as the real estate contributor to the Today Show. Kory has been a top five seller at Corcoran since joining the company in 2001, and her team has sold more than $1 billion in Manhattan properties.
The current real estate market is very challenging. To succeed, it’s important to understand every aspect of the business, because anything that could go wrong does. There’s not a lot I haven’t seen. Getting the offer is only the first hurdle. You then have to deal with the co-op apartment boards of directors, putting together the package the agent feels is necessary to win approval. The deal has to be put in writing by the attorneys, and sometimes it goes off because lawyers don’t get along. A good broker works to get the deal back on track. It takes time, experience and smarts, and bad brokers often don’t command the necessary respect. A good reputation is earned from putting the time in and understanding the situation. It’s not an easy business and not for the faint of heart.
I have to say that I love negotiating, and dealing with people on that level is a pleasure for me. But I can make mistakes. In one deal, I was negotiating for the buyers and felt I’d found the best apartment to meet their needs. But I got angry when they wouldn’t increase their offer. I learned a big lesson that when you’re trying to push someone to a number, getting heated doesn’t help.
Director of Sales
The Brooks Group
The Brooks Group is a sales training company with 30 years’ experience. Hackett is a former college football coach at Princeton, Syracuse and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. “Now every day is game day,” he says. Hackett stresses the importance of finding qualified prospects.
A fully qualified prospect: 1) has a need and is aware of it, 2) has legitimate authority and the ability to say yes, 3) has a sense of urgency about the decision, 4) trusts you as an organization, and 5) is willing to listen to you. If all those conditions are met, you have a good chance of making a sale. You should ask, “Who besides you will be involved in making this decision?” The prospect may be just calling to get quotes, doing groundwork for the decision-maker. That happens so often. A lot of what people think of as a real business opportunity is ghost business.
Snap Selling and Selling to Big Companies
Konrath was international rookie of the year selling at Xerox Corp. She launched Leapfrog Strategies, a sales effectiveness consultancy, in 1987. Her books are best-sellers.
It’s important to know what’s happening with your clients. There may be a merger or acquisition, a new office opened up, staffing changes or an infusion of venture capital. These things can fundamentally shift their attention. They may have green-lighted a sale, but suddenly, they’re not returning calls. Smart sellers are aligning their sales software to track their customers and leveraging Google alerts so they can address the challenges or opportunities that have been created.
Most salespeople have no idea how to get in the door at big companies. They craft messages that get deleted in a nanosecond. It’s not about selling a product or service—it’s about looking at things in a new way.
President and Chief Strategist
The Bridge Group
The Bridge Group helps sales and marketing leaders implement processes to improve performance and to support technology metrics and measurement. Bertuzzi quotes the author Jonathan Franzen: “One half of a passion is obsession; the other half is love.” Bertuzzi says she loves inside sales.
I’d say 45 percent of our revenue is from inbound leads, people who find us. And the reason for that is we publish a lot of content about the little niche we’re in. This year, for instance, we published a network compensation study that led to 100 leads. We use blogging and social media, including LinkedIn and Twitter, to spread the message of our content. But I never promote our own services in any of these avenues—we’re only there to share information. They know when we tweet or blog, it’s not, “Hey, look at me.” On our blog, we’ve never once talked about our services. And it works. Listen, I’ve been doing this work for 30 years and owned the company for 14. Our consulting team has experience deep and wide, so convincing people of the value of our work is not something I have to do often.
Regional Accounts Executive
Credit Plus sells information to banks and lenders, containing just about everything that goes into a mortgage transaction. Wheeler is both a top salesperson and a credit expert who has developed scoring models and written case studies for congressional testimony.
You have to be knowledgeable and ask the right questions in a meeting. If your clients are doing the talking, telling you about what they’ve been doing and where they’re going, even offering you an office tour, you know you’re on the right track. If they’re bored, they’ll be quiet and wait for the meeting to be over.
Practice Manager, Sales
American Society for Training and Development
ASTD is a trade association for learning and development professionals. Galvin is a former sales manager, sales operations director and sales effectiveness program manager who has coached and mentored many sales professionals.
You need to know where customers are in their buying cycle, because buyers are bringing their sales reps into the picture much later. There’s a buying committee in many cases, and you have to identify the advocates, detractors and decision-makers. Part of your task is making the detractors’ opinions irrelevant in the eyes of the decision-makers. That takes a lot of research as well as building trust and rapport with as many people as possible within the organization. And you have to be careful to craft the value discussion without insulting or hurting the reputation of the detractor.
Castain Training Systems
North Babylon, N.Y.
Castain is the former vice president of business development at Consolidated Graphics and also the former director of corporate solutions sales at Dale Carnegie & Associates. As a consultant, his arsenal includes a blog, podcasts and social media feeds.
For good relationships, you need great communications, which means asking better questions than anyone else. You also need to understand that a positive attitude is only one of the components you need—it’s important to continuously get knowledge and act on it. It’s a process that never ends. I can be the most motivated person in the world, but if I don’t know what I’m doing, I won’t get anywhere.
The Chief Inspiration Officer
Growing up in a biracial household, struggling with dyslexia and the legacy of drug-addicted parents, Hughes recognized that education would be his ticket out. He attended Colgate University on an athletic scholarship, later spending 20 years in corporate sales. He is the former director of sales at Genzyme Biosurgery.
The key to success is being comfortable at being uncomfortable. You have to have difficult conversations, probe and push, get yourself in harm’s way, be aggressive but not pushy. If you’re good, you can put a fresh set of eyes on a customer’s situation and alleviate his pain. The customer has to know you’re there for the right reasons. The biggest problem between sellers and buyers is the intent and perception gap. And that gap can be big if you are carrying baggage from a previous relationship. The quickest you can get on a new page—where the buyer doesn’t have to question your intent—that’s where the magic happens.
Eloqua’s software “automates the science of marketing,” the company says. It aims to respond to buyers’ “digital body language,” align marketing and sales, and help with Internet marketing campaigns, prospect profiling and lead nurturing. Rowley was 2011’s employee of the year. It was her idea to call herself the Eloqueen; before that she was director of key accounts.
You have to be a problem-solver, providing insight to buyers and teaching them something they didn’t already know. It’s important to understand what the company does, but it’s also crucial to get to know the people side of the business, how it is structured on the organizational side. It’s also necessary to recognize that the Internet has fundamentally changed the buying process. Business-to-business buyers are 57 percent through their buying process before they engage with sales. So my aim is to turn my clients not only into advocates of marketing automation, but also into advocates for Jill Rowley because she offers success. I have to convince them I’m not “turn and burn,” but someone who cares about her customers’ success.
Former Vice President and General Manager for the Americas and Asia-Pacific
Smith oversaw 19 salespeople for this business management software and software services company. He’s a 20-year sales veteran.
There’s value in obtaining a customer, but also real value in retaining them. The key opportunity is to be able to grow the business division by division, and it won’t happen if you’re not fully committed to the account. You need to start with one person who’s your champion, and you’ll never have a better salesman than an internal advocate. That first win can lead to a second, third and fourth win. For instance, we started in one division of Dow Chemical, but now our software is woven into the company as a divisional standard.
Vice President and Partner
Global Energy and Utilities Industry Leader
Valocchi came to this IBM role from IBM Global Services and Pricewaterhouse Coopers. He has 25-plus years’ experience serving energy and utility clients, and Earth2Tech listed him in the “Networked Grid 100” list of players in the smart grid space. He wrote many papers, including “New Business Models for a Changing World of Energy.”
Having a long-term rather than a transactional relationship is in your best interests, but also the best interests of the client. I’ve worked with clients for 18 months without making a sale. In one case, the chief information officer had challenges, and we worked through the issues one by one. He was saying, “I want IBM to work with me, but I don’t yet know how.” He eventually became a long-term client, but it was a long process before sales actually happened.
Master Sgt. Mark McArthur
Marine Corps Recruiting Command
Half of the Marine Corps’ recruiting budget goes to advertising, and 25 percent of all prospects come in the door that way. But the recruiter’s role is vital. McArthur, from Jackson, Miss., spent two years in college before joining the Marines, and only regrets that he didn’t sign up sooner. His mission today is diversifying the Corps’ 200,000-strong fighting force.
I don’t think of myself as a salesman; I’m more of a career counselor. We focus on developing the individual, guiding them on a path to success. As a Marine, you’ll learn leadership and management skills that your contemporaries coming out of high school or college may lack. In most cases, it enhances employment opportunities. I would say that the same qualities that a Marine learns in boot camp—grit and hard work—are what distinguishes a good recruiter. Part of what I do is clear up misconceptions, such as the typical day starts with strapping on an 80-pound pack and running all day. In fact, your day’s activities will depend on the mission, which can be everything from preparing chow to transportation support—all while maintaining a warrior ethos. Parents may want to hear that their son or daughter won’t be in harm’s way, but that’s not something we can guarantee. The best approach is to be upfront and honest about it, which usually helps alleviate fears.
Meghan M. Curtin
Vice President and Relationship Manager
Curtin, a total sales leader at JPMorgan Chase in 2012, was both a Chairman’s Circle Award winner and a President’s Club member in 2011. In 2008, she was the company’s Rookie of the Year. She’s an avid runner.
Follow-up is key, especially when questions or concerns arise. If I say I am going to do something, then I follow through to make sure it’s done. It sounds basic, but I attribute a lot of my success to being dependable and having a sense of urgency for my clients. There is nothing more important than being able to resolve a client issue in a timely manner.