Salespeople, Think about Change
WE ALL HAD A SALES PITCH
In 1960, I finished my tour of duty as a jet pilot with the U.S. Navy. I loved those four years. I enjoyed the company of the other pilots in the squadron. I loved flying off aircraft carriers and landing back on them. It was the only job I've had that I had to get right every time.
But that was over. I had to move on, get a civilian job. I was married, with a baby on the way.
Richardson-Vicks had a great training program, so I made that company a target. A friend there got me an interview. Three days and seven interviews later, I was one of 35 salesmen (no women then) hired to cover the United States.
My assignment was to sell Vicks products to all the drugstores in New York City and Westchester County. I was supplied with a list of accounts: addresses, buyers' names, what they bought last year, even a suggested increase over last year's order. I was expected to make 12 calls per day, 60 calls per week.
I was trained to deliver a sales pitch: "How do you do, Mr. Jones. I'm with the Vicks company. We're making our annual call to offer you special discounts on fast-selling Vicks products for delivery in the fall. "Based on my analysis of what you ordered last year and your low inventory [I had checked the store room], I would recommend the special drop shipment number one deal, which provides you an 8.3 percent discount." Then I would show him on a deal sheet the products and quantities. The sales pitch ended this way: "All that for only $742, instead of $803, if you bought it piecemeal. As you know, we can ship it direct to you, but bill it through your wholesaler so that he doesn't feel we're going around him. What wholesaler would you like to use?"
That's the way I was taught to sell. Convince the buyer. I talk; the buyer listens. As time went by, I sold to wholesalers' chains, grocery buyers, department stores. Years later, I went into the advertising business. That was a big change—from selling products the customer could sniff, rub on, or swallow to selling a service that generated ideas about products. But one thing remained constant. I talked because I knew more than the customer. I knew features and benefits. I knew types of deals. I was good at talking, and back then I thought talking was what the job called for.
IS TALKING WHAT THE JOB CALLS FOR?
A few years ago, my company surveyed nearly 300 experienced salespeople, ages 31 to 45. Among other questions, we asked, "What is the number one problem among salespeople?" Here are the results:
Talk too much 41%
Overpromise on product performance 30
Fail to follow through on delivery 16
We asked the same question of over 400 buyers nationwide. Very similar results, with talking too much again in first place. All these years since I sold cold remedies and advertising, and talking is still number one!
If I talked too much in front of customers, there had to be something I wasn't doing. After all, it wasn't like talking into a tape recorder. There was a person there. I know that because most of the time I was talking, I recall looking at somebody. There had to be a deficit on the other side of my talking.
THE OTHER SIDE OF TOO MUCH TALKING IS NOT LISTENING
I was calling on a pharmacist named Barry Bernstein on Fordham Road in the Bronx. He was complaining that our medimist nasal spray didn't sell. As he talked, I was trying to think of how to handle his complaint. It didn't require a major rebuttal, just a convenient answer.
When he stopped I said, "Well, Mr. Bernstein, I can take the medimist back and give you credit for them." He was surprised. He said, "Wait a minute; you just agreed with my point that if I displayed the bottles next to the counter, they would move. You were nodding as I said that." "Yes, of course," I said. But I hadn't heard him suggest relocating the display. I wasn't listening. I was thinking about what to say next.
I had made an error and I knew Mr. Bernstein caught it. It was the type of error that went with a busy job: 12 calls per day, with driving time and searching for a parking space between calls—average call, 30 minutes. Often the owner was busy and I had to wait. Forms to fill out, display pieces to put up, shelf facings to improve—little time and I felt it.
I could make a case for not taking the time to listen.
Back then, many salespeople would make the same case. With so little time with the customer, you had to make sure your products and services were discussed to best advantage. Customers typically didn't know as much as the salesperson. They would latch onto some problem that had an easy solution—like Barry Bernstein and the nasal spray. As customers talked, they used up your time. Talking time meant selling time. Every minute spent listening was a minute you weren't selling. That was the way I saw it.
I was not alone. Every salesperson I knew felt that the customer needed to be educated, and that meant the customer should do the listening, not us.
If, after all these years, talking too much is still the practice of salespeople, is it the same with listening?
SALESPEOPLE DON'T LISTEN
Not very long ago I was talking with a prospective buyer at an investment banking company. When I asked the buyer how his company's salespeople identified the needs of their clients, he responded:
"It doesn't matter. We're not interested, because we already know what's best. We tell them what they need. I guess you could say we're opinionated."
I could have agreed with his guess, but of course I didn't.
Many salespeople today would admit to being opinionated, meaning that they know the customer's business and know better than the customer how they can improve it. If not listening is what you might expect in the fast-paced arena of financial sales, you can hear the same from sales managers in the crop-chemical industry, in places as far from Wall Street as Calgary, Alberta; Clovis, California; and Middleton, Wisconsin. I remember hearing the sales managers responsible for wholesaling to farm supply outlets describe their salespeople. Sample quotes from these sales managers:
"Our reps are too busy remembering what they're going to say next instead of listening."
"Retailers ask me why my reps aren't interested in hearing about the retailers' businesses."
"Our reps just keep trying to force it down the retailers' throats."
Sales managers and buyers in a wide variety of companies say the same.
So, talking too much and not listening are still part of selling. Is this surprising? Not if you consider that for many years these practices were observed and labeled, but not rejected by the customer. No force emerged to make salespeople do the job differently.
SALESPEOPLE LIVE UP TO EXPECTATIONS
The image of the talkative salesperson has long been a cliché. The degree to which talking too much has been a nuisance to customers covers the spectrum. At one end you had customers who felt they didn't know much and were willing to sit through the sales pitch to learn about the product or service. At the other end were savvy customers who found the talkative salesperson a nuisance but made the purchase anyway. They got what they needed and avoided the ordeal of listening to another salesperson. Many customers saw in all that talk the salesperson's qualification for the job. People figured that if young Johnny had the gift of the gab, he belonged in sales.
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Kevin served in the U.S. Peace Corps as a refrigeration instructor in Samoa and graduated from Howard Law School. He practices law out of his office in Cambridge and home office in his converted barn in Reading, MA. He teaches ethics and law courses at Northeastern University and Bunker Hill Community College. He studied writing at UCLA, Grub Street, and the Prague Summer Program. A Martial Arts Hall of Fame inductee awarded Kevin a black belt in karate. He has five children.