The Old Paradigm
It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent,
but the one most responsive to change.
Ben's Story: John Scanlon
It was early 2008, and I was teaching a CustomerCentric Selling workshop to a
longtime client. During the workshop, one of the students, Jason, asked if I'd
like to sit in on a sales call he had scheduled for the afternoon immediately
following the class.
By this point, I had worked with this company for a while, and I had trained
virtually everyone in the organization— everyone except one key person, the
CEO John Scanlon.
On Friday afternoon, having just finished the class, Jason and I headed to a
conference room down the hall for the sales call. The prospect, a CIO, was there
with two of his IT directors, plus an unexpected fourth person: John Scanlon, my
client's CEO. I quickly realized it would be a great opportunity to showcase
our methodology to someone who'd always been too busy to come to the workshop.
The sales call began with Jason doing everything he'd just learned. He opened
with an agenda, gave a quick overview of his company, and within the first two
minutes transitioned into his diagnostic questions in an attempt to get the
buyer to open up about his situation.
The prospect, however, didn't respond the way that he was supposed to.
Although Jason's questions were straight from the "playbook," the CIO's
answers became increasingly abrupt. Soon he was down to one-word answers. Worse,
his body language—arms crossed, stiff posture, zero eye contact—was
registering what could best be described as irritation.
Within minutes, the call flipped: Jason was no longer the one asking the
questions. The CIO had taken over the interrogation, and Jason was responding by
talking about what his products do, the very thing we try to avoid early in a
conversation. I couldn't help myself. I jumped in to try to get things back on
track. I asked the CIO what I thought was a perfectly reasonable question about
his current environment. I can't remember exactly what I said, but I do
remember the CIO getting upset and cutting me short.
"Stop!" he said. "You're not getting me. Stop asking me so many
questions and tell me what you do."
Ten seconds in, I had crashed and burned along with Jason. I looked over at
John, the CEO, and could only imagine what he was thinking: "This is what
we're training our salespeople to do?"
After a few seconds of very uncomfortable silence, John, who had been quiet this
whole time, leaned forward and, in a calming, soft voice, said, "Hey guys,
this reminds me of a time when I was at MCI ..." And he began to tell a
story about when he used to work for MCI and the chaos that resulted after a
merger. He very specifically described how he and his management team had made a
series of mistakes that led to a series of customer problems. As John was
telling his story, the feeling in the room immediately began to change: the CIO
began to relax. He uncrossed his arms. He set aside his BlackBerry, which had
been consuming his attention, and leaned toward John. John ended his story with,
"What I learned from that experience was ..." The story lasted no more
than three minutes, and when he was finished, John fell silent. He didn't
prompt anyone else to speak, and he didn't ask any questions. I had no idea
what to do at that point. I could think of nothing to add. Neither could Jason.
After only a few seconds, the once-tense CIO said, "You know, John, I was a
client of MCI at the same time, and here is what I went through ..." And
then he launched into a related story about a similar experience. And John
When the CIO was done with his story, the room got quiet again. Then John
started another story, but this one was more personal. It included his kids and
was only marginally relevant to the conversation. The CIO then offered a story
about his kids, plus his in-laws. This went on for probably another 30 minutes,
with John and the CIO alternating between personal, business, and company
stories. And then, about 45 minutes into the meeting, the CIO said, "Here's
the thing, John; we're on three continents. Can you support us on all three
John gave the question some thought. "I have no idea," he said. "We've
never done this before."
I looked over at Jason and could tell he wanted to strangle John. We were
thinking the same thing: No! You can't say that to a prospect!
"But I am in this together with you," John added.
The room fell silent again as Jason and I sat there in disbelief. Finally, the
CIO turned to his two IT directors. "Okay," he said. "What do we need to
do to get started?"
The three of them talked it over, and then the CIO turned back to John and gave
him the green light to move forward. The meeting was effectively over, the deal
closed, and the details to be worked out later.
As John and the clients left the room, making friendly small talk, I was left
sitting there in silence with Jason, both of us wondering, "What just
Decoding the "John Method"
Although the sales call was a "success," I left feeling deflated. I'd
flopped and so had the person I'd just trained. I'd had plenty of my own
unsuccessful sales calls in the past, but this was different. This one was
supposed to showcase the methodology, but it hadn't.
At first, I wasn't able to make sense of what John had done. When I got to the
airport, I went straight to the lounge, ordered a drink, and tried to decode
what I had watched John do. On a cocktail napkin, I wrote down a list of words
that reflected what I thought I saw in John:
I sat there staring at the list, trying to get my head around what it all meant.
John had shared real stories—some professional, some personal—but in all
cases, they were unlike any stories I'd ever heard before in a sales meeting.
He was vulnerable; all of his stories included some admission of his own
mistakes, which seemed crazy to me at the time. Even as the CEO, he didn't try
to come across as Superman; he just seemed human. He had a point to every story
he told, though I wouldn't realize this until later. He was patient and
demonstrated empathic listening—real listening beyond anything I'd known was
possible. He seemed to really care. Ultimately, he somehow got the CIO to reveal
everything that Jason would have wanted him to reveal: his challenges, his
goals, his personal experiences, his beliefs.
But the kicker was what John didn't do. He never asked a single question. Not
even one. And yet he was able to get the guarded, arms-crossed CIO to completely
open up and reveal himself.
Later, when I asked other people about John, the response was always, "He just
puts people at ease. He has all the intangibles." Nobody could explain what
those intangibles were, nor was anyone teaching the "John method."
Everything John did seemed to work, and it looked so simple. He was a better
salesperson than anyone in his sales force—the people I had trained. What did
that say about our sales training?
When I tell people this story now, some say, "John had an advantage because he
is the CEO." My question is, "Was John able to sell that way because he was
the CEO, or was he the CEO because he could sell that way?"
We Didn't Take This Stuff Seriously
The next day, I drove to the bookstore near my house, went straight to the
business section, and found the sales shelf. I'd brought my napkin with the
list of words. I started going through all the sales books, including ours,
CustomerCentric Selling. I wasn't able to find a single one that included a
meaningful discussion of authenticity, vulnerability, listening, or
To my left were the psychology and relationships sections. On a hunch, I started
going through those books too. This time, I found a wealth of content that
explained the qualities John had demonstrated—books about listening, caring,
empathy, authenticity, vulnerability, story sharing, emotions, connecting, and
Next to the psychology section was the medical reference section. I looked at
those books as well. They dovetailed with the psychology and relationship books
in their emphasis on new brain science and neurobiology. I was finding that all
of these disciplines built upon each other, and that they all took human
behavior and relationships much more seriously than we did in the sales training
world. These were the books that were teaching the "John method." That's
right—there were better sales training books in the psychology and medical
reference sections than in the business section.
Mike's Story: 87/13
In many ways, it was just another annual affiliate meeting, similar to the
dozens I had hosted in the past. As I sat down in the conference room with our
CustomerCentric Selling affiliates, I was looking forward to an inspirational
annual kickoff event. I was surrounded by my friends, colleagues, and disciples,
all of whom shared a belief in our methodology.
More important, I truly felt, at the time, that I was achieving my goal to help
the vast majority of sales professionals to become better at their craft.
Decades ago, Xerox found that the top 20 percent of its sales force was
responsible for 80 percent of the sales revenue, while the other 80 percent
struggled to make the remaining 20 percent of the revenue. I believed, with all
my heart, that both the Solution Selling and CustomerCentric Selling
methodologies held the key to helping the bottom 80 percent.
The meeting began as all such meeting do, with everyone settled in and ready to
hear something new. One of my partners had hired a sales industry researcher to
be the keynote speaker. As he started his presentation, Greg Alexander, founder
of Sales Benchmark Index, put up a slide with two numbers on it: 87 and 13. He
told us that the 80/20 rule was no longer true. Instead, in business-to-business
(B2B) sales, after indexing 1,100 B2B sales organizations—including many of
our clients who employed thousands of salespeople we had trained—he'd found
that the ratio was now 87/13. The top 13 percent of salespeople were now
responsible for 87 percent of the revenue.
I stared at the slide. The net effect of decades of sales training hadn't
helped the great mass of salespeople. Instead, systems like Solution Selling and
CustomerCentric Selling had made the best salespeople even better, leaving their
peers even further behind. A few days later, it really hit me. Despite my best
intentions, I hadn't accomplished what I set out to do—help the bottom 80
percent pay their mortgages, send their kids to college, take vacations, and
provide for their families. I realized that my confidence in our methodology had
turned into intellectual arrogance.
At first, I tried to cram that uncomfortable realization back into the bottle.
The 87 percent must be lazy, stubborn, or resistant to change, I told myself. If
they really tried, they could learn how to do it. After all, it had worked for
me. And I thought I had evidence that our training wasn't the problem. The
number-one complaint I heard from sales managers was that the bottom 80 percent
of their salespeople quit trying to use the methodology within 10 days of the
workshop, whereas the top people had an easy time putting the methodology into
practice and therefore stuck with it. It stood to reason that the few top
sellers were successful because they used our methodology, while the rest under-performed
because they didn't.
At CustomerCentric Selling, we prided ourselves on using our methodology to sell
our methodology, so I took out a pad and ran the numbers, hoping to prove myself
right. No such luck. Of approximately 40 affiliates, five of them had brought in
90 percent of our revenue—and it was the same five people every year. In
theory, if all 40 were using our methodology, the revenue spread would have been
a lot less disproportionate. But the real "aha moment" wasn't that 87/13
was alive and well within my own organization. That moment came a little later
when I looked under the hood at those top five affiliates and considered what
set them apart from the others. And there it was: they were the ones who had
what we used to call "the mojo," the ability to forge real emotional
connections with their customers. They weren't necessarily using the
methodology they were selling. They were doing something different—more like
what John did.
Ben's Story: Learning from the Inside Out
Ever since the John Scanlon experience, and even more so after our affiliate
meeting, Mike and I had committed ourselves to learning more. We'd been
immersed in research, from psychology to interpersonal relationships and even
the neurosciences, studying subjects previously way outside our realm. The more
we read, the clearer it became that our sales model—the one we'd been
teaching all those years; the one we believed in—was badly flawed. We'd
wildly misunderstood what made great salespeople great. We'd given it our best
shot, based on what we knew at the time, but we still hadn't cracked the code
on what the best were doing.
Now, piece by piece, without quite meaning to, we began to develop a new
approach, one that drew on other disciplines and on new scientific knowledge.
Our research became more intense. We moved away from a logic-oriented model and
began to focus on emotional intelligence and the power of connection. The
answers lay in the neurosciences and psychology. We were learning about the
brain and the mind—how it works, the neurological sources of feelings such as
empathy, and recent discoveries that have reshaped our understanding of how and
why people change. This was light years ahead of what was happening in the sales
training departments of corporate America.
Along the way, we realized that John Scanlon wasn't the only one who embodied
our new understanding of influence. Now that our eyes were open, we saw it over
and over again in all the other top salespeople we knew, the same innate
qualities that John had exhibited.
But the big question for us was: were they really innate qualities or could they
be learned? By that point, Mike and I couldn't turn back. It would have been a
copout to accept the old explanation: "He just puts people at ease. He has all
the intangibles." We set out to deconstruct and codify those intangibles.
My wife was more than a little skeptical.
"You're going to teach what?" she said. "What do you know about
connectedness and vulnerability?"
My first reaction was to ignore her, but she was right. At that point, I had
only an intellectual grasp of the material I'd been studying. For proof, I
needed to look no further than my own personal relationships. I could talk about
vulnerability, but I had not yet learned how to really open up and be
vulnerable. I could talk about emotional connectedness, but I'd never
connected with a client as effortlessly as John seemed to do. On top of it all,
I'd hit a rocky spot in some of my most important personal relationships.
Fast-forward one month. I was now in therapy. But even though I showed up every
week, I really wasn't interested in delving into the events of my past. I
resisted. The therapy seemed as big a waste of time as I'd decided it would be
from the start.
Luckily, out of guilt and a sense of obligation, I stayed with it. And
wouldn't you know, before long I began to develop a deeper, more personal,
more profound understanding of emotional connection, one that dovetailed with
everything I'd been studying. Through therapy I was learning to look within,
to search out my memories and experiences and form stories around them that had
meaning. For the first time, I was learning how to use language to express
feelings and emotions, to articulate the autobiographical stories that account
for who I am. This, in turn, helped me listen more empathetically to other
people's stories. By searching out my own experiences—how I felt and the
reasons for those feelings—I became more authentically curious about others. I
was learning the John method from the inside out.
In retrospect, it's little wonder I'd been so tied to our old sales
methodology. It was a left-brain, logical approach that appealed to me at a time
when I was living a left-brain life. It was hard for my ego to let go of what I
thought I knew. But now, thanks to this journey inspired by John Scanlon, I
finally saw the limitations of our old methodology and became open to the more
powerful possibilities of whole-brain selling.
And as it happened, Mike and I found ourselves on very similar paths—in our
discontent with the old model, in examining our own personal experiences, and
now in our shared belief that we could and should go to a place that had been so
off-limits to us before. We also both realized we had to experience these new
ideas from the inside out, addressing our own struggles first before we could
begin to think about teaching others.
Excerpted from "What Great Salespeople Do: The Science of Selling Through Emotional Connection and the Power of Story" by Ben Zoldan. Copyright © 0 by Ben Zoldan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.