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Let’s be very clear here. I’ve been training sales for most of my professional career. Class after class of hopefuls, those recently hired or those in a slump, those at the top of their game (who felt the class was a waste) and those en route there. Some were eager, some were arrogant, some were a waste of time. That’s because whoever hired them, hired talkers. Not listeners and problem-solvers. It’s a common practice, and in many -if not most- industries, that gift of gab gets in the way.

As an entrepreneur, I’ve had some forty years to both study the industry as well as practice my craft. As much as I like getting paid for delivering sales training, this is one soft skill that — especially given the benefits if you do it well — is really only learned through practice. You can learn theory, but until you take it into the field, it’s just that: theory. In many cases, that theory may not apply to your world at all. That’s why there are so rarely any hard and fast pat answers about selling. It is as unique as you and I are.

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Like those in my classes, I have to make the calls, scale the walls and walk the halls just like they do. I don’t have work if I can’t sell. That’s one heck of a motivator. It made me focus on what works, which is up-front research, understanding my market, what I do that solves a pressing issue, and how I’m different from others in my lane. And, above all, I vastly prefer to be face to face with my clients.

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There are thousands of very good speakers who have, and still do, make an excellent living training sales. My personal coach, Orvel Ray Wilson ( has been one of the best, with a track record of results to show for it. He has developed a brand new business as a high-level coach. Interestingly he uses many of the same techniques in coaching as he did in sales and sales training. But he’s a practitioner. He’s one heck of a salesman.

Zig Ziglar ( was among the more famous of the well-known sales trainers who stalked the stage and moved a great many folks to give sales a shot. But no matter how impressive Tony Robbins or Jeffrey Gitomer may be, no matter how compelling the story of any given speaker (and I’ve been one for many decades), the simple truth is that you and I have to get face-to-face with our clients.

We smell the sour sweat of our fear, stumble over our tongues, make horrific mistakes, try useless theories that don’t work at all in our industries. We are regularly reminded of what we don’t know, how much better prepared we should have been, and a hundred other potent lessons. Over time, we get much, much better.

Many buy endless books and tapes in the belief that somewhere in our $29.99 investment is the Nugget That Will Make Selling Easy. (Read: so that I don’t have to go out and actually TALK to people).

Here’s where I’m going to take a quick detour and take a gentle poke at my industry-the professional speaking business. The National Speaker’s Association has a Facebook page. When I still had an account, I often visited it. A while back some wag posted a challenge:

As you age, do you find yourself getting more rigid in your beliefs? Less willing to change yourself, your material, your programs?

Most over forty said yes.

This is a group of folks which markets itself as “thought leaders.” They make all manner of claims to be ahead of the curve and on the leading edge. They charge sometimes breathtaking amounts of money to speak to groups based on the brand promise that they have their fingers on the hot, beating pulse of the most up-to-date data and techniques for their clients. The newest research- and that includes research that might disprove a previous claim they made.

It’s not about being right. If anyone- and that includes me- is going to be asuccessful speaker, we have to be successful salespeople. What we offer better damned well better be relevant. Otherwise, we might as well be marketing horse carts to people who want Ferraris.

Thought leaders?

Um, no you’re not. If you’ve got a program that is a decade out of date (or more), help me understand how an audience of Millennials- or iGen, the next crop coming in -is going to be riveted by your content. It’s really hard to sell today’s market solutions that have cobwebs on them, but people do it- because they allow their mental and emotional arteries to harden.

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Hall of Famer? I Don’t Think So

Some years back at a big conference sponsored by my then-employer TeleCheck Services, the CEO, who is still a good friend, hired a Hall of Fame speaker he had long admired. He told me privately that he was beside himself excited.

At the time I was early in my speaking career. Ready to witness greatness.

The Great Man Himself delivered a tired, tepid, awful speech. We in the audience read our programs (this was before iPhones, sadly). He then wandered into a side room where he was going to deliver a focused workshop. He stood with nose in his notes and re-read his speech material for those of us who showed up. This is what constitutes greatness?

The man hadn’t done any homework. Didn’t know TeleCheck’s language, our issues, what we cared about, our history. Nothing. He was functionally asleep at the wheel.

My CEO was incensed. The man had been paid a mint, skated by on his rep, insulted a very influential CEO and our entire audience. Not only would he not be asked back, but my CEO informed his vast and influential network cross the Fortune 500. Expensive mistake.

That speaker is still on the circuit so he will remain nameless.

I never forgot that lesson.

My coach, Orvel Ray Wilson, is constantly remaking himself, updating his material, taking courses. He knows his market, what he can do for his clients, and stays in touch with trends. This means his product is valuable, current, and impactful. He is 65, but his material is youthful and fresh. He has boots on the ground at all times as he generates business. He is out among his clients regularly so he knows what keeps them up at night. He is constantly updating what he offers to meet those needs.

That’s the just first order of business: have something to sell that folks want, need, and which will solve a problem for them.

I still believe there is absolutely nothing that beats boots on the ground. Not in all cases, but most.

Research shows that face-to-face sales are 34 times more likely to result in a close than emails. Again, not all, but most, especially if you’re selling to larger corporations.

This is the mistake folks make:

In research Mahdi Roghanizad of Western University and I conducted, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, we have found that people tend to overestimate the power of their persuasiveness via text-based communication, and underestimate the power of their persuasiveness via face-to-face communication.

We have an overblown notion of just how persuasive we are in our emails. Of course we do. It’s likely to be in inverse relation to how badly we want to avoid being rejected in person and doing the real work of researching our clients and their needs. That takes time and risks our tender egos.

If you want to read persuasive copy, the J.Peterman catalog is about as good as they come. Here’s how they elevate a simple camisole to the heavens: The copy is superb. When you and I can write like that, folks, perhaps our emails will garner us more sales. But that is a high art, and besides, too many of our clients dump our emails as soon as they hit the server. Millions do- by the thousands, without checking a single one. A great many businesses big and small spent a whole lotta money on those emails, only to have them devoured by Barracuda.

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There is no replacing what you and I can see, sense, feel in person. The visual cues that we telegraph are incredibly important. The ability to create a relationship trumps endless, faceless, invasive emails every single time.

Yet many social media pundits SWEAR that enough email blasts will bring in the bucks. Of course they do. It’s what they’re selling. To someone with a hammer everything looks like a nail.

In my conversations with folks in supply chain, the second they see DEAR FILLINTHEBLANK, the email is discarded. The reason I know this is that as a journalist I ask. For example, a friend of mine at General Mills. Someone who has a lot of buying power. This guy could be interested, but not in a supplier who doesn’t know his name, his title, who he is, what he does, and what problems he’s trying to solve.

So no. Blast, impersonal emails telegraph rookie, lazy, and a time-waster. The people who get the most- those who make buying decisions- are regularly inundated. Hence, SPAM filters. That includes your sales emails.

Let’s be clear. There are times to use social media, especially as our target market demographics are shifting. This article isn’t about that. I’m addressing the importance of relationships, face-to face-contact and the critical role of observation. How we learn how our customers buy.

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A Keen Eye for the Customer

Here’s an example that speaks to how to develop a keen eye for your customer.

My friend Jill, who is a potter, never took a business class in her life. However, she did 17 art fairs a year, during which she studied how people touched, interacted with and commented on her pottery pieces. She listened to their questions, and concerns. Jill was the family’s breadwinner. No sales: homelessness. That’s one hell of a motivation.

Often, when faced with a pottery pie plate, women would ask if they really could cook a pie in it. They were accustomed to metal pie tins, so her pottery looked decorative, rather than functional. It was both-but people didn’t know.

What’s obvious to you may not be at all obvious to your customer.

Her customers would pick up an item, coo over it, then be stumped as to how to use it. Jill made note of all of this as she managed her booth.

The next show she set out a huge table with all her pottery in full use. Pie plates with pies, spaghetti holders full of spaghetti, decorative bowls full of candies and nuts. The surrounding potters wandered over, laughing at her and scoffing at her set up. It’ll never work, they said. Waste of time.

By the end of the show, Jill had been wiped out. It was all she could do to keep up with the sales and the wrapping. Her shelves empty, other potters came over. Their shelves were still stocked.

“Um, if you’re through with this,” they pointed to her apple pie, “Can we slip your pie into our pie pan?”

These other artists had paid little to no attention to their customers’ behavior, questions, and buying habits. Of course they didn’t. They were potters and artists, not lowly salespeople.

This is why the term “starving artist” has so much meat to it. Unfortunately not on their tables. Without good sales, businesses die. To this I would add this smart article:

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During a recent interview, Jill commented that far too many companies invest a fortune in focus groups to ask people what they would buy, and why.

“This misses the point,” she said. “We don’t know how people are going to react when they get into a store or a show. They may see or smell something that causes them to react in a completely different way. We have to study people where they buy, watch how they buy, and the talk to them to understand why they buy. You can’t do that when you take buyers out of their buying context.”

Her street-won sales smarts put two kids through college, bought a large ranch, paid for a herd of half-Arab racing horses, and a wooded property on a lovely stream. You can’t argue with results. She’s now launching a brand new spice line (Cowgirls Cookin’) and using the same approaches to build her budding business.

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Know Who Has the Power to Make You Successful

Last week I drove with Jill as she delivered boxes of her new soup spices to various cooking stores in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area. Jill had already spent time with the woman who managed displays before the Christmas rush. The display manager remembered her, and was charmed by Jill’s gift of several spice packets for her own holiday use. Jill had also previously complimented her on her beautiful displays. As we were on our way out, this woman was already showing us where Jill’s spice line would sit: front and center as people entered the store.

Prime placement and sales opportunity.

Jill’s beautiful spice packets with their eye-catching, four-color, local artist labels, the fun and funny stories on the packaging engage and entrance customers. The display manager, herself charmed by the product and Jill’s graciousness, wanted them to get top billing.

Jill later explained to me that knowing who has the most influence over how your product is going to be displayed and sold are key not only to your success but also the store’s success in selling your product. Most folks would only speak to the owner, where the sales are made. They don’t see the obvious: that the display manager has their future in their hands because they determine how the customer experiences your product. This takes boots on the ground, studying store layouts, getting to know the employees. And, getting those employees invested in helping you sell.

The intimate, in-person work of researching, coming to understand and appreciate our clients, their needs, how we can solve their problems is deeply satisfying. Truly good salespeople put in that kind of personal time whether it’s to sell spice mixes or spare parts to the automotive aftermarket. Or, for that matter, delivering a keynote presentation or a sales training at the company convention.

The Hall of Fame speaker I mentioned above didn’t. That’s too much like work.

It really causes me to wonder what criteria are used to determine who gets inducted into NSA’s Hall of Fame, but then, that’s me.

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You and I can read about selling tips. Closing tips. How to question. Endless books, tapes, DVDs and programs exist — including mine- to help you be a more successful salesperson.

Learning to sell is a deeply personal journey. It’s driven by your personal style, your industry, your willingness to put the hard work and commitment into being valuable to your clients. Nothing penned by anyone else is going to give you that.

As George Carlin famously pointed out,

If you need self-help, why would read a book written by somebody else? That’s not self-help, that’s help! There is no such thing as self-help. If you did it yourself you didn’t need help.”

This is particularly true for sales. Books can help, but you have got to help people appreciate the value you offer.

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You really do have to figure this one out on your own. Others can pose guidelines and suggestions, but you’re the only one who can put YOUR boots on the ground, learn YOUR unique client’s needs, establish yourself as the problem-solver for your industry. Your personality type, conversational style, and a great many other factors come into play here, but that’s for another article. That said, you can only learn to sell by selling.

And for all those starving artists out there, kindly, there’s nothing noble or glamorous about not being able to make the rent, feed the kids or afford healthcare. Every single one of us has to sell something to someone in some context, just as mothers have to learn to sell their kids on Brussels sprouts or on finishing the homework. To do that, she has to understand what motivates her kids just as we have to understand what motivates our clients.

My guess? Popping her kids an email at the dinner table isn’t likely to accomplish either. Clients are no different. A little personal attention goes a long way- towards making that sale.

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