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When Sales is Like Bad Sex

March 23, 2009


Around the early 1980’s, sales moved out of the dark ages and set sail for the brave new world of consultative selling. At the heart of the revolution were open ended questions. In training, I was instructed to “pick the vault of business” until I found the “code” that would unlock untold wealth for me and my employer. (Back home, a sledge hammer and a pair of pliers were generally accepted as the best tools for hotwiring the goods). Sales was simply a case of asking the right questions until the prospect broke down and confessed, between sobs, that their life was meaningless without my product.

Every sales rep, who has got beyond the issuing of his name badge, knows he is supposed to ask questions. Unfortunately for many, questions are a chore, something to be endured before getting to the main event… not unlike the average male’s attitude towards bedroom foreplay. It’s something we know we’re supposed to be good at and yes, we found that article in Cosmopolitan very interesting but really, what’s the point?

Still every year, sex lives and sales quotas go unfulfilled: foreplay and questions are things we could all be better at. On one of these two life skills, I can provide guidance.

Questions are to sales what GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) is to the Finance Department. Without them – the function ceases to exist.

Unless you happen to make the cover of OK Magazine on a weekly basis, people aren’t really all that interested in you. Sales calls are a rare moment in corporate life when human beings (or prospects as we like to call them) have the opportunity to talk about themselves. “After hours of endless meetings, being over looked by my boss and losing the respect of my children I finally get to talk about me.” If anyone ever questions the social value of sales just point them to the psychological gap that consultative selling has filled since the collapse of communal village life.

Questions are fundamentally good, people want to talk about themselves and be acknowledged as experts in some capacity. From a tactical perspective, questions make selling a lot easier. For quite some time now, restaurants have asked their customers what they would like to eat rather than simply serving every dish on the menu. From a Closer’s perspective, questioning is quite possibly the most important life skill a salesperson can possess. The corporate athlete is an image that shows up on those god awful motivational posters but perhaps the slightly ruffled image of a journalist might be a better role model.

Questions allow us to build a human bond, uncover real needs that make our products easier to pitch and even quickly clear up when there isn’t a need. Too often questions are used as just another tactic to hoodwink the prospect into a sale. The logic goes if we keep questioning we’ll eventually wear ‘em down and find an opening. Wrong attitude. 99% of the world doesn’t need our services and questions are the most effective way of weeding out the misfits freeing us up to focus our limited energies on that small subset who might someday, willingly become paying customers…

A lot of sales folks are concerned about overstepping the thin blue line that divides client and vendor to stop corporate America from descending into anarchy. It’s true: questions need to form the basis of a two-way dialogue and should steer clear of the public cross examination dished out by the Senate Ethics committee. But in reality there are very few questions that are genuinely off limits.

In fact, it is the motive that is the issue rather than the sensitivity of the information. If I ask “what’s your budget” so I can arbitrarily price my widgets to squeeze your last available dollar then I’m just asking to be added to your junk email senders list. But “are my services within your available budget” seems like a sensible item to clear up before committing the next 90 hours to crafting a formal proposal. Similarly “who else am I bidding against” gets a little sketchy in the wake of corporate collusion but I would be wise to confirm if my prospect is leaning towards a local supplier or an off-shore vendor before adding the deal to my pipeline.

In summary, too many sales reps agonize over their first meeting PowerPoint deck when their time can be better spent preparing a few intelligent questions. (We should already be aware of publicly available information before we even set foot in the meeting). Good questions allow us to understand what the important issues are for our client, determine the relevance of our product offering and justify the value of further dialogue when it makes sense.

Enough of the soap box monologue – what aspect of sales in 2009 baffles you the most? If you could change one aspect of your sales career what would it be? Answers on a postcard to the usual address (the comments box below works just fine too).

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Papa permalink
    March 25, 2009 6:19 pm

    Maybe you should consider three months of concentrated writing instead of cycling around China? Your tallents in this direction are most considerable.

  2. longtale permalink
    March 30, 2009 3:02 am

    Hey there.

    “Some of the more self-loathing wanna be writers even end up in sales.”

    You clearly have an inclination for the former. Are you referring to yourself then? 🙂

  3. FRESHisBACK permalink
    May 14, 2009 12:42 am

    Looks like self-loathing wannabe writers can be found in sales too… And sales people who know something about GAAP! As a finance person, that’s pretty impressive (or, from a fellow self-loathing wannabe writer’s point of view, perhaps kind of sad).

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