Revenue Leadership

The Blockbuster Discovery Meeting!


What are you trying to achieve in that all-important first meeting?

Here is a STORY METAPHOR that may help ...


The Discovery Meeting. The first meeting with a potential client. I think it's the most important meeting in business. If it goes well, you might have a new client for decades. And if it goes badly. You've probably got nothing.

Most of those books over my shoulder teach questioning frameworks. Ask this question… then this question, then this question. When I teach salespeople how to conduct a discovery meeting, there's a couple of pretty serious problems with that approach.

One is understanding the correct intent. And it's not apparent in those (questioning) models. And the second is most salespeople struggle to follow those models.

I'd like to introduce the concept of a STORY MEETING - a different way to think about the discovery meeting, that first critical meeting. And I want to introduce a metaphor. I'd like you to imagine yourself (the salesperson) as a MOVIE DIRECTOR.

You are the movie director and you're looking to see if you can make your client THE STAR of your new movie. But why should a famous actor even meet with you the movie director? Well, if you think about it, there's only two reasons. The first would be, you've had a lot of successful hits in star's genre.

So you have some SUCCESS STORIES. OR, you've got a great idea - a great PLOT idea that they could star in. And that's the equivalent of an INSIGHT STORY.

So you get the meeting with your INSIGHT STORY or your SUCCESS STORY. And now you're going to consider your job in the meeting is to get that movie plot. To flesh-out that movie that you're going to make with your client.

You probably remember that there's four parts to a business story. We've got a setting, complication, a turning point and a resolution. But the movie you're going to make has four different names to the parts. The setting is called the BACK STORY. You need the backstory and then we need to SAVE THE HERO from dying. Because in a movie the hero nearly dies three or four times. So that's the complication. Then the hero SUCCEEDS the hero wins the battle and finally we have the LEGACY, what's… what's the follow on sequence.

When the star of the movie is sitting on the porch at the end in that last scene. With his bride or with one of his children. Looking back at that victory and thinking, yeah, that's what it meant. That's the legacy. That's the legacy of the hero’e success.

So we need to get those four parts. We just need to have four conversations within the discovery meeting. We'll start with the backstory and the way we do that is by telling our personal story mixed with that company story. That's the normal story we would tell first and we tell that story to ask the question - "What about you? How did you become a movie star? get into your role? How did your company get to where it got to?"

We exchange stories to get the backstory.

Then I normally coach you to skip the complications and talk about the success. How is success going to look? Then we can come back and look at the ways the hero could nearly dieAnd introduce our LIGHT SABRE, our special tools, those MAGIC KEYS that will prevent the hero from dying in this story.

And then we need to talk about the legacy. In the big picture where does it fit in with their whole company? What's it gonna mean a couple of years or five years down the track? And what would that mean for their career?What would be the legacy of this project that we're going to do?

... this movie that we're going to shoot?

So those are the four parts. If you can remember the four parts of the story. You can remember the four parts of the conversations that you to have. Of course, there are going to be questions. But really we're thinking about this as a natural conversation in four parts. We don't have to get the four parts in the right sequence. We can put the story back together afterwards.

And the beauty of this is that the proposal that we write is simply that story - It's the movie plot. That's the proposal. The best proposals read like a movie. Furthermore, we tell that story back to our boss When the boss asks how did the how did the meeting go? Most bosses, I can tell you, I was a sales manager for 20 years and most of my clients share this frustration - The salesperson comes back from the meeting and cannot answer the basic questions about the client situation.

But you can!!… You can lay out the entire plot - the backstory, how they going to win with your products and services and what it's really going to name for their company. That story is going to help you get the critical resources that you need internally to be able to deliver that project. Furthermore, your client, on receiving your story, your plot, will be able to share that story within their organization and persuade the other stakeholders. Maybe people that you don't even meet. So that people are being persuaded to make this movie. They like that plot because you put it in a story format that they can understand.

So when you think about the discovery meeting, think about being a movie director,and making your client the STAR!

The movie director and the star of the movie are on the same social level. You're not "helping" or trying have a "relationship" which is what a lot of people think that sales is about, that puts you at a low social status and you're not a detective using questions like an inquisitor to find out logically why they must buy from you, or someone challenging them and pretending you know more about their business tahn they do. That's above them on a social level.

No, you're meeting as equals, you are the director and they are the - star and you're gonna do this together.

And that's the right - it's the right social status to have in the discovery meeting, and it's much easier to remember the Hollywood movie and the four parts of the movie, that you need to have a conversation about to conduct a great discovery meeting!

Tell me what you think in the comments. I'd love to hear what you think, I'm Mike Adams.

Sales Competitions - Do they Work? Really?

When I joined a certain North American company as hemisphere head of sales (don't check my LinkedIn! ) they had just announced the President's club winners. The largest deal of the year was made in Anonymesia.

I wanted to understand that deal and interviewed the main players and the customer. There's no doubt that our Anonymesia country manager was the deal architect and main sales person. She was a personal friend of the customer CEO and she made the deal.

So who went to President's club?

The rookie sales guy ....and ....the country manager's boss who was not even based in country! Two people that contributed almost nothing to the deal of the year. That president's club decision triggered a collapse of the entire workforce in Anonymesia including the loss of a great country manager.

Let's play a different movie ...

My first job out of university was as field engineer with the oilfield services multi-national, Schlumberger.

Our training cohort assembled in Singapore in bright new coveralls for fire-fighting and first aid training; three Indonesians, two Australians, two Americans, two French, two Egyptians, one Japanese, one Lebanese, one Venezuelan, one Malaysian one Thai and one Palestinian on a forged Tunisian passport (another story) We were to be trained to operate electronic survey instruments which are lowered deep in oil wells to measure rock and fluid properties.

After a week in Singapore there was one month familiarisation on an oil rig, before three months intensive training. During the familiarisation, I got a picture from experienced engineers of what that training would be like:

“Its hell! You have an exam every week and if you fail, they kick you out. You hardly get any sleep and there is a 24 hour exam at the end”.

When we got to the training centre, a few kilometres south of Medan in Sumatra, the regime was indeed, tough. Long days of theory and practical tasks through the week and all day Saturday to study for a weekly exam. Sundays were free but we were mostly exhausted from unfamiliar labour.

Within a couple of weeks, both Egyptians and one of the Indonesians were fired for failing tests.

Their failure was not through lack of intelligence, trainees were selected from the top of their universities. No, the weekly competitive 'scoreboard' showed the obvious reason; good English speakers at the top, poor English speakers at the bottom.

The failures were affecting group morale and the schedule was too intense. We got together and hatched a plan.

A deal was offered to the training school manager; we guaranteed a 100% pass rate in return for testing on Friday evenings to allow a full weekend for relaxation. The training centre manager was sceptical, this was unheard of in 33 previous schools, he was convinced we would fail, but he agreed.

We changed our study routine to include intensive tutoring for the non-English speakers and we studied in mixed-nationality groups.

The results were instantaneous, a dramatic improvement at the bottom of the list. Our weekends were spent exploring North Sumatra, touring the volcanic island in Lake Toba on motorcycles, crossing Sumatra to the west coast surf beaches, climbing an active volcano and lazing on the beach on the East coast.

By graduation day we were a tight knit team of friends with the highest pass rate in the history of the training centre.

So, Sales Leaders, before you create internal sales competitions you may like to consider:

Is the competition fair? 

Does everyone in your team even speak the language? It’s common that only a small proportion of sales teams can speak 'sales'. Furthermore, I’ve yet to see a sales team with equal territories, so what is the basis for competition?

Can your objectives be achieved another way? 

Maybe your team can achieve your objective on their own terms? Are you willing to listen to what they want?

You are not the only leader.

It is likely that you have team members that can also lead, are you willing to give them an opportunity to show what they can do?.


Here are some photos from that happy time. Apologies for the poor image quality.

Top photos - At the Medan Training Centre ITC34, Nabil and Heru

Lower Photos - First month oil rig familiarisation, offshore Sulawesi

The Author operating state of the art technology, circa 1985

Our happy band of brothers weekend touring - Lake Toba, Padang, Volcanoes and Beaches, 

Francois, Katsuaki, Jeswant, Jim, Nabil, Peter, Phil, Jose.

Magicians, Marines and Medics - Understanding Sales Roles

A long time ago, when working on oil rigs, I was told there are two types of welder; the type that can weld all day on a pipeline and the type that can perform intricate repairs.

“Don’t ever mix ‘em up!” I was admonished.

We’ve been told forever, there are two types of sales people, hunters and farmers. The problem with this classification is there are two types of hunter and you had better not mix them up!

So, allow us to introduce three sales personas that will help you think more effectively about managing and developing sales teams.


These are the new business developers who can open up a new geography, crack the first market with a new product or bring in unexpected mega deals. Every sales person likes to think they are one but true sales magicians are rare, exceedingly rare.

Also called rainmakers, magicians work without a sales process because they have to create one for each new sales problem.

Magicians may carry a business card titled “Business Development” but it could also say Founder, General Manager, Business Manager, Principal Consultant, Product Specialist or Market Strategist.

Magicians are extraordinarily curious and creative in the process of moulding and sculpting their own organisation and a future client organisation into two shapes that match each other.

The Magician’s work may sometimes look like good fortune but if you make the mistake of thinking that and of allowing others to take credit for their success, then be ready to find another magician.

After Magicians weave their magic, sales and business managers can create a sales process and send in Marines to systematically expand from the beachhead.


Marines work a territory and follow a well-understood sales process. Through training or by character, Marines are well suited to a type of dirty work that most do not enjoy; such as contacting people they don’t know, being rejected on occasion and handling the pressure of meeting financial targets each quarter. Great Marines are also rare but not as rare as Magicians.

We need not concern ourselves about whether they are ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ Marines, there are plenty of drone pilot Marines these days but they all follow a process and they all count their wins.

Marines are disciplined, focused and appreciate that the harder they work the more business they write, so they play the numbers game. Magicians do not work this way, indeed, casual observation of a magician may lead you to describe them as lazy.

Which leaves …


Medics care about the long term health of their client patients. These are the account managers and customer care specialists that ensure a healthy outcome for the company’s customers.

Software as a Service companies, call this role Customer Success Manager, and these have become the most important sales people in that industry. Medics carefully grow a nascent customer from zero and quickly patch up any haemorrhages.

Medics are concerned about  maintaining a long term healthy customer relationship. They are highly qualified in their technology area and held in high regard by the customers they support.

Let’s use this terminology and thinking to shed light on some otherwise difficult to understand sales situations.

Start Up and Fast Growing Companies

We are often asked about the best type of sales people for start-up and fast growing young companies. Hiring the wrong type of sales person at an early stage can be catastrophic for a new company.

Early stage business development usually requires Magicians, if the company founders don’t have that skill, they need to find one and pay well. After the market entry has been cracked, start-ups need a sales consultant (or sales manager) to design a process for the Marines. As a rule, neither Magicians nor Marines are well suited to designing a sales process.

The typical sales role sequence as a business grows look like this

And another way to visualise this is by considering the market adoption cycle


ales roles required as a market develops

Mixed Roles

What if you need one person to be a combination of Magician, Marine and Medic?

That question just about answers itself doesn’t it?

Of course people are somewhat adaptable. You could get medic work from a magician but that would be a waste of talent. A Marine can be more customer focused but neither the Medic nor the Marine is likely to succeed at the Magician’s role.

For each of your sales positions you should be clear about whether the role is primarily Magician, Marine or Medic and look for candidates that fit those skill sets.

Personality or Skill?

It might seem that we are describing personality types but these are skill sets that exhibit certain behaviours and that is an important distinction. A recurring error in sales recruitment is to recruit based on personality type. Research shows only a weak causal relationship between personality type and sales success, so we strongly recommend that you test for relevant skills.

Almost every sales candidate will try to present themselves as a Magician. If you need a Magician you better have a process for testing whether they have those skills. If you need a Marine or a Medic, don’t hire a Magician and similarly, test for Marine and Medic skills.


The next time you read or hear


advice ask yourself; 

      "What type of sales role is this advice relevant for?

Few sales 'tip' articles will make the distinction but generic sales advice is generally useless unless it distinguishes between the Magician, Marine and Medic roles.

Next Article

In my last article I posed the question "How do you keep good sales people?". Next article I will answer that question using the insight of Magicians, Marines and Medics.


Picture Credits - images adapted from

Sales Skill Training in Pictures

Pretty much every sales team we work with has a ranked performance chart that looks like the one above.

If only every one in the team was as as skilled as your best sales person! (Green Bar). You could more than double your revenue.

How to increase Sales Skill Level?

You could put them all in a general training class, which they will probably enjoy and receive some benefit (Yellow Boxes)

But it costs you a few days of lost selling time,  not all will benefit and ...they forget fairly quickly without reinforcement ...

Then you lose some people ...and that general training investment return really looks slim.

What about  a program of assessed coached development instead?

Each sales person works first on the most important skill for their role and development level

Each person is motivated by the coaching attention and increased success.You retain your staff and they are more successful. Coloured boxes below represent the impact of different focussed training modules

Five steps to Landing the Deal

A few years ago I read Propellerhead, Antony Woodward’s highly amusing account of learning to fly. The book starts with Antony’s friend Richard returning to England from Africa with a pilot’s license and instant sex appeal! The magical effect of a pilot’s license on conversations with the fairer sex fuelled Antony’s motivation to learn to fly.

Richard and Antony could only afford part shares in a flimsy microlight but they found a third partner with inexpensive hanger space and low cost instruction in country Norfolk where they would escape to from London for weekends flying.

Unfortunately, Antony proved to be a singularly unskilled pilot. While his friends quickly acquired their microlight certifications, Antony struggled with all aspects of piloting but especially landing. He had absorbed the theory, practised with instructors but when it was his turn to land it all went horribly wrong.

The epiphany for Antony was the realisation that 'the plane lands itself”!

All Antony needed to do was put the aircraft on the right landing path and the plane lands itself. Antony had an erroneous belief that there was a complex action that he needed to perform at the moment of touch down.

And so it is with sales.

There is a widely held, erroneous belief that there are secret tricks to ‘close the deal’.

Yes,there is a secret but it’s not in the landing, it’s in understanding and managing the landing flight path.

Flight Path Step 1 – Buyer Commitment to Change

Every sale involves change for the buyer. If the buyer doesn’t feel the need for change then, not surprisingly, nothing happens! Depending on what you sell, more than half of stagnant deals in your pipeline can be attributed to failing at this first hurdle.

Questions to ask:

“So what are you planning to do about <this issue>?”

Asking potential customer’s about their plans for solving their own business challenges is illuminating, it signals intent. Few sales people ask this question. You can lock in that intent with another question:

“Would you say there is an important need to change < Situation >?”

Rather than you say there is a need to change, you want them to say they will change. Then the psychological law of ‘consistency’ comes into play. People want to be consistent with their own pronouncements.

Flight Path Step 2 – Commitment to Change Now!

The larger and more significant the deal, the more important it is for there to be a compelling event. In general, we humans don’t like to change and we won’t unless we are compelled somehow.

These questions can tease this out:

“Where does this project fit in your priorities?”

“What is it costing you to continue like this?”

“What will happen if you don’t make this change?”

Cost of delay, Success and Future Success (promised land) stories can persuasively move a future customer to take action now.  All of these stories should be in your sales team Story Library.

Flight Path Step 3 – Commitment to your Solution Type

For every business challenge there is normally a range of solution possibilities. You may propose productivity software (for example) but your customer could also choose to outsource or hire low cost labour to solve her productivity problem.

Gaining commitment to your solution type requires a good understanding of your competition and the relative benefits of different solution types. Many sales people think far too narrowly about who their competitors may be.

Having understood the competitive landscape, your job now is to get the customer to commit to benefits of your solution type and disavow the failings of competitive solutions.

“Would you say that <insert your advantage> is a critical requirement?”

“So you are seeking to avoid <competitor’s weakness>?”

Again we are employing the psychological law of consistency to get the customer to announce intentions in favour of your solution type.

Flight Path Step 4 – Commitment to You

The customer is now committed to your solution type but why buy from you and not a similar competitor?

Often this commitment is personal and the psychological principle of “liking” comes into play. All things being equal people will do business with people they know and like. The most natural way to invoke ‘liking’ is to find your future customer likeable. The persuasive law of reciprocity says that if someone likes us we will like them back. Engaging in rapport building with two-way personal stories also increases likeability.

Again the psychological law of consistency applies. If you have persistently asked for and received small commitments from your future customer, you become someone your customer gives things to. To be consistent, she should also be inclined to give you the final deal.

I wouldn’t like to give the impression that the sales person need only apply persuasion techniques to win business. By this stage of discussion a solid financial business case should also have been created. Ideally co-created with the customer buying team.

Flight Path Step 5 – Commitment to Pay

Finally we are at closing the deal. At this stage there is often an emotional disagreement over price or terms and conditions. Be aware this is just a normal desire by the buyer to reduce the risk of making a mistake - your buyer's natural fear of a crash landing!

Your future customer is asking herself Will I be fired?, Will it work as advertised?, Am I paying too much?

Your task as the seller is to reassure the buyer that she is on a safe landing path, If you have locked in the first four commitments, it will be ok, reiterate those commitments and retell the ‘promised land’ story.

Happy Landings!



For details on psychological laws and principles of persuasion in sales, see Robert Cialdini’s,

Influence The, Psychology of Persuasion

, Harper Collins 1984, in which six basic forms of influence are described

Your Company Story

Do you know that telling the story o how and why your company exists can be a secret sales weapon?

How do your sales people describe your company today? Many describe their company rather than tell a story and it often sounds like this;

"We are the largest/best/most innovative/most successful company in <pick your sector>".

There is a better way.

For thousands of generations, humans have used stories to memorably engage, inspire and educate. Your sales people can use the same technique with your company story,  

IF you take the trouble to prepare that story for them.

Our consulting company, has only been in existence for eighteen months but the story about why we exist has helped us engage with several early clients.

Here is an example of a company creation story that we helped create for one of our clients.

If you work for a large corporation then a story about your company division or geographical territory may be more persuasive such as Mike's story from 

Schlumberger in Russia

The Ponytail and why your stories must be true

Have you heard the story about how NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that would work in zero gravity but the Russians were smarter – they just used pencils!

The story is told to mock profligate government spending and love of complex technology.

Checkout the story leader.png

There is only one problem with the story – it isn’t true! It’s an urban myth.

It turns out that in the early years of space travel both the Americans and the Russians used pencils in space but pencil tips can break and float into sensitive electronic equipment so a solution was needed. A private inventor developed a pen that would work in zero gravity (at a modest cost) and NASA and the Russians purchased the design.

Not such an interesting story.

What happens if you tell a story that isn’t true and you are found out?

Of course your credibility is gone. We teach sales people to use purposeful stories to build rapport and to progress their business opportunities. And credibility is a critically important resource for sales people.

So you need to find true stories …

Christmas day, 1985, I was operating an electronic survey instrument two kilometres deep in an oil well in the rice fields of Java in Indonesia. I was sick from food poisoning, homesick and in the world’s most populous Muslim country there would be no Christmas.

The oil well I was surveying had a leak – a hole in in the steel casing - and I was running an experimental ultra-sonic scanning tool that, theoretically, could measure the thickness of the casing with enough accuracy to locate a hole.

That was the theory but all I got was unintelligible data.

We winched the tool to the surface to see if it could be repaired. On the rig floor, as I was explaining to the company man that my fancy piece of equipment was not working, a rough young man with southern US accent piped up with:

“Y’all looking for a hole? I can run ya a ponytail”

It turns out that a ‘ponytail’ is a length of frayed rope attached to weight and run down hole on a slick line cable. When the frayed rope passes a hole in the casing it catches and a spike on the cable tension indicates the depth of the hole causing the leak.

A one dollar piece of frayed rope did a job that my $300,000 worth of electronics could not.  

And I had one more thing to be sick about.



Mike's other posts:

Zen Mind - Sales Mind Games - Part 2

Sales Mind Games - Part 1 - How to Sell

The Power of Stories. The Art of Persuasion (Part 2)

Mindjacking with Metaphors. The Art of Persuasion (Part 1)

Chasing Shadows? Three Thinking Traps to Avoid in Sales.

Six reasons why technical people don't sell and one good reason why they can

Warning! Step carefully through the Sales Recruitment Minefield

The Power of Stories. The Art of Persuasion (Part 2)

I think the first time I noticed the power of stories in sales was when I was managing a sales team in Russia for Schlumberger in 2000.

Schlumberger was formed in 1926 after the invention of a technique to measure the variation of resistivity in oil wells and hence locate the oil. Today, Schlumberger is a $35 billion revenue company which dominates the oil and gas services business. But the company suffered a huge setback in the 1930s when Stalin nationalised its assets in Russia.

In the mid-1990s when Russia was opening up to western companies after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Schlumberger needed to make a decision on whether to re-enter the market. Then CEO, Euan Baird was asked how much money he was willing to risk on a Russia re-entry. Ewan’s answer was “$200 million”.

With that answer, Schlumberger set about placing senior experts and investing in two of the top six Russian oil companies. The results were astonishing. Using western techniques, the two Russian oil companies achieved dramatic production increases while their competitor’s production was falling.

I told this story many times and heard it re-told by my customers. The story’s effect was remarkable and unmistakable. The power of  stories to capture our attention lies in the narrative journey; the complications, trials and mistakes that expose the hero's vulnerabilities. Without the setback of Stalin's nationalisation the story would not have the same power.

More recently, while working to build our sales consulting company, I listened to my business partner, Sue Findlay, tell her story to a prospective customer who had already told us that he was “not buying”. Again, the story’s impact was striking and immediate. The managing director reciprocated with his story and opened up about the sales challenges they were experiencing and we have started to work with them.

The wonderful thing about learning how to use stories in sales is that it is so much easier and more natural than any other conversation method.

Mindjacking with Metaphors. The Art of Persuasion (Part 1)

Mike's other posts

Chasing Shadows? Three Thinking Traps to Avoid in Sales.

Six reasons why technical people don't sell and one good reason why they can

Warning! Step carefully through the Sales Recruitment Minefield

The art of persuasion. Mindjacking with metaphors.

The art of persuasion. Mindjacking with metaphors.

Change is at the heart of sales. Our best prospects are companies that need to change, whether to grow, be more efficient or to avoid trouble. When a company needs to change then the minds of the people involved in the change program also need to change. As sales people we want to influence that mind shift to the mutual benefit of the customer and our company.

We use questions to understand the mind of the customer but at some point it will be necessary to change or expand the customer’s view and that requires teaching or rhetoric, or both. This post is about a specific persuasion device, the metaphor.

For guidance on persuasion we should look to the masters; politicians, film makers, authors, comedians, artists and advertisers. Through stories, images and evocative language, master persuaders hijack our attention, taking our minds hostage with a metaphoric knife to the neck reshaping our thoughts to suit their purpose.

Here are some examples you may know

“I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC”, Apple Ad

“Ideas that stick”, 3M Post-it notes Ad

“Let’s say the foot is your company and the banana skin is a change in interest rates”, Continental Bank Ad

A hospital bed is a parked taxi, with the meter running”, Groucho Marx

As sales and marketing people we may not be in the same league as these masters, but we can learn from them. Here is a favourite business example from my experience.

Many years ago when I was selling software systems to the oil and gas industry, we marketed two database systems; a geoscientist's project database for interpretation work and a master database for raw data and final interpretation data.  Unfortunately, the two databases were somewhat incompatible, had different user interfaces and our main competitor sold a single database that served as both a master and project.

Our customers could not understand why we didn't have just one database and we were constantly defending two database architecture. Even internally it was a contentious issue.

Then one day, our marketing manager put up the image below and the debate and arguments stopped.  

I believe this image was a competitive turning point. Its simple image metaphor eloquently explains why two databases made sense and how they could have similar characteristics but different functionalities and purposes.

The beauty of this metaphor is its transportability. Imagine, that after seeing it, your customer contact attends an internal meeting and the discussion turns to your master/project databases. Your contact introduces the metaphor and the mid-air refuelling image effortlessly and magically does its work on the buying committee.

Marshall Thurber calls metaphors “stories on steroids” because compelling metaphors can have near miraculous persuasive power.

But how are compelling metaphors created? And what is a good topic for metaphors? The first step is to notice and appreciate their power in everyday conversation and discourse. James Geary in his Tedx (  talk on metaphors claims that we average six metaphors per minute in normal conversation. Have you noticed?

As you start to notice, you will observe that many are overused clichés (which should be avoided like the plague ;-)). You will also note that metaphors which persuade tend to have an element of surprise. George Orwell (1946) said “never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print”.

Think about what your customer does not appreciate about his business that your products or services would solve and see if you can come up with an image which can expand your customer’s point of view. You can use images and ideas from nature, popular culture, business, science fiction, historical stories and fairy tales. It doesn't matter, as long as the chosen metaphor will resonate with your target. Brainstorming metaphors works well in a multi-disciplinary workshop with sales, service and marketing.

Happy mindjacking!

As a side note, my father, no fan of business clichés, once stopped a management consultant in his tracks (sorry) with;

“but if we drop the ball, and it’s a level playing field, the ball will be where we dropped it and we can just pick it up”.

Chasing Shadows? Three Thinking Traps to Avoid

A few years ago, I was sales manager for an international sales team in a multinational technology company.  We provided high-value products and services and there was a formal decision committee responsible for approving sales opportunities from early identification to, hopefully, a successful close.

I was concerned about our low sales win-rate and thought that we were chasing too many unwinnable or unlikely tenders, diluting our overall sales effort. Our activity level was high, but quality was low.

Increasingly, I played the devil’s advocate in the decision gate meetings, urging the team to ‘no-bid’ the less likely cases. But every opportunity had its passionate champion and even if we agreed that the chance was low, there was always the old; “we can’t afford not to bid, it will damage our customer relationship”.

Then one day, I was sent a tender for review which, incredibly, included the name of our major competitor’s product in the title;

Tender for provision of <Competitor’s Product>.

Excellent, I thought, finally, our chance for a no-bid decision! This is the ultimate unwinnable tender.

I will never forget that meeting. Here was a tender that we clearly had no chance of winning and yet, unbelievably, I was hearing arguments that a non-conforming bid stood a good chance.  Eventually, I lost my cool, pulled rank and we no-bid.

The sky didn't fall down, we worked on other bids and a strange air of relief and calm fell over the technical sales team. Furthermore, the customer continued to talk with us.

We could dismiss this as just an amusing story, but chasing unlikely business is something I have seen in many companies and industries. Why are normally rational people so intent on wasting company resources on low chance gambles? How do we make sense of this phenomenon?

I think there are three psychological forces at work and each represents a cognitive error or bias that we need to guard against:

  1. False Hope

The cost of bidding seems low compared to the potential payoff. Like buying a lottery ticket, it appears to be a low cost for a large payoff. Unfortunately, low cost is an illusion. The real cost of chasing low-chance business is the high-chance business you missed out on. Opportunity cost, not bidding cost should be top of mind when considering a bid.

2. Fear of Loss

The flip side of false hope is avoiding the feeling of loss experienced when that hope is extinguished by a no-bid decision.  We irrationally feel the loss as if we lost the tender when really we lost nothing but an unlikely possibility.

3. Diversion from real work

For sales people it’s easier to think “this tender will make my number” rather than getting out and doing real sales work finding more  business. This is a normal human frailty and a primary cause of missed quota in B2B businesses all over the world in every industry. 

The solution is eloquently described in a sales novel (!) called “Selling to Zebras”(Jeff and Chad Koser, 2008).

Every company needs a clear description of what its natural prey looks like. If you are adapted to hunt zebras then don’t be distracted by other animals. 

Zebra identification cannot be left to the sales department, they will hunt everything that moves. A cross-departmental team should agree the ‘zebra checklist” with a scoring mechanism to set a go/no-go threshold and you should make zebra discussions a common theme of your sales and management meetings:

“Black and white stripes, check! Four legs, check! Equine family, check! – go for it!”

Our sales consulting company was created because of our Managing Director, Sue Findlay’s, frequent frustration when she was running her ‘winning tenders’ consulting business.  When approached to support urgent tenders, Sue would often find there was little chance of success because either the business was not qualified (not a zebra) or the sales team had not done the necessary pre-tender sales work.

Strictly defining and sticking to your ‘zebra’ means that your sales team will have time to do the all-important pre-tender sales work.

Happy hunting!

Six reasons why technical people don't sell and one good reason why they can

People with technical expertise are ideally positioned to help prospective customers but often shrink from sales engagements. The technical archetype is cartoon character Dilbert - engineer and supreme anti-salesman with enough misplaced brutal honesty to make any salesperson (or prospective customer) cringe.

By technical in this article, we mean experts in their chosen field but not an expert in sales. Engineers, scientists, service professionals such as service managers, lawyers, accountants, architects and consultants, all may fit the definition.

Many large technology companies use a buddy system for direct sales engagements, pairing a technical expert with a sales person. The sales person's role is to set-up the meetings, manage the customer engagement and commercial matters and the technical sales role is to shut up and only answer the exact question when asked. This approach is expensive and limited. Smaller firms cannot afford it. 

Wouldn't it be better if technical people could sell?

There are six basic reasons why technical people struggle with sales and some of them may surprise you. This article considers each reason and what can be done to improve a technical person’s sales technique.

1. Attitude - Sales is a dirty word

Many people associate sales with underhanded tricks and tactics to lure people to buy - the image of the fast talking used car salesman comes to mind. Technical people may not understand the true role of sales and may not want to be associated with this stereotype. A technical person with a professional customer relationship might be concerned that their relationship will be tarnished by any hint of 'sales' activity. 

These attitudes are based on an incorrect and outdated view of sales. Today's customers are better informed about your products and services due to the wealth of information available on the Internet, but for complex products and services they highly value the advice of a technical expert. A technical person's ability to help a prospective customer buy (we call that sales) is a crucial skill.

2. Fear – Uneasiness with social engagement

If you are more fluent in your area of expertise than in dialogue skills then just starting a sales conversation can be daunting. Fortunately, it is not difficult to learn and practise conversation openings. Behind this reluctance to engage is a fear of rejection. You can only be rejected if you propose or ask for something. 

Learning how to withhold "proposing and asking" until the appropriate time significantly reduces the chance of rejection and increases the chance of a constructive business relationship. An advantage for technical people is that they carry a business card that confers more credibility than sales people which helps in securing a meeting.

3. Empathy - Lack of diagnosis skills

If you are an expert, you may be able to quickly understand a customer's problem and propose a solution. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Imagine walking into your doctor's surgery and from a distance, the doctor exclaims "You're really sick!, you need this medicine" You would feel uneasy that the doctor had not properly examined you. 

The examination is not just for the doctor's benefit, it also serves to assure the patient that there is a proper level of care and that the doctor is proficient. One of the most important benefits of a proper and careful diagnosis is that it confers credibility on the person making the diagnosis. The customer needs assurance that you truly understand his or her situation before you propose anything.

4. Value - Lack of business impact skills

The customer is not purchasing your products and services for their aesthetic beauty or for you to have fun installing them. As a technical expert, it is essential to evaluate and quantify the positive business impacts of your products and services and determine whether those benefits outweigh the costs. 

You need to ask questions that uncover the financial impact of any proposal you might make and you need to make a business case calculation, in your head or in a spreadsheet, to be sure there is value before you propose. This is a skill that most technical people can manage if taught how and when to do it in the conversation flow.

Poor diagnosis and poor estimation of the customer's business case leads to the very common sales problem of proposing more than what is required to solve the customer's issues. This kills trust. The instant you propose something that is not needed, the customer will think 

"This person is just trying to sell me something"

and your credibility is gone.

5. Ownership - Who owns the problem?

You've carefully diagnosed the customer's situation and can see a positive business case, it’s time to propose a solution, right? Not so fast! You must keep in mind that it is the customer's problems - not yours, much as you would love to solve it. It is not safe to propose a solution before asking the customer what he or she plans to do about their problem. 

"What is your current plan?" is a simple question that uncovers many aspects of a potential sale, including whether or not you are talking with the right person in the customer organisation and whether or not the customer already has a workable solution. 

Giving the customer due respect that they own the problem and they may know how to solve it makes them receptive to your proposal. 

Now, finally you can ask 

"does it make sense to look at some solution options?"

6. Acumen - Fear of commercial matters

Technical people are often worried about financial questions such as "What will it cost?" or "Can I have a discount?”. You may happily leave these matters to a commercial person because if you overcome steps one to five, the main selling work has been done. Just say you don’t have the authority - that’s what the best negotiators do.

Now, congratulate yourself! You won the deal!

We say that because the key to a successful price negotiation is a thorough understanding of the customer's situation, interests and the value they will receive from your proposal. If you would like to also excel at negotiation then treat that as the next learning objective after sales, but the hard work is done.

The one good reason why technical people can sell

Each of these six limitations can be overcome with the right type of training and coaching. Training to cover the "how" of an ethical sales conversation and individual coaching with feedback to displace some poor conversation habits and replace them with more effective dialogue components. It takes considerably less time to train a technical person to sell than to train a sales person to acquire the relevant technical expertise (if that is even possible). 

We provide individual coaching using a structured sales dialogue framework to teach technical people how to have sales conversation. We use video feedback, sales simulations and neuro-linguistic techniques to change ingrained patterns of conversation behaviour.

It is important to appreciate that full-time salespeople often suffer from the same fears, and make the same conversation errors as technical people. No one engages in ‘perfect’ sales conversations because no one can read the customer's mind. However, a small increase in selling skill, coupled with deep technical knowledge is a powerful asset.

Your blog author, an Electrical and Mechanical Engineer with a Masters degree in Business and IT, has spent twenty years selling a wide variety of products and services across multiple industries and fifteen years managing teams of sales and technical sales people. The author has seen first-hand what just a small improvement in sales skill can do for technical people and the companies they work for. 

We encourage the reader to consider the untapped sales potential of technical people in your organisation because your customers will thank you for the better quality engagement with more business.

Step carefully through the Sales Recruitment Minefield

Danger Minefield

How do you find and recruit a good B2B sales person?

A simple question, without a simple answer.

It’s also a question of high consequence because a poor sales hiring decision can be extremely expensive. Even an excellent sales recruit will take sales cycle time plus 90 days to become effective, assuming that your on-boarding process, training and sales readiness kits are in order.

A poor hire can be a threat to your company’s reputation.

There is another factor at play: your chances of finding a good candidate are not good. Over the last few months, we have been surveying buyers and procurement specialists from tier-one and tier-two telecommunications and resources companies about their experiences with salespeople.

The feedback has been uniformly and disappointingly negative. For example, to the question "

Out of ten salespeople that you meet, how many provide value to you and your business?" We received answers between none and two.

To the question "

…of those ten sales people, how many, in your opinion, created a negative impression and damaged the brand of the companies they represented?” The answers were between two and four. 

Is there a good test for sales people?

A normal sales recruitment process at the companies I've worked with goes something like this: a recruitment company is given a brief and presents a couple of ‘qualified’ candidates for consideration. The recruitment company will have employed a testing process often with a secret sauce recipe such as a favourite psychometric test. Short-listed candidates then face a series of company interviews with the various department managers for ‘culture’ fit assessment. Whichever candidate interviews best, gets the job - after the candidate's proposed references are checked. 

This process puts heavy reliance on information sourced from the candidate (cv, references, psychometric tests results) and the recruiter - a person who may not be an expert in your business (or sales). Furthermore, and importantly, there seldom is a perfect candidate for any role; almost every new hire needs development and training in some aspect of the role, and the process just described does not uncover what those development needs might be.

Testing Sales People – it can be done

At our company, we use three objective tests for salespeople that cannot be gamed or side-lined by fast talking. These tests take a bit of extra effort but are extremely illuminating. 

Test 1.

Sales Conversation Skill

.The fundamental sales skill is mastery of the customer conversation and the best way to test that skill, short of observing  actual customer meetings, is to perform and video record a sales  role play simulation.

The video should be analysed in comparison to a conversation model to see whether the sales person is able to establish credibility, probe for the customer’s ambitions and issues, evaluate the business and personal impact of those ambitions and issues and close to a sensible next step.

This is one of the very few ways of measuring real sales skill; it doesn't take more than an 30 minutes per candidate and almost no company does it. The result is a highly predictive of actual sales skill and a poor result is a red flag because there is no guarantee that you can train for conversation soft skills.

Test 2 - Written Proposal

It is also necessary to test a candidate's written skills. Take the same scenario from the sales role play and ask the candidate, under supervision and without electronic aids, to write a one-page sales proposal. This test will show his or her writing skills and whether or not he or she has been trained in proposal writing.

Test 3 - Knowledge Test.

Finally, you should employ a formal knowledge test. Conduct a survey of your best sales people and determine what industry and generic product and service knowledge is required for the role. Prepare a written test that all candidates perform under your supervision.

The result of this test is a good indication of how quickly candidates will adapt to your sales situations and any gaps they may have in their knowledge. A poor result in this test can be overcome with industry and company induction training but be sure that you retest before putting a new hire in front of customers on their own.

Finally, to reference checks: it is fine to ask a candidate for customer and employer referees but you are making an important decision - and you should be looking for independent referees. It is well worth searching your own and other staff member’s contacts and social media databases to see who knows the candidate. Most business people are happy to take a short reference check phone call. Your conversation should focus on the candidates’ integrity, reliability, coach-ability and work ethic.

Hiring a B2B sales person is a risky proposition but you can reduce that risk and home in on a suitable candidate with a thoughtful selection methodology that favours objective tests.


Footnote on psychometric tests

A company I worked for had accumulated several years of psychometric test results covering the majority of their sales force and I thought it would be interesting to see if any aspect of those tests correlated with sales performance. I noted the wide range of psychometric test scores in our sales team and the similarly wide range in sales performance, but unfortunately (for the test) there was no correlation between any psychometric test parameter and sales performance, the correlation factors were close to zero.

It’s not a surprising result. Psychometric tests present information mined from the candidate and rank low in prediction value. If you are considering the use of a psychometric test then ask for evidence of test validation for salespeople from a peer reviewed scientific journal.

Image courtesy

Is the Sales Pitch Dead?

Is the Sales Pitch Dead?

Is the sales pitch dead? How to sell complex services?

When should you pitch your products and services?  A good answer is “only when and if the customer asks, or never”.  However, if you only pitch when the customer asks it won’t seem like pitching ….so, “never" is the right answer.

How can you sell without pitching? Let’s first define what we mean by “pitching”. You’re pitching if you extoll the virtues of your product and services with the intention of convincing a customer to buy. If you assume (or hope) that your audience wants or needs your products and services - you’re pitching!

We experience pitching every day; on TV, watching YouTube, browsing the web and I think I can safely say that most of us are highly irritated by it. So why irritate your customer?

You’re not pitching when, while introducing your company, for example,  you passionately describe your products and services and what they do for other customers - that is quite ok. Most people like to interact with people that are passionate about their business.

If you learn to consult instead of pitch you’ll find that customers will trust you and become curious about how you might be able to help them. Unfortunately, many salespeople (especially part-time salespeople such as managers and technical people) have learnt their sales technique from movies and TV programs and they automatically pitch.

How can you learn to consult instead of pitching? I recommend looking for a  training program that teaches consultative questioning techniques and offers plenty of opportunity to practise. Like any new skill, it takes time and practice - but your customers will thank you by giving you more business. 

If you like to read you, I recommend “The Secrets of Question-based Selling” by Tom Freese, for more on the concept.

Happy consulting!.