Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Only Thing in Sales that Matters

I’ve sat through a lot of corporate sales training. I’ve been certified in multiple sales methodologies. I’ve accompanied experienced sales professionals on literally thousands of sales calls. And yea, I’ve carried a bag.

And without specific intervention, the development of conscious intent is never part of the sales training or meeting/call prep process.

We bring our intent to each and every interaction with others. While most of the time we are not conscious of our intent (hope they don’t find out I’m an imposter,  let’s get this over with quickly, I need them to like me), sometimes we are present to our own intent (I need this deal, I have to close this deal, I hope they don’t think I’m stupid, can I get out of here in time to beat rush hour traffic).

And invariably, our intent doesn’t serve us. Conscious or otherwise, our intent drives our thoughts, actions, spoken word. In doing so, our intent limits outcomes to a small subset of possibilities.
Moreover, our intent is quite visible to others. While we may not be present to our self-serving intent – gotta close this deal – it is clear to the prospect on the other side of the table or phone call. And our self-serving intent poisons the process of engagement and discovery.

Who wants to deal with a sales rep who only cares about closing their deal? What about the needs of the prospect, of the organization, what about their strategic business goals, what about their milestones, deadlines, pressures, MBOs, getting home to dinner with their family or making their kid’s soccer game?

I learned the power of intent early in my selling career. After watching my initial interactions with retail customers, my store manager provided this coaching: “You need to ask for the order!” I took that coaching to heart and primed myself…I was ready…nobody was going to escape from the store without being asked if they wanted to buy…My intent was to close everybody!

To this day, I remember the absolute awkwardness of what happened next. A woman and her daughter walked into the store and asked a simple question about one of our products. Almost immediately I went into full closing mode, jumping right from the “hi, thanks for coming in” to “how would you like to pay for that”, (when in fact we hadn’t yet determined what that was!)

The customers, of course, were still in their early information-gathering stage and the jump to being asked about a transaction was cognitively jarring. Needless to say, they did not buy anything from me that day. In fact, they left shortly after this initial exchange.

That day I was clear about my intent – close everybody. It was just as clear to the unfortunate couple who had heard good things about our store and actually wanted to buy something. And they ran. That intent didn’t serve the process of engaging with prospects and creating happy customers.

Years later as part of a marketing consultancy I coached principals at professional services firms. As principals, most had evolved from sole proprietors doing contracting work to heads of good-sized organizations. And as they made this transition, they typically found themselves spending more time selling the capabilities of their firm and less time actually delivering services.

And they were failing.

These principals were uncomfortable “tooting their own horns,” engaging in traditional selling conversations, even setting fair prices for their quality work. To a person, their unconscious intent was “I hate to sell, don’t make me sell, just take a look at the work we’ve done and make your own decision.” They each had a vision in their head of a “typical” sales person and didn’t want to be that person. Their intent was sabotaging their business success.

And their businesses were at risk because the best person in the organization to drive new business was paralyzed with fear about holding a selling conversation.

With two simple words, each of these principals was “cured.” I told them to:

            Be yourself

And in being yourself, feel comfortable in talking about your prior experiences, exploring the needs of this new prospect, and how you’ve helped other customers. Let go of the vision of that “sales person” in your head, the persona that you don’t want to be, that you don’t have to be.

Just be yourself.

You know how to do that!

And I remember the immediate physical reaction from each of my clients. Shoulders relaxed, brows unfurrowed. It looked like a heavy weight had been lifted from their shoulders. They were again ready to be themselves, to bring a conscious intent of helpfulness to their prospect interactions, versus the prior “I really don’t want to have this sales conversation.”

And their improving sales results over the following months highlighted the value of this change in intent.

The Teacher is the Student

Years later, this coaching came back to help me reset a toxic intent. In fact, it came from one of those clients. I had been preparing for an important presentation to several hundred of IDG’s most important advertising clients. I practiced the presentation over and over, and each time it seemed to get worse. As an accomplished presenter, I just didn’t understand why it wasn’t coming together. The simple problem was that I had recently rejoined IDC, hadn’t presented in a while, felt a bit rusty, and was concerned about doing a good job. My subconscious intent got louder and louder – gotta do a good job! Don’t screw it up!

At one point I thought my manager was going to cry (sorry Clare!). Her boss, the CEO of IDC was going to be there. Pat McGovern, founder and CEO of IDG, our parent company, was going to be there. It wasn’t going to be pretty. Potentially career limiting…

In the car, on the way into Boston for the evening presentation, I talked with one of my former professional services clients, who turned my coaching back on me. He said “It’s not about you or the quality of your presentation…it’s about the attendees.”

I was so bound up in worrying about the quality of the presentation that I lost sight of its purpose – to inform the attendees, to help them to improve their business results. And immediately, my intent shifted. My shoulders relaxed. I was ready to deliver useful, helpful information.

Thanks Miles!

And rather than spending my time at the event worrying about my ability to deliver a presentation, I talked with attendees and asked them what would be useful for them to hear. After the presentation, my manager came to me with a happy smile and a question – where did that come from?

The conscious shift in intent from “have to do a good job” to “be helpful” saved my butt!

Over the past two years, I’ve done a lot of onboarding work with new reps, some recent college hires, and the topic of intent is a key part of my conversations with them. I want them to know the importance of intent, and the value of a strong, positive, customer-centric intent. But these conversations are outliers in the sales enablement world.

When sales enablement builds a formal and ongoing focus on the people part of selling – the mindsets, belief systems, the attitudes and skills – we will see a quantum leap in the leverage that enablement provides.